Today’s Heresy: Questioning the response to the Coronavirus

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 20, 2020

Economies are being destroyed around the world, including in the United States. This is happening not because of the devastation of the Coronavirus but because of the governmental fear that the virus might be devastating if extreme anti-plague measures are not adopted. As the prevention measures become more and more stringent, most of the public assumes they are more and more necessary—that COVID-19 must really be a very serious threat. After all, even if it isn’t so bad right now, it might mutate into something worse.

And so huge numbers of people around the world are faced with economic ruin.

Almost anyone who looks at the hard data realizes, to put it in terms used this week by two very intelligent, well-informed, and seriously Catholic personal friends, that “the body count just doesn’t add up.” A relatively small number (as epidemics go) have caught the virus, and an extraordinarily small number of people have had severe symptoms from the virus. Moreover, even those very few who have died of it have almost universally been not only elderly but already seriously weakened by some other condition.

The problem with the response to the Coronavirus, therefore, is that it is architected essentially from a desire to avoid future possibilities which we do not know will arise. Under such circumstances, well-informed people who are not afraid of being counter-cultural are beginning to combine publicly-available statistics with the non-statistical reality that they know nobody who knows anybody who has the virus. And so they begin to wonder. To put it bluntly, they wonder if the prevention is worse than the disease.

Count me as wondering. I am not saying that the extreme measures that have been mandated, including the Church’s cooperation with these measures, are clearly unjustified. The great problem here is that we are betting on futures, and we simply do not know what the result would be if we do not assume the worst. This in itself is a significant problem—even if it is one that we cannot avoid—and it raises important questions for the exercise of prudential judgment.

Prudence

Prudence is an interesting virtue. It is not a virtue that enables us to discern accurately the difference between moral good and moral evil. Among the cardinal virtues, justice is far more helpful in such discernment. Among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord are more important for distinguishing good and evil. And among the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, faith and charity stand at the top of the list. But prudence is a practical ability to suit words and actions to a particular situation in such a way as most likely to effect the best outcome—which should always, of course, be an outcome consonant with the other natural virtues, and the gifts and fruits of the Spirit as well.

For anyone to possess prudence, certain basic conditions are essential. First and foremost, since prudence exists to achieve good outcomes, knowledge of and commitment to the good is necessary. Second, that knowledge and commitment must be secured by the long practice of virtuous habits, including self-control, so that the person attempting to exercise the virtue of prudence is not unduly swayed or distracted by his own vices (including the vice of human respect). Third, the person attempting to exercise prudence will be far more likely to do so successfully if he is not excessively burdened by physical or emotional distress. Fourth, the person in question must have a good ability to view particular problems not only in light of their impact on himself, but more importantly in light of their impact on a variety of people in different situations, and on the community as a whole.

Fifth and finally, especially when it comes to questions of suffering and death, the prudent man or woman depends on access to the whole truth about what it means to be human. Prudence cannot fulfill its potential, for example, if the spiritual nature of the human person is unrecognized, if suffering is viewed as an intolerable evil with no positive or redemptive character, and if bodily death is judged to be the worst of all evils. Even virtuous pagans in the time before Christ recognized these truths.

Given these rather obvious conditions, it should also be obvious, first, that prudence is always a difficult virtue to exercise well and, second, that it is particularly difficult in our situation today, which is characterized by gross misunderstanding of human nature, a lack of firm spiritual moorings, the widespread adoption of secular cultural myths, and a resulting cult of individualistic selfishness. Another difficulty which prudence must take into account is the likelihood of inducing a whole society to respond as desired. In this case, for example, what about young people who would rather go on Spring Break, attend rock concerts, and congregate with their peers? Or what about our pandemic attitudes toward sexual license?

There are many, many issues which affect the prudence of a course of action. Today, however, I think the important question we ought to have in our minds is whether we live in a society whose leaders are generally capable of exercising prudence—specially in a Presidential election year!

Chinks in the armor of prudence

I would say there are significant chinks in our armor when it comes to prudence. Some of these holes result from the corrosive effects of secularism, others from the very nature of big government in our time, and at least one, I think, from our own very proper commitment to the pro-life movement. I will cover the first two concerns briefly here, then expand on the third.

