Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi's recent comments on gun control—and the torrent of response they're eliciting—tell us exactly what we need to know about the substance of a debate on arms.
First, and most importantly, the comments themselves demonstrate the breadth and context according to which gun control initiatives should be considered by those of good will. Lombardi's particular position is highly controversial: less guns mean less opportunities for illicit violence. However, it's the same logic that he applies to the benefits of nuclear disarmament—something that the Vatican has been openly (and not very controversially) pursuing for ages. If stricter gun control turns out to be best for society, at large, it would seem to be true for exactly the same reason that multilateral nuclear disarmament is best—namely, because it most comprehensively ensures the possibility of the common good. Indeed, it's clear to Lombardi that the latter makes sense; therefore, the former also appears plausible.
What's the bottom line, here? Quite simply, that Lombardi presents the question of gun control not primarily as a question of constitutional rights; rather, it has to do mostly with pursuing the common good.
A second lesson from Lombardi's comments arises in the immediately polarized response. Of course, there's always the obligatory spin, ranging from anti-gun HuffPo to pro-gun Fox News, and to "spin-free" outlets beyond. But there's also bound to be (and currently exists) an emerging polarization of Christians across the board working to absolutize Lombardi, either as a voice of reason, or as an unthinking, Jesuit stooge—and one who, moreover, tends to take missteps. In moments like this, we're frequently reminded that "Hey, popes aren't infallible on matters of prudential judgment, and I'm entitled to disagree with him on this one;" or "Even the Vatican—those stupid bigots—get it right sometimes. Viva il papa!" In short, comments like Lombardi's inadvertently bring the most faithful and faithless to contrary extremes. Not for long, but long enough to ensure that waters already muddied turn even blacker.
If Christians are committed to pursuing good and just societies, statements like Lombardi's (i.e., from "the Vatican") should be met first with an expectation that they reflect concern for the common good, and only secondarily with doubt, shallow assent, or open hostility. Conversely, today, many papists and atheists, alike, will betray their grave disinterest in the pursuit of justice, and their shared, paramount concern for self-reliance and autonomous benefit.
Above all, Lombardi's statement can serve to remind us of the disproportion that exists between important prudential decisions, and those that demand universal adherence. It can also demonstrate the frail foundation upon which our current American debate takes place, and the whimsy whereby any real progress toward goodness can so easily be undermined.
You can't side with the Vatican on gun control, precisely because what it presents is something inherently bigger. If the gun control debate can be rightly and prudently divisive, the resolution simply can't be to pick a side.