From time to time, the Catholic Church has to address the thorny problems caused by those liberal faithful who challenge her principles and tenets. Much more rarely do we hear about initiatives coming from the other side of the spectrum, since these initiatives generally do not pose any threat to Church doctrine, but are limited to extending the application of existing principles. This is the approach of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society, Inc., which traveled all the way to Rome to plead for the official recognition of St. Gabriel Possenti as the patron saint of handgunners.

The members of the U.S.-based international and interdenominational St. Gabriel Possenti Society uphold the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms to defend themselves against evil and tyranny. According to the society’s founder and president, John Michael Snyder, this is an extension of the right to life. In his opinion, the Catholic Church, as a genuine and consistent defender of life, should speak out in favor of preserving the right to defend life.

The society believes that a good first step in this direction would be to proclaim St. Gabriel Possenti (1838-1862) patron of handgunners. To publicize the issue, John Snyder, during an awards ceremony in the shadow of the Basilica of St. Peter on February 27, the feast day of the saint, presented .special medallions to a select few recipients who have demonstrated their commitment to the defense of truth and justice against evil and tyranny.

In 1860, St. Gabriel Possenti (better known in Italy as San Gabriele dell’Addolorata) rescued the villagers of Isola del Gran Sasso in the Abruzzo region from a gang of 20 armed renegades through a striking demonstration of handgun marksmanship, slaying a lizard with one shot. The renegades surrendered, and St. Gabriel—then a seminarian—drove them out of town at gunpoint.

The society also promotes the study and exposition of the historical, philosophical, and theological foundations for the doctrine of legitimate self-defense. To this end, it distributes a monograph on “Self Defense and the Bible” by a Baptist minister, the Rev. Anthony L. Winfield.

Thus far, the Vatican has not complied with the society’s request. While it may be true that some Church officials get weak in the knees at the sound of gunfire (or even the mention of the word), the idea has faced opposition from its very inception. As far back as the early 1990’s, the heads of the two Passionist provinces in the United States (St. Gabriel was a member of the Passionist order) strongly protested the idea “on the sheer lack of historical evidence for the incident.” More recently, in late 1997, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, launched a public attack on the private possession of handguns and firearms of small caliber, claiming that limiting the purchase of “handguns and small arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone” and that all firearms “must remain under the strict control of the state.”

Over the years, John M. Snyder has been puzzled by the retreat of some churchmen on the Possenti issue. Initially, some of them tried to claim that the lizard incident never happened. When evidence (such as the account of the incident in Son of the Passion by the Rev. Godfrey Poage, C.P.) was quoted, they argued that, if it did happen, it did not have much significance. When the Religious News Service in the United States brought this to the attention of Father Poage, he replied that he knows what happened because he has done the research and his critics have not. His book carries the imprimatur of the Church.

As for Cardinal Etchegaray and his attack on guns, John Snyder objected to his theses, saying that, in the United States alone,

scores of millions of law-abiding citizens own firearms of various types and for a number of legitimate reasons. There are more gun owners here than there are people who vote for the two majority party presidential candidates eveiy four years.

Approximately 80 million law-abiding citizens own about 200 million handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and the record indicates “quite clearly that the ability of law-abiding citizens to possess firearms is a crime deterrent and a life saver.” Snyder was particularly critical of the idea of state-controlled firearms, since civilian disarmament “has been one of the major factors leading to . . . government-sponsored genocide in this unfortunately bloody and murderous century.” As Jay Simkin, Aaron Zelman, and Alan M. Rice show in Lethal Laws, published in 1994 by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, Inc., at least seven genocides—namely, in Ottoman Turkey, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, China, Guatemala, Uganda, and Cambodia-were preceded by civilian disarmament. In each case, civilian disarmament was made possible through gun-control legislation.

Fr. Sebastian McDonald, the superior of a Passionist monastery near Detroit who favors gun control, argued that there are three problems with recognizing the saint as patron of handgunners. First, he questioned the veracity of the handgun incident, claiming that Father Poage, though a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council and a holy priest, is “an Irishman with a tremendous imagination and a reputation for story telling.” Second, he claims that the designation as patron would be misleading. Third, he believes that making the saint patron of handgunners would be giving too much importance to a small incident in his life.

Snyder’s reaction to these arguments is that the “good father” and “others like him” are “more concerned with being politically correct than they are with being historically accurate.”

Snyder maintains that the St. Gabriel Possenti Society is not a lobby as the term is understood in American law. It does not officially support or oppose specific pieces of legislation or candidates for public office. Nonetheless, the clout and influence of over 80 million gun owners in the United States is undeniable. Not many years ago, a madman in Killeen, Texas, murdered a number of innocent customers in a cafeteria, including the parents of Suzanna Gratia Hupp. She owned a handgun, which she had to leave in her automobile, because Texas did not permit the carrying of concealed handguns at that time, and she contended that she could have saved her parents and others had she had the handgun with her. Around the same time as the cafeteria killing, Gov. Ann Richards vetoed a bill to mandate the issuance of permits to carry concealed firearms to law-abiding applicants, and her political opponent campaigned against her on that issue, winning the election. The new governor signed into law a similar bill: His name was George W. Bush.