The “unmitigated tragedy” of a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub prompted “irresponsible” press coverage that wrongly scapegoated religious communities for their stands on sexual morality and identity, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has said.
“This type of irresponsible commentary is increasingly common,” he said, summarizing the assumption as “You don’t accept what I believe, therefore you are not only wrong but hateful.”
“Unfortunately, the reaction has thus far fostered more vitriol and division than peace and unity as the press has blamed religious communities, including the Catholic Church, to which the shooter has no apparent connection,” Aquila said.
His comments come in a Dec. 8 commentary for the Wall Street Journal weeks after the Nov. 19 shooting.
The alleged gunman, 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, entered Club Q just before midnight on that Saturday and began shooting. Several people at the club overpowered the gunman and subdued him. The gunman killed five and wounded 17 people.
In the wake of the shooting both Aquila and Bishop James Golka of Colorado Springs voiced their concern, prayers, and sympathies for the victims and others affected. Golka’s statement specifically lamented the apparent targeting of “members of the LGBTQ community.”
Some reactions to the shooting in the news media seemed to blame Catholicism and other Christian communities, Aquila noted. “Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric leads to violence” was the headline of a Nov. 20 Denver Post news article he cited.
“The piece asserted that ‘hateful rhetoric directed toward transgender people and the broader LGBTQ community has been aired from ‘church pulpits’ to ‘school board debates and libraries,’” the archbishop continued.
“It cited the Archdiocese of Denver’s school-admission guidance on transgender and same-sex-attracted students to substantiate its claim,” Aquila objected. “The archdiocese’s policy allows schools to discern whether they can admit those who actively live or encourage sexual expression contrary to Church teaching.”
Aquila also criticized the New York Times for placing the mass murder in the context of Colorado Springs’ evangelical community and its opposition to same-sex marriage.
“A reasonable approach to the tragedy at Club Q would ask some essential questions, such as: Is there evidence that Christian teaching influenced the gunman? Was he a believing or practicing Christian in any sense?” Aquila asked. “If reports about the shooter’s background are accurate, the answer to these basic questions appears to be no.”
Aldrich “obviously violated” the biblical commandment “Thou shall not kill,” the archbishop noted, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he added, teaches “that gay people shouldn’t be unjustly discriminated against.”
“Rather than suffering from overexposure to Catholicism, it seems he suffered from being raised in a dysfunctional household,” Aquila said. The alleged shooter’s parents separated at a young age and he sometimes lived away from his mother.
“Reports indicate that the shooter’s father admitted to encouraging him to violence during his formative years,” the archbishop continued. “The shooter has since described himself in court documents as ‘nonbinary,’ suggesting still further detachment from Catholic teaching.”
Aldrich’s lawyers said he identified as “nonbinary” and uses the pronouns “they/them,” though a Dec. 8 Associated Press analysis said there is no known evidence he professed this identity before the shooting. A nonbinary identity is sometimes professed by those who say they do not identify as a male or female.
While some initial news reports tried to put the shooting in the context of religious disapproval of LGBT causes, news reports are now scrutinizing Aldrich’s previous encounter with local law enforcement. In June 2021, he threatened his grandparents, professed a desire to become “the next mass killer,” and held a standoff with a SWAT team, the AP reported. Authorities discovered bomb-making materials at his home.
Felony charges against Aldrich were not pursued, reportedly because family members refused to cooperate.
NBC News, citing a former neighbor, reported that Aldrich allegedly created an internet forum for people to post anonymous videos with racist and antisemitic content and voiced racist and anti-gay statements in the presence of a neighbor. According to the New York Post, the neighbor said Aldrich was previously addicted to drugs.
Aldrich reportedly changed his name to distance himself from his father, Aaron Franklin Brink.
Brink was absent from his son’s life, has been jailed on drug convictions, and has been involved in pornography production. In an interview with CBS 8 San Diego he spoke erratically and made comments hostile to gays. The father, a former mixed martial arts fighter, indicated he encouraged his son to behave aggressively and violently. Brink identified the family background as Mormon, though Aldrich has not been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Aquila, in his commentary, stressed that Catholic teaching is about truth and love for the good of all people, not discrimination or encouragement of violence.
“Some will say that the Church encouraged this violence by not ‘accepting’ those who identify as LGBTQ. On the contrary, the Catholic Church accepts every person. Our most sincere desire is that everyone someday become a saint — someone who has lived a life of exceptional virtue and then is united with God in heaven.”
The archbishop pointed to Catholic ministries that aim to “accompany and seek dialogue with people experiencing same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria, sex addiction, and related issues.”
The archbishop rejected the claim that it is discriminatory against self-identified gay or transgender people to say their beliefs “don’t conform to nature.” Rather, this is “an act of charity.”
“The Catholic Church teaches an integrated and complex worldview about sexuality and the human person that deserves to be engaged with, not caricatured and defamed,” he said. “This is a matter not of hate but of disagreement about the foundation of who we are as human beings.”
“The Catholic Church isn’t perfect in its efforts to welcome those who don’t live according to her teachings,” he added. “We need to cooperate better with God’s grace, help people discover Jesus Christ and more radically love those who disagree with us to build understanding rather than sow division.”
At the same time, he insisted on the need for substantive discussion and warned that anti-Catholic polemics can have consequences, too.
“Ignoring the substance of an argument and resorting to scapegoating is the sign of a weak argument. Our politics are plagued by it. But a weak argument isn’t always a peaceful one: Labeling Catholic teaching or one’s political enemies as a root cause of violence may itself inspire violence. The attacks on churches and pregnancy-resource centers — including several in northern Colorado — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision have made this clear.”
As the solution, he suggested embracing the “pluralism that has served as a bedrock of our nation’s founding for centuries.”
“When we can openly discuss our beliefs without caricaturing each other and assuming evil intentions, we’ll be making progress toward the common good.”
In the week before the shooting, the Denver Post editorial board called for Catholic schools and any high school with similar beliefs or policies on sexual orientation and gender identity to be expelled from the Colorado High School Activities Association, which helps organize school sports. “Religious schools that discriminate should face consequences,” was the title.
Other news reports that week focused on the Denver Rescue Mission’s proposed employee morals clause that banned same-sex behavior and gender nonconformity for employees. There was debate about whether the Christian homeless shelter’s proposal violated a nondiscrimination policy tied to its acceptance of city funds. The organization withdrew its proposal after the shooting.