Blind fear of death should not guide policy
I am going to die.
No, I’m not sick. I feel fine. The last time I saw my doctor, he was quite happy with my overall condition. So I don’t mean that I expect to die soon—although these days I am acutely aware of that possibility. But even if I continue in good health, at my age I realize that the end is much closer than the beginning. Sooner or later I shall die. We all do.
That doesn’t mean that I take death lightly. When I see death coming (if I see it coming), I don’t suppose I’ll be so philosophical about it. I don’t want to die. My plan is to “live forever or die trying.”
Nor do I take it lightly when others die. I have buried and grieved and prayed for my parents, for other relatives and neighbors and friends. I do not expect—do not want—others to “go gentle into that good night.” We should all fight against death. These days we are all making substantial sacrifices, for the most part willingly, to preserve not only our own lives but the lives of others—including many that we do not know. As we should.
But even as we make these sacrifices, even as we fight to ward off a deadly epidemic, we should bear in mind two essential truths. First, all of us will die. Every victory over death is only a temporary one. Death is a part of life. Second, there are things worse than death.
What could be worse than death, you might ask. As a Christian, I answer: sin. Far worse than death of the body is death of the soul: separation from God’s love, the loss of the unsurpassable eternal reward offered to us through Jesus Christ. This is why I have and will continue to argue that the Church must continue to provide the sacraments, to serve the spiritual needs of the faithful in this time of trial.
But even if you don’t share my faith, even if you are not religious, I think that a similar point can be made. There really are fates worse than death. We admire heroes who are willing to give their lives for a noble cause. During the battle of Belleau Wood, a legendary Marine sergeant reportedly exhorted his men to charge by saying, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” That’s not the sort of language you ordinarily hear in church, but don’t you notice the similarity of sentiment? There are some things worth dying for.
And certainly there are some things worth taking a risk for. As much as we admire bravery in the face of danger, we despise timidity. No doubt you would be safer if you spent your life cowering at home, but what could you accomplish? “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once,” Shakespeare tells us. To risk nothing is to accomplish nothing.
Are we, as a nation, reaching a point at which our fear of death threatens to paralyze us? Yes, the pandemic justifies extreme measures. But how extreme? There may be a point at which we must take risks to preserve both our lives and our very way of life. Will we be ready?
The current restrictions on ordinary life have imposed severe costs, and those costs will multiply as the shutdown lengthens. I do not mean merely economic costs, although those costs cannot be ignored. I am thinking rather of the cost to our culture, to our quality of life, to our cohesion as a society. If we are locked down for months, as some experts have advised, we may emerge as a very different sort of society.
Think of the political implications of the restrictions. The First Amendment right to assembly, as well as the right to freedom of worship, has been set aside by emergency orders. Self-appointed groups of informers are cropping up to denounce neighbors who are insufficiently obedient to government policies. Local officials are announcing that they will not prosecute petty criminals, and will release convicts from prisons. The federal government is proposing to spend trillions of dollars that it doesn’t have, laying huge new burdens of debt on future generations, to prop up a spavined economy. All these developments are dangerous to the future of our republic.
The policies are justified—for the short run, at least—by the argument that without them, people will die. But that argument by itself is incomplete. Will the emergency measures prevent unnecessary deaths? At what cost? Equally important—and often overlooked—is the likelihood that the shutdown will actually cause unnecessary deaths. At some point the cure is worse than the disease.
To shut down all “non-essential” business is to take an enormous risk—and not only an economic risk. It isn’t easy to determine whether or not a business is “essential” to public health. Hospitals need parts and paper and supplies and computer networks. Food must be packaged and shipped and stored. Some work that seems “non-essential” today might become essential later. If you don’t replace the brake pads on your car, eventually you may crash. If the building inspector stays home, eventually a fire hazard may cost lives. So people will die.
A severe economic contraction is also a threat to public health. Some chronic conditions will be aggravated by stress (and their victims will become more vulnerable to the coronavirus). Some people, deprived of daily work, will develop bad habits—inadequate diet, lack of exercise, alcohol or drug abuse—and their health will decline. Suicide rates will climb, as they always do during tough times. Elderly people will try to do too much, sometimes with fatal results. These are all predictable consequences of the shutdown: consequences that will become evident more as the restrictions continue. Again, people will die.
And speaking of the elderly, the primary victims of the epidemic, how much have the restrictions helped them? For now they are less likely to contract the virus (although how much less likely is unclear). But many are now confined to their own homes, unable to live normal lives. In nursing homes, residents are locked in their own rooms, unable to receive visits from family or friends. They may be living longer, but they are living as virtual prisoners.
We are all trying to preserve lives, to preserve the quality and dignity of life. So please don’t say that anyone who questions the current draconian restrictions is endangering human lives. Lives are already in danger; we are doing our best to save as many as possible.
In time of war, a military commander may be obliged to make a painful choice, knowing full well that any tactic he chooses will endanger lives. Effectively leadership entails a willingness to take risks. So it is today, in our war against a deadly virus. Some people will die: that is now a sad but unavoidable reality. We must not allow an inordinate fear of death to stop us from making prudent decisions.
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Posted by: dover beachcomber -
Mar. 30, 2020 1:29 AM ET USA
One of the most disappointing features of the closure of our churches is that few bishops seem even to be **trying** to find creative ways to re-open them safely — say, by spacing out seating and limiting attendance so that the 2-meter separation is honored. Live-streamed Masses are not enough
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Mar. 28, 2020 10:16 AM ET USA
So here’s the thing bugging me w/ both you & Jeff. You have every right & duty to present a Catholic perspective to a cultural response like covid-19. Yet you don’t offer any practical problem sol’n a; you just tell us how bad it is & be prudent. “good luck, keep warm & well fed, be prudent - bye now.” Why can’t you do what I hope you have told your students over the years - ‘think, use the brain God gave you; offer solutions as well as cautions’. It’s easy to see the bad, please offer hope too.
Posted by: leticia.cadiz4543 -
Mar. 24, 2020 7:47 PM ET USA
Amen. I am praying our Bishops will open the whole church and allow us to celebrate Mass soon , am specially looking forward to the Sacred Triduum
Posted by: fwhermann3492 -
Mar. 24, 2020 1:36 PM ET USA
My thoughts exactly. My car needs both brake pads and an oil change, but the local shops are closed. I may be seeing death--or a costly engine replacement--sooner than expected!