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What should be at issue now in the COVID-19 restrictions?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 24, 2020

I received an email yesterday from a Catholic lay leader for whom I have deep respect, in which he cautioned against railing too hard against COVID-19 restrictions. In particular, he pointed out that at his age and with his pre-existing conditions, he was particularly vulnerable to the disease, and the restrictions might well be preventing his premature death. I’m sympathetic to that argument—most of us face it with one person or another whom we know well—but I don’t think it is a sound basis for favoring or opposing this or that governmentally-imposed restriction.

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Of course, I should begin with a disclaimer: I have no expert medical knowledge of the COVID situation. But I think we also need to add the disclaimer that even the greatest experts know relatively little for certain about the impact of the disease. All warnings and all predictions have been moving targets, and it seems at least clear that many experts and spokesmen for the dominant culture are following a script largely on trust—and that the media in general secure their position of indispensability by focusing on dire predictions and bad news. Most of us are at least dimly aware of counter-voices with at least some expertise whose conclusions are systematically screened out of what we are allowed to see and hear.

But please note that the same thing is true about disinformation on all sides of a question. We can no more credit the assertions of those with whom we sympathize because we sympathize than we can discredit the assertions of those with whom we habitually disagree because we habitually disagree. Some Catholics (and perhaps more who confuse conservative disaffection with their Catholicism) are anti-restriction, including anti-mask, partly because they do not trust government (usually for very good reasons), partly because they find themselves frequently (and necessarily) on the side of “contrarian” voices, and partly because—dammit—they are sick and tired of being told what to do.

Whatever else we may say about this, “to wear or not to wear” a mask is not a “Catholic” issue. On the other hand, it is very much a “Catholic” issue whether we are afraid of disease and death in the sense of becoming anxious in the face of these natural evils, and of letting this anxiety undermine our trust in God. I commend those who, precisely because of their faith, make a point of placing themselves in God’s hands in uncertain matters of this kind, while also avoiding the sin of presumption, which could lead to a failure to take appropriate human precautions.

My principal point is this: Everyone ought to recognize that his or her salvation will depend more on love of neighbor than on human posturing. Wearing a mask in public may be an outward sign of that love, to reduce the anxiety of the other. I get what it means to be sick and tired of the nanny state with its endless lists of regulations and requirements. Being sick and tried, however, is not a good spiritual motivation for anything.

So what issues ARE at stake?

It seems to me that there are three very legitimate issues at stake in the current COVID situation.

First, in the big picture, there is the issue of prudence, a virtue which includes a consideration of the different levels at which it is best exercised. For example, each of us can take the prudent steps necessary to protect ourselves, even beyond whatever procedures may or may not be imposed by authority. The elderly or those with applicable pre-existing conditions, who are most at risk, do not need to go out much, if they do not wish to do so. If there are caregivers involved, of course, they have a special responsibility to be very prudent in their own interactions with others. Much of this can be orchestrated on the personal or familial level, without needing State regulations. This is why my elderly friend’s concerns, with which I opened this reflection, do not make a good argument for strong universal restrictions.

Indeed, it is never wise to make individual concerns the basis for public policy. When restrictions were first being considered, I used the example of highway safety to illustrate this point. If we allow the public to drive, some members of the public are going to be injured or killed. But we do not use that inescapable reality to outlaw driving. Instead, we try to achieve an acceptable practical balance among the risks and rewards of driving; and we expect those who are not capable of driving safely under the chosen conditions to protect themselves by staying off the roads. But we also impose certain safety measures in the manufacturing of both highways and vehicles, in the operation of the vehicles themselves (speed limits, lights, horns, safety inspections), and in the theoretical susceptibility to driver error (licensing and punishment for violations).

So again, we try through prudence to achieve a reasonable balance. With respect to COVID, I have heard far too many people argue that it is callous and immoral not to do everything possible to prevent every possible death. But this simply isn’t true, because there are always conflicting sets of legitimate needs and goals in every society. For example, it makes no sense to impoverish millions of people because fewer of them, as a result of restrictions on their movements and businesses, will get sick. This sort of response assumes a control over all circumstances that no human agency possesses. The prudent course in all social dispositions is a balance between downside and upside. People may legitimately differ on what constitutes the best course of action, but prudence must be involved, for it is quite simply impossible to absolutize (or even significantly overemphasize) any of the values in play without doing more harm than good.

I should mention again here, as I have before, that the current Pandemic is really quite mild by historical standards. In this sense, our contemporary highly acute sensitivity to suffering from disease, coupled with our society’s increasingly desperate belief that this life is all there is, may well make genuine human prudence more difficult to exercise. For the severity of our current Pandemic compared with the great epidemics of history, see Science meets secular mythology—and loses, again.

The second issue at stake is fairness. If government imposes restrictions on gatherings and group activities, it cannot privilege such gatherings for some (ordinary) purposes and forbid them for other (ordinary) purposes. Apart from emergency situations, it is simply not fair for the State to differentiate among groups or activities based on the personal preferences of those making the rules. Moreover, it is unfair for the State to violate the principle of subsidiarity. It should welcome intermediary institutions which find creative ways to carry on safely, rather than assuming (illogically) that there is only one political way to protect public health. Nor should the State privilege some activities over others on an ideological basis. Within the limits of the criminal law, the State cannot fairly say that people may gather for the purposes of activity X but not for the purposes of activity Y.

