by Fr. Avelino González-Ferrer
On July 20 Americans woke up and were informed through newspapers, or their favorite 24-Hour news channels, about the tragic events in Aurora, Colorado. Aurora will now go down in history along with other places known for their massacres – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, etc. The sad thing is that once all the media attention is over, just like the other tragic mass shootings, the majority of Americans and their government representatives will go back to business as usual. Why? Because few in the mainstream media, few politicians (on both sides of the aisle), and few citizens desire to address the real issues that are generating the James Holmeses of the world.
What are these real issues? You have to dig a little deeper than the legitimate, although secondary, issue of the absurdly easy access to military grade assault weapons in American society. We all know that no matter how difficult you make it for ‘high risk’ citizens to have access to these weapons, they will find what they want from the black market. Well then… were do we look to solve this problem? It will take a comprehensive effort but a major part of it involves looking at the elements in American culture that are motivating this anti-social and anti-human behavior.
It is true that the cultural elements that produce these violent outbursts are complex, however, as any marketing student knows a well-crafted commercial generates millions of dollars for a reason. And this is only after seconds of viewing. You can’t keep pumping society with endless hours of cable programing and feature films whose content is full of aggression, violence, murder, serial murders, and sadistic killings without serious effects on the general population. But more importantly, you can’t expect this programing to not have a profound effect on the emotionally disturbed few in society who are quickly becoming - not so few. Tragically, however, there is no sign this murderous dosage will ever be curtailed. Author and weekly columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote a thought-provoking article in the Wall Street Journal, “Noonan: Dark Night Rises,” that drives home this point:
The film industry isn't going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who've started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans (www.online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443343704577549390094138950.html?mod=googlenews_wsj).
In his influential 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) Pope John Paul II spoke about the reality of a “structure of sin” in society fostered by powerful currents driven by greed and “efficiency” (that is, the desire to take the easy way out of tough problems) which has generated a “culture of death.”
In fact, 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.
It may prove helpful to ask the question what is it in our society that motivates this ‘culture of death’ when the outcome is so tragic for many people. Perhaps a rhetorical question can help us here. What type of person will come out of a public school system where you can proceed from kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree in college without taking one course in ethics, virtues, or civics? Could the answer be an un-ethical, un-virtuous, and un-civil person? It seems that cheating on tests, lack of civility, and sexual misconduct is par for the course these days – that’s surprising!
Many would object to this line of reasoning by saying these subjects should be taught by parents not teachers. I would say - “What parents (plural)?” According to a 2012 Child Trends Data Bank report (www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/196), “[t]he proportion of births to unmarried women has increased dramatically in recent decades, rising from 5.3 percent in 1960 to 32.2 percent in 1995.” The estimate for 2010 was 40.8 percent. It gets worse for mothers with less education. According to an article in the New York Times white women with less than a four-year college degree have seen the greatest percentage increases in single parent births from 38% in 1990 to 60% in 2009! The ‘less than four-year college degree’ rate for Blacks and Hispanics in the same year was an alarming 86% and 58%, respectively (www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/07/15/us/unmarried-families-increasingly-the-norm.html).
Ask any single mother and she will tell you how difficult it is keep the creditors at bay, feed her children, and make sure they are doing their homework. There isn’t much more time, or energy, left over to engage in meaningful conversation about ethics, virtues, or morals let alone driving them to church, synagogue, or mosque when this is competing with sports. Many single mothers do a fantastic job raising their children in spite of the difficulties being a single parent, however, the statistics indicate that their children are still paying a price.
According to the report mentioned above “[c]hildren born to unmarried mothers are more likely to experience instability in living arrangements, live in poverty, and have socio-emotional problems.” This means that there are an increasing number of children in society with emotional problems and little ethical or moral discipline viewing highly aggressive and violent programing (videos, cables programs, and films). Yet, the fact of the matter remains that regardless of whether you have both parents or not, there is a lack of formation in basic ethics or civil behavior across the board for all students receiving public (and at times even private) education. The fact of the matter is that we are generating thousands, if not millions, of potential James Holmeses and no one cares as long as consumers are getting their daily dosage of violence and gore; and executives are getting their fat checks from ticket sales. The Gracchus line from the movie Gladiator is appropriate here – “He will bring them death - and they will love him for it.”
What does the Roman Catholic faith have to offer us in light of this seemingly bleak situation? The answer isn’t embracing a philosophy of life or a moral code – although this helps since even a baseball game must have rules and regulations otherwise it reduces to chaos – but rather embracing a person. And that person is Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to embrace the person Jesus Christ? The short answer is to enter into relationship with him who has conquered death through his passion, death, and Resurrection and to be animated by his Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the Church recognizes that the mysterium iniquitatis (“the mystery of evil”) in the world can only be overcome by the greater mysterium fidei (“the mystery of faith”). And the central mystery of faith revolves around the redemption of mankind through the victory of the Cross.
Pope John Paul II was a man who was no stranger to suffering. He lost all of his immediate family by the time he was just 21. He suffered through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then a prolonged occupation by Soviet communists. His early adult life was filled with experiences of death, violence, destruction, and the reduction of the human person to a disposable object. This caused him to spend the greater part of his life analyzing the roots of evil in order to discover how it can be overcome through Christ’s saving work. The results of this analysis was published in 2005, the year of his death, in a book called Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium.
The Pope concludes – “To those who are subjected to systematic evil, there remains only Christ and his Cross as a source of spiritual self-defense, as a promise of victory.” Through the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God enters into solidarity with every victim in history and through his Resurrection he gives those victims the promise of ‘crossing the threshold of hope.’ It is this hope in eternal life through Jesus Christ that shatters the Dark Knight of the ‘culture of death’ for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15).