  1. Secularism: In the tunnel vision imposed by secularism, perhaps we ought to congratulate ourselves on finding something that people today care about more than self-determination and material wealth: I mean illness and death. But secularist fears may have reached the level of the paranoid. When our dread of illness and death enables us to ruin whole economies based on predictions of the future, we may find ourselves victimized by speculation in ways that have a devastating impact even on public health. It is paradoxical, in an age which recognizes the need to ration costly health care based on prognosis, that we are so willing to eliminate the economic base which sustains modern First World life as we know it—including the advances in health care we have come to expect.
  2. Big Government: Complex societies engender ever-larger bureaucratic governments. Indeed, concern for the complexities of public health is one (relatively minor) reason for governmental growth, and there is no question that the best source we have for information about public health issues is the relevant governmental agencies. But there is a huge Catch-22 in big government, and it is simply this: The decisions about major public issues are consistently being made by people whose economic well-being is not impacted (except perhaps positively) by these decisions. In this case, economically devastating Coronavirus decisions are being made exclusively, or at least almost exclusively, by those on government payrolls who believe they have nothing to lose—those who, in fact, will be perceived, in the main, as growing in public importance the larger the crisis becomes. Given human nature, this is worth thinking about.

Pro-Life concerns

The third thing which concerns me in this huge question of prudence is the way in which our Catholic pro-life commitments might cause us to ignore important differences between attempting to stop the deliberate taking of innocent human life and attempting to minimize the normal risks associated with the spread of disease. Opposing the purposeful slaughter of innocent people must always be the highest priority of any human community. In contrast, while public health is certainly a legitimate Christian concern, protecting the community from the normal ravages of disease and death is nowhere near the top of moral imperatives relevant to either our own personal obligations or the common good as a whole.

As a matter of moral reality, any given proposal for improving public health is, in and of itself, not an intrinsic moral issue. Rather, measures for the improvement of public health are always prudential in character. This means that while it is prudent to devote some changing level of both personal and common resources to health and medical care, it is also prudent to limit the resources in accordance with the other needs of the personal and common good. To put it another way, it would be the easiest thing in the world in a modern bureaucratic society to implement self-defeating proposals to control anything, including public health—proposals which so undermine the personal goods of certain groups and the overall common good that they may be both seriously unjust and, in the end, even utterly self-defeating.

Nor do public health concerns trump concerns about spiritual health. I do not believe most of us who think in pro-life terms will have much trouble with this, but it does bear mentioning. To put it on the most concrete level imaginable, suppose you could end abortion by agreeing to the complete cessation of the celebration of Mass. That would be an exchange a pro-life secularist would make in a heartbeat, but the Catholic would know that to eliminate the Mass is to eliminate human improvement and accelerate human backsliding in ways that would dwarf even the sin of abortion. The Christian would know also that even to explain it this way is to get it partly wrong, for our obedience to God must always come first. If we do not first place ourselves in His hands, all hope is gone. Moreover, we are bound to do that even when we do not see the point, just because God is God and we are not, and we owe our very being to Him.

Conclusion

This does not mean the pope and the bishops may not suspend certain spiritual services when, in their judgment, the common good demands that sacrifice. Just as a bishop might not allow Mass to be said publicly in a particular place at a particular time because of a threat that the gathering place will be bombed if that happens, so too he may curtail public masses because there is an unusual temporary danger of the spread of a serious disease among the faithful. At the same time, this also means that the comparison of material and spiritual losses must be examined closely through a properly spiritual lens. Here we have one important meaning of a key passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:

The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. [1 Cor 2:14-16]

My own personal conclusion is that if the current restrictions on human activity are maintained for very long without considerably more evidence of the serious dangers of the Coronavirus, then we will very likely be “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind” (Hos 8:7). I admit that this is a conclusion reached through only one man’s dubious prudence. But when the political leaders who guide us believe they can solve economic problems simply by creating stimulus packages out of thin air, with scant regard for equity, inevitable long delays, and spiraling inflation, we have ample evidence that they are already somewhat divorced from reality.