Indeed, such fairness plays an important part in fostering the common good. Many activities which would not be considered important by government officials are quite important to the people who participate in them. A legitimate freedom of action is essential to the common good, and it is extremely damaging to the common good to privilege one group of people or one type of activity over others. It is also extraordinarily damaging to the common good for the ordinary interests and activities of the citizenry to be subject to constant government scrutiny, evaluation, and approval.

The third issue: Faith

It is precisely here that we come up against the fundamental divide between secularism and religious faith which plagues our current deliberations. A great many jurisdictions in the United States (and elsewhere) have done a reasonably good job in facing the COVID threat with its largely unknown dimensions. They have dealt even-handedly with the various groups and interests which make up their respective societies, and sought constructive accommodations with various intermediary institutions which have offered their own solutions. But there are also many governments which have rather obviously and deliberately used the COVID-19 Pandemic to restrict religious activity, choosing instead to prioritize secularism, or in some countries mere despotism, over religious faith.

In one sense it is hard to argue against such prioritization, which is why we typically fall back on the fairness argument. In many places in the world, we are already some generations removed from governments which understand the importance and role of religion for the human person or which understand their own dependence on God. There are roughly zero governments which can actually differentiate between the evidential claims of true religion and the preferences wrought by delusion or sentiment. And it is just this lack of correspondence to the totality of reality among modern governments which puts Christians, and especially Catholics who are bound to a specific creed, in a decidedly-underprivileged position.

It is nearly inevitable that reasonable accommodations for religion will tend toward the non-existent in modern secular states. Certainly it is very hard for the modern State to find room in its theory of governance for anything like the authority claimed by the Catholic Church, which is, in its own sphere, superior to the State itself. When the State regards its own declarations as the source of moral authority, the common good is severely threatened, all persons are in grave danger, and those who recognize God and ecclesiastical authority invite marginalization in many forms. It is just this problem which lies at the heart of religious (and specifically Catholic) resistance to the use of the Pandemic to justify an ever-increasing range of regulatory power on the part of the State.

Catholics believe—and must believe—that the Church alone has authority over her mission, her teaching, her administration of churches, and her administration of the sacraments. Moreover, the current, widespread, cultural secularization of Catholics in our time has led to a situation in which strongly committed Catholics become understandably nervous when Church leaders do nothing but follow State recommendations, mounting no resistance to bureaucratic overreach, and claiming no ultimate authority for themselves. Even legitimate cooperation between Church and State in these matters can be greeted with discomfort and suspicion, if it is not clear that a bishop is willing to make his own decisions, with the good of souls in mind.

Strong Catholics are already on edge in today’s culture. When tensions are high, it is hard to avoid all semblance of rebellion, even when there may be no one sufficient reason for it. My conclusion is that the best thing that can be done in this situation is for each bishop to make it clear that he is exercising strong, direct leadership over the Church committed to his apostolic care. This strength and directness has three particular parts just now. Therefore, faithful Catholics should actively urge their bishops to adopt the following points:

  • First, clear communication that the bishop and the bishop alone is making decisions about Mass attendance and the availability of the other sacraments; he is not simply following governmental guidelines.
  • Second, consistent episcopal and priestly emphasis that “live-streaming” the Mass is not a good solution to the problem—backed by a consistent widening of access to true participation in the Mass.
  • Third, immediate lawsuits and a call for civil disobedience if the State chooses to interfere with a bishop’s jurisdiction over the administration of the sacraments in his diocese.

My question and conclusion is simply this: Why settle for uncertain gestures, such as whether or not to wear a mask? What we really need is a more muscular Catholicism. Today, that starts with access to the sacraments.

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: Randal Mandock - Nov. 27, 2020 1:47 AM ET USA

    I am fortunate to live in a state with reasonable guidelines for protection from transmission of the virus. Yet there is undue cowardice among many parishes in my diocese. A couple of days ago an inquirer into our faith told me that he had contacted many parishes about Mass and RCIA, but was either turned away or received no response. He told me that my extraordinary-form parish was the only one in our major metropolitan area to welcome him and to offer the sacramental support he was seeking.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 25, 2020 9:54 AM ET USA

    ccwilliams6549924: Perhaps the best form of civil disobedience would be for large numbers of Catholics to attend Mass in churches where it is otherwise forbidden or restricted by civil order to ridiculously small numbers. They would follow the bishop's own guidelines for ensuring safety, and they would be there to worship God--not to chant slogans or make a show of defying the State. This puts the policing authority in the unenviable position of forcibly evicting people at prayer and perhaps carting them off to jail in large numbers--no doubt violating the very rules they are claiming to enforce, and causing a far greater risk of infection than does the celebration of Mass. Such attendance at Mass would be repeated week after week, out of a genuine spiritual desire to worship as Catholics--which would also shame the civil authorities repeatedly, should they continue to attempt to enforce their rules. And it would lead to a substantial number of court cases to challenge the existing civil rules, for these can be challenged on a great many different grounds.

  • Posted by: ccwilliams6549924 - Nov. 24, 2020 10:29 PM ET USA

    Respectfully, what might civil disobedience look like?

  • Posted by: edenjohnson364256 - Nov. 24, 2020 8:10 PM ET USA

    I agree 150% with your opinion, Jeffrey Mirus, thanks for a clear and concise explanation. I particularly appreciate the following: Third, immediate lawsuits and a call for civil disobedience if the State chooses to interfere with a bishop’s jurisdiction over the administration of the sacraments in his diocese. Now if only all Bishops can agree and be bold!