MAD Men: Guns, America and the Challenge of Pacem in Terris

Peace is born from the heart, but it will be easier to achieve if we have fewer weapons in hand. – Federico Lombardi, SJ

This weekend, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the Vatican’s official spokesperson added to the voices of Catholic leaders in support of President Obama’s common sense proposals for greater control and regulation of firearms.Slide1

In his editorial on the website of Vatican Radio, Lombardi affirms his support for a recent statement by over 40 national faith leaders, including 14 prominent national Catholic leaders. The interreligious statement, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, released last  week, calls for sensible legislative action to curb gun violence.

Among the 14 national Catholic leaders who signed the statement is Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, the chair of the US Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. Just today, a similar statement by a large number of Roman Catholic theologians on the issue have launched a “Challenge to “Pro-Life” Lawmakers on Gun Violence, NRA Ties”

Already in December, Blaire and two other leading bishops from the USCCB issued their own Call for Action in Response to the Newtown Tragedy. The bishops remind us of the often overlooked Catholic tradition of teaching in support of gun control—teaching that in many ways goes beyond the rather timid proposals coming out of the White House this month.

 In their memory and for the sake of our nation, we reiterate our call made in 2000, in our statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, for all Americans, especially legislators, to:

1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms

2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner)

3. Call for sensible regulations of handguns

4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons

5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

 A MAD Men World

The debates of gun control unfolding in news sites and Sunday morning TV shows bring to mind the 1960s hyper-masculine, overly fearful, and easily manipulated world depicted in the hit TV show Mad Men. The dangerous mixture of fear, desire and greed boils to the surface especially  at the end of Season Two when the characters come face to face both with the end of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis and their own devastating internal demons and fears. Behind their fears and arrogance stands a deeply theological question, how do we find true security and control in a chaotic unsecure world?

The world of Mad Men, however, is also the world of John XXIII and his encyclical Pacem in Terris, the most important texts of Catholic social teaching addressing the question of peace and disarmament. The response of John XXIII to the fears and horrors of the 1960s continues to have much to offer our context today, including on the question of gun control.

ImageIn his statement on Saturday, Lombardi recalls the legacy of Pacem in Terris as he situates the question of handguns in the context of the church’s long tradition of teaching on disarmament. In the face of harsh resistance, the Church has long been a voice in international institutions calling for disarmament and the control of weapons both big and small. Inspired by Pope John’s teaching, Catholic NGOs and the Holy See have played significant roles in the international campaigns to ban landmines, cluster bombs and the trafficking of small arms. Over the past five decades, the fruit of Catholic activism on disarmament in near universally agreed upon proposals for the regulation of the gun trade have been consistently opposed by the United States and its $12-billion-a-year gun industry armed with a powerful legion of public relations gurus right out of Sterling Cooper. No wonder Lombardi warns about the undue influence of those in the arms industry “fuelled by dishonourable interests for power or financial gain.”

Writing in the context of the Cuban Missal Crisis, Pope John XXIII addresses both the underlying culture of fear and the mentality that security will be found in the acquisition and use of weapons. As part of this critique, Pope John calls into question both the motivations of those who profit from the proliferation of weapons and doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)—the flawed idea that “peace cannot be preserved without an equal balance of armaments.”

Today, instead of building fall out shelters in the basements of our schools, we have “shelter in place” plans. Instead of practicing going under their desks in case of a bomb, our school children are practicing what to do if someone comes in with a gun. It’s a mad world.

While there are certainly differences between questions of national and personal security, the MAD mentality continues to permeate American culture today in areas of national and personal security. Despite the lack of hard research, gun advocates continue to claim that more guns will make us safer. With more guns, arguments go, nobody would dare threaten us for fear of being destroyed in response. If we all had nuclear weapons, no one would dare make the first strike. If we all had a handgun (or assault rifle) nobody would go on a shooting rampage. Why, then, does the United States have both the highest number of guns and highest rate of gun violence among “developed” countries?


John XXIII firmly and resolutely dismisses these MAD arguments and rightfully laments the culture of fear that lies behind it and is engendered by it: “people live in constant fear lest the storm that every moment threatens should break upon them with dreadful violence.” Stockpiling weapons engenders the culture of fear that makes the use of violence attractive in the first place. Later, Gaudium et Spes takes up this same point and strongly warns that the stockpiling arms as an aim for peace “is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity” (81).

As we continue to consider how to move ahead on the complex and multifaceted issue of the gun debate, Pacem in Terris still has much to offer and Catholics cannot remain silent on this issue. Gun control efforts are not a panacea as the bishops rightfully remind us, but they are one part of the solution. We must beyond the Mad Men culture of fear and look for practical and reasonable solutions. Catholic social teaching has much to offer on this issue and we are called to thoughtfully consider and engage what our tradition has to say because, as Jim Martin, SJ recently written, gun control is a pro-life issue.

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