I hasten to add that fresh “Catholic” theories, based on alleged private locutions, that the Coronavirus is a Divine punishment for modern sins are not helpful. Everything that happens, good or bad, is permitted by God in great part to draw us closer to him in love and repentance.

All the way around, then, it seems to me very likely that this whole issue is really not being examined with anything like the level of prudence it requires. Moreover, based on our experience of American and world politics, why would we think otherwise? It is not an insignificant issue that hundreds of thousands, and more likely even millions, of people are being ruined economically by the measures that have been put in place. Surely, at the very least, we all need to take a step back, just now, to examine this very serious question, and to find far greater clarity.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 28, 2020 5:12 PM ET USA

    bkmajer3729: I don't have a foolproof solution, certainly. But I wrote this over a week ago, when it seemed that nobody was taking into account the economic disaster that was looming. Just as we cannot go to any lengths whatsoever to end fatalities in automobile accidents, we cannot ruin whole economies to protect against disease and death. My argument was not that existing restrictions were wrong, but that prudence must take far more into account that seemed to be considered at that point. It seems that a lot more people are seriously concerned about widespread financial catastrophe now, which may be one reason why the severe shutdowns in many relatively unaffected regions will be eased sooner rather than later. We'll see.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 28, 2020 10:01 AM ET USA

    Come on Jeff. You keep implying the response is wrong / in error. True / correct we have many flu seasons behind us - we also have a vaccine for that one. There is no vaccine for covid-19 virus. We should all do what Spain and Italy did ignoring it until it’s too late. I just don’t believe your comments are responsible given the reality we face. If you could offer a viable solution to get us to Mass without spreading this thing, that would be nice - instead of only offering a negative.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 23, 2020 11:45 AM ET USA

    In a separate post, not reproduced below, bkmajer379 noted that the numbers were off in my response to Antigone (below). They were indeed in at least one instance, because for some reason I had used a population for China of 1,500,000 instead of 1.5 BILLION. I've scrapped those numbers and have simply included the stats as of March 23, 2020 from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, which is a source many people cite. The numbers reported daily there support the thesis (so far) that the Coronovirus is far less deadly than the annual flu--though I hasten to add that we have experience with many complete flu seasons, and with not even one complete Coronavirus "season". Thanks for all critical and supportive comments. My point was that our response needs to be determined with all factors held clearly in mind, and ascertained as carefully as possible. Future possibilities cannot be the only consideration when these possibilities are not able to be forecast based on hard data from real experience. That, of course, is the difficulty.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 23, 2020 10:57 AM ET USA

    Thank-you for this article...

  • Posted by: MikeWetzel - Mar. 22, 2020 11:29 PM ET USA

    As awful and disheartening as the governments' and public's reaction to the virus have been, worse is the unconscionable decision of the American bishops and clergy to kowtow to the secular political class. By closing Churches and abandoning the Mass and sacraments out of fear, though they say otherwise, the Church has compounded the near mass panic among the public. The bishops have weakened the Church by tacitly admitting the Church and sacraments are not important in times like this.

  • Posted by: MikeWetzel - Mar. 22, 2020 11:25 PM ET USA

    Chinks in the armor of prudence have concerned me since officials began ordering Americans citizens to quit living their lives and to do as they are told. The orders are based on worst case assumptions and models including a guess the infection rate might be as high as 50% of the population. Not even Wuhan's population is infected at that rate. Meanwhile, no explanation about at what point the crisis will be over and Americans will be freed from the prisons they have been herded without protest.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 21, 2020 8:40 PM ET USA

    You are misinformed. Jeff, you are off base on this one. Antigone is correct. Look at the evidence. While it is necessary that we integrate a Catholic holistic prudent response - we need to be equally observant about the virus transmission & health. How do you know the measures taken so far have not resulted in benefit? You don’t. Based on the virus behavior, prudent actions are underway. None of this is easy but how are the actions taken not prudent?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2020 9:52 AM ET USA

