Catholic Social Thought and COVID-19

Catholic Social Thought (CST) gives us a measuring stick to assess our elected leaders and societal power structures: whether they enhance the life and dignity of the human person, especially the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. In fact, we all will be judged based on how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, and the stranger (Matthew 25:31–46).

By this Catholic measuring stick, our ongoing response to COVID-19 is falling short.

Consider first how our elected leaders distributed the economic burdens of this public health crisis. When the will of God is invoked to explain away death and suffering, Father Michael Himes retorts: “[W]ho votes on the expenditure and allotment of money and resources? God or us?” Congressional legislation that mandated temporary paid sick leave for workers impacted by the virus exempted large corporations with 500 or more employees. This and other exemptions left potentially 80% of American workers without any relief.

Much-needed cash assistance will not reach the most vulnerable and marginalized among us: non-tax filers, the unbanked, undocumented immigrants, the incarcerated, and the homeless. The CST principle of subsidiarity dictates that we must support more localized efforts to fill these callous gaps because “the preferential option for the poor is not optional.” In stark contrast, corporations — and their executives and shareholders — were gifted a litany of grants and loans with little oversight.

Consider next that America is on pace to lead the world in loss of life from the virus. Yet some elected leaders — including the President — and Christian faith leaders have called for a hasty return to “business as usual” in defiance of epidemiological expertise. Workers dismissed as “non-essential” or “unskilled” must be sacrificed to appease the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This thinking is precisely the “throwaway culture” that Pope Francis has lamented, a culture that invites gross utilitarian calculations of who should live and who should die.

The poor may be called to die; prisoners are being left to die. Social distancing is impossible in overcrowded prisons. Prisoners are litigating for soap and hand sanitizer. Elected leaders have broad executive powers to grant commutations and reprieves but have not exercised these powers at all or with full force. As a result, de facto death sentences are impending for many innocent people at Rikers, Cook County Jail, and beyond. Some of these prisoners are merely awaiting trial because they cannot afford cash bail. Poverty is now a death sentence.

Our elected leaders are failing as measured by Catholic Social Thought principles. In turn, what does Catholic Social Thought require from each of us?

Widespread social distancing is at odds with the American ethos of individual freedom and decentralized federalism. Florida spring breakers defiantly partied as corona cases exponentially grew. Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that groups tend to be more immoral than individuals again rang true. But CST teaches that solidarity in social distancing is our moral imperative because it furthers the common good. Social distancing protects the elderly and immunocompromised and slows the burden on medical workers, our “everyday saints” in this crisis. We should not need stay-at-home orders to do what is morally right. What is legal (at least in a few states) is not always moral as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us from Birmingham City Jail.

Pope John Paul II taught that solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes” of others as we go about our comfortable lives. Solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” To theologian Henri Nouwen, solidarity requires “going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.” Simply put, solidarity is uncomfortable. But for today’s suffering, solidarity is rather paradoxically comfortable: stay home and do not hoard toilet paