Iowa Catholics respond to Arizona tragedy

A girl and her father light a candle at a memorial Jan. 9 outside Tucson University Medical Center in Arizona where victims of a Jan. 8 shooting are recovering. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was in critical condition at the center after being shot in the head by Jared Lee Loughner, 22. He is accused of killing six people and wounding 14 others in the Jan. 8 shooting rampage. (CNS photo/Rick Wilking, Reuters)

By Celine Klosterman

Amid debate over the nature of political rhetoric that preceded the shooting at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ political event in Arizona Jan. 8, Catholic leaders in Iowa urge people to practice respectful disagreement and engage their faith and intellect before acting.

Six people died and 14 people, including Giffords, were wounded in the shooting. Jared Loughner, 22, was charged with one count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee. He is reportedly mentally unstable.

While the role of political polarization in the tragedy is undetermined, such division in general needs to be addressed, said Glenn Leach, a volunteer in the diocese’s social action department.

“I have been both discouraged and even frightened by the deep polarization that has swept the country,” beginning with the most recent presidential election and increasing through the passage of health care reform, he said. “One thing that we urge everyone at all times, not just now in the wake of the Arizona tragedy, is to stop, breathe, pray and check the facts before rushing into action.”


Misinformation is one of the causes of polarization, Leach said. “To get our attention, ‘news’ has to be sensational, controversial. Catch phrases and bumper-sticker philosophy have increasingly replaced considered argument. Too seldom do even Catholics step back and ask what Scripture has to say about issues, or how their response relates to Christ’s summarization of the commandments, loving God with all our might and our neighbor as ourselves.”

The New Testament often says Jesus was moved by compassion, Leach noted. “One of the elements of compassion is understanding the other, seeing life from his or her perspective.”

Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a retired diocesan priest who has long been involved in social action, encouraged Catholics to study Jesus’ nonviolence. Practice discussing differences respectfully and calmly at home, and teach children to do so as well, he said.

“We need more logical debate and less yelling at each other. As a nation, we ought to examine our conscience.”

The priest encouraged people to be skeptical of unsupported, anonymous accusations — often published online. The eighth commandment forbids bearing false witness, he noted. “A lot of organizations break that commandment left and right.”

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, also noted Catholics’ responsibility to avoid bearing false witness. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions about what motivated the suspect, who “seems extremely disturbed. At the same time, we all have a responsibility for the words we speak and publish. We need to be careful to use rhetoric that’s clear, but doesn’t incite violence.”

Regardless of what motivated the shooting in Arizona, “I think we’re really concerned about the victims’ families,” Chapman said. “Prayers are in order.”

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