Peter Stockland: Church voice belongs in recovery strategy

  • May 3, 2020

We need not sit sipping Lysol lemonade and Clorox cocktails in the left field bleachers with Donald Trump to insist that recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is too important to be left exclusively to politicians and health care technocrats.

On the contrary, our arrival at the prudent “return to normal” phase of the battle against the virus is an opportune moment for the Church to use her bona fides as a reason-based, natural science-affirming voice to press for a Gospel-enriched vision of what tomorrow’s ordinary must look like.

There can be no question we belong at the table as the discussion unfolds. Catholic bishops globally showed courageous, albeit much criticized, sagacity in putting public safety first by closing churches for almost all of Lent. Painful as it was, the Church agreed to elevate the common good even when that meant forgoing the gathering of the people for Mass during Easter, the holiest time in our liturgical year.

There are two intricately related areas where the Church — the clergy but especially the laity as Catholics engaged in civic life — must engage immediately, I think. The first is to challenge the insistence that returning to the pre-pandemic economic status quo is the necessary and sufficient ground for public policy measures in the months and even years ahead. The second is to counter the temptation perpetually whispering in the ears of those who wield power. It’s the leaving in place of restrictions on liberty long after they have served their purpose and which are endured only because the population has forgotten what real freedom means.

We must, of course, “get the economy moving again” as the mantra has it. Credible voices argue effectively that deplorable suffering caused by financial loss, and the ensuing cracking apart of dignity and self-worth, rival the depredations of the disease itself. To prolong that hardship willy-nilly would be wicked cruelty. But crucial wisdom the Church can impart clearly, implacably and charitably comes at the conjunction where economic dignity and the dignity of liberty become one.

Two-thousand years of Christian social thought, distilled into Catholic social teaching, forms us to understand that human beings are not free because we are economically productive. We are economically productive because we are free. The secular world has lost that critical distinction in the staggers and jags of its convulsive avarice.

The Church now has a powerful opening to remind the recovering world of the truth that because our creativity is of a piece with our createdness, our freedom is inseparable from our being, and from having been given to us not by the state, not by technocrats in lab coats, but by God.

One example of where this might apply is in the tentative steps being taken to issue so-called “immunity passports” so that certain people, meeting certain criteria of demography and medical testing, can return both to work and to social life. The proposal is based on the appallingly named concept of “herd immunity,” which might please epidemiologists but should horrify all who care about the humanness of humanity.

Concern so far is whether such passports would be effective against COVID-19 re-occurring. No one seems to have yet raised the demonstrable moral problem of dividing human beings into categories of pure and impure. A Church with a Saviour who touched lepers would be just the body to do it.

What the Church must counsel the world against is giving such thinking a free pass on the basis of perceived purely pragmatic temporary benefits. We’ve all experienced, after all, the rapidity with which the politically temporary becomes the technocratically permanent. We know, too, the power of appeals that ultimately make such measures seem natural.

The denial of human liberty is not natural. It is not the nature by which we were created or which we, in turn, create. Our created nature, or creative spirit, constitute gifts given to us by God. It is the Church’s field, and the Church’s moment, to say so.

(Stockland is publisher of and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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There is nothing wrong with the concept of herd immunity. Herd Immunity: the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, especially...

There is nothing wrong with the concept of herd immunity. Herd Immunity: the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, especially through vaccination. "the level of vaccination needed to achieve herd immunity varies by disease but ranges from 83 to 94 percent"

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