    Antigone: My article was an examination of the demands of prudence applied to a complex situation, and it made no concrete recommendations, so it is hard for me to see why it would be considered "irresponsible". I also wonder why anyone would consider difficulty in breathing (asthma) not to be a pre-existing condition that reduces our ability to fight disease; certainly a severe case of asthma will dramatically increase the dangers of other illnesses. In any case, my assertion about pre-existing conditions was based on a study coming out of Italy. As for statistics, if we compare the Coronavirus with the Bubonic plague (admittedly this is a straw man, probably the worst epidemic we know of historically), the Plague's death rate was about 40,000 times higher. I have updated the statistics given below because I made huge decimal errors in my first attempt to report the China numbers (accidentally using an overall population of 1,500,000 instead of 1.5 billion, so really the picture was much better than I indicated). So these are from WorldoMeter: As of March 23rd, there have been 81,000 cases of the Coronavirus in China, of which about 3,300 have resulted in death, in a country of 1.5 billion, or about .00022% of the population (so 1 out of every 456,000 people). In Italy, there have been roughly 60,000 cases of which about 5,500 have died, with a total population of over 60 million, or about .005% of the total population (so 1 out of ever 11,000 people). In the United States, there have been roughly 39,000 cases of which about 459 have resulted in death, with a total population of 330 million (so about 1 out of every 700,000 people). In contrast, in the United States between October 1, 2019 and February 1, 2020, between 12,000 and 30,000 deaths are attributed to the flu, a far higher rate so far). Surely such things, along with many others, should be taken into consideration in crafting prudent policies.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2020 9:10 AM ET USA

    theabea7789996: I sympathize. The article can hardly come to a clear conclusion about exactly what should be done. My point is that the decisions that have been made may not be justified and are having enormously damaging consequences in non-medical ways. The virtue of prudence needs close examination, and essentially I call for a reexamination of the entire mess, taking far more into account than what we think might happen.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 21, 2020 8:32 AM ET USA

    I like this: "they know nobody who knows anybody who has the virus." I did a quick informal survey of family members after I read this. Sure enough, he's right. It's like the doom-and-gloom scenarios a few years ago. Everybody knew that the media reported on the massive number of people who were suffering because of a reported "bad economy"; yet nobody knew any actual people who were in this victim category. "I'm fine economically, but my neighbor is not." "Which neighbor"? "Um, the one on TV."

  • Posted by: christineaklun2246 - Mar. 21, 2020 8:10 AM ET USA

    The next Chicken Little cry will be "mutation". Dr. Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist who was part of the fight to eradicate smallpox. Brilliant was a consultant for the movie “Contagion,” in which a virus evolved to become more deadly, but that’s the exception. “Only in movies do viruses seem to become worse,” he explained.

  • Posted by: td4207 - Mar. 20, 2020 9:13 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your reflection. I, too, question the extreme measures that will, if not reversed within the month, will catapult the nation into a severe depression. Already laid-off hourly workers are desperate for means to support themselves and their families. St. Joseph, patron of fathers and families, pray for us!

  • Posted by: theabea7789996 - Mar. 20, 2020 8:31 PM ET USA

    I don't know what is wrong with my mind, but I could not find a clear line to a conclusion in this article. I got lost in the woods.

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 20, 2020 7:16 PM ET USA

    The credibility of this essay hinges on unsubstantiated assertions made in the 3rd paragraph about how few people get sick with this virus. If you are going to write something like this, the least you could do is cite the data. The numbers are showing large numbers of folks under 60 w/no preexisting conditions needing hospitalization. Furthermore, many at high risk are not "seriously weakened" by other health conditions - that's not what happens with asthma, etc. This piece is irresponsible.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Mar. 20, 2020 6:57 PM ET USA

    I am very grateful for your essay and like you I question the nature of the response to corona. I blame largely an irresponsible mainstream media fomenting panic because of I believe agendas that go beyond public safety. The ordinary flu so far has been more deadly than corona and a scorched earth response cures nothing while injuring many economically. I think we should be offering public worship and taking common-sense precautions.