Christ and a culture of death

Another mass shooting in the US demonstrates a cultural acceptance of power and violence in the name of individual choice

With another seventeen tragic deaths in an American small town—victims of another school shooting—we’re hearing the usual debates about gun ownership, security, and protecting the vulnerable. Through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, however, most especially Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical Laudato Si’, and those of his two immediate predecessors, the bloodshed in Parkland, Florida is connected to other forms of violence that, to name only a few, justifies the killing of the innocent, such as the unborn; the disposal of the elderly; the mistreatment of the alien; and the destruction of the environment. Sadly, such an integrated Catholic view is not welcome in popular discourse.

Instead, we are debating if and how government should control weapons, often ignoring that government plays a limited role in controlling free will. Both sides of the gun debate bring helpful ideas, but, as usual, both are prone to dismissing their opponents’ points. Here in the States, ideologues have made an art out of the inability to hear an opposing view, let alone adjusting one’s opinion based on it.

And so, polarization widens, and our ancient enemy relishes the consequences.

One of these consequences is the inability to process nuanced and holistic arguments. This undercuts any chance for the inclusion of Catholic thought.

If a Catholic worldview were more dominant, we might acknowledge, for instance, that our culture drips with the expectation that the meek will become empowered—in a worldly sense, that is. We might also agree that while Christ urges humility and service, the world hungers for domination.

"A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of 'conspiracy against life' is unleashed." Saint John Paul II

Think of how readily many reject the choice of a mother or a father who forego worldly careers to “stay at home” and care for children or other family members. “I’m just a stay-at-home mom,” one young woman said to me recently. How sad, I thought, because that is a beautiful and necessary vocation. But the world has taught her that her choice is a weakness; if she were truly empowered, she’d be doing something else.

One wonders how we'll ever care for our common home if caring for our individual ones is seen with such suspicion.

A similar message is heard by caretakers who choose to sacrifice opportunities to care for elderly parents. It’s the message delivered to those who, by choice, live a single, chaste lifestyle. From an environmental perspective, our understanding of empowerment precludes denying ourselves worldly consumption for the good of natural world that sustains all life.

From conception to natural death, any person that places demands on us—that may need us—is downgraded to an obstacle that must be removed. This is also true for the natural environment, which many see as a means to personal gain, rather than a common good to be cared for.

In his sweeping encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Saint John Paul II taught that

while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today's social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable "culture of death". This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of "conspiracy against life" is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States. (EV 12)

Saint John Paul II and his successors have shown us repeatedly that the loudest voices on both sides of the ideological divide share a deadly desire for worldly power. That’s not surprising since all human hearts are subject to the original flaw of humanity, which in Eden rejected the teachings of God for personal benefit.

Sacrifice is a concept that’s easily talked up but too often untried.

The consequences are evident: some three-thousand abortions each day; lonely, despairing elderly too often forgotten in nursing facilities; the refusal to personally care for the needy around us; the denial of our impacts on the natural and social environment; and the encouragement of weak minds to taste power by slaughtering coworkers or classmates.

This fetishization of violence is at its root another symptom of our idolization of power. It’s a holdover from our evolutionary past, when survival meant brutality and domination. As I understand it, Christ has come to wash away all that.

There are, of course, other variables. Our culture has fetishized violence in video games, motion pictures, and television series, especially those streaming online. Have you watched any of The Punisher on Netflix? (I have. It’s a slick, well-acted drama. Its graphic violence, however, certainly comes at a cost to weaker, impressionable minds.)

This fetishization of violence is at its root another symptom of our idolization of power. It’s a holdover from our evolutionary past, when survival meant brutality and domination.

Christ has come to wash away all that. He has sent His Spirit to elevate us. To make us better, more caring, more loving, and humble. To make us the people that we are meant to be.

Strikingly, the Parkland, Florida massacre took place on Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians begin a season that’s meant to make us more like Christ.

Would that this was our cultural expectation.

Instead, we’ve normalized a worldly understanding of power and empowerment—and, as we’ve learned again this past week, this comes at a terrible cost.

This lesson is the eternal warning of Lent. It's the lesson that in her wisdom the Church offers us in the gospel of every first Sunday of this penitential season. While this year, that reading will be from the ever-brief Mark, the corresponding passage from Luke shines a brighter light on the crises of our age:

The devil said to him, "I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” (Luke 4:6-7)

The idolization of power is the warning and the message that we should be shouting from the rooftops. To confront evil, we need to turn our attention first and foremost to Christ—not government, not regulations, not more research, as necessary as those are.

We Christians, then, must continue this Lent to share the Gospel of Life so that others might hear the words and experience the grace of Christ. Only with his presence will true dialogue occur; compassion overcome isolation; light overcome darkness; love overcome hate, and life overcome our bloody culture of death.

May God welcome all those victims of Parkland, and all victims of violence everywhere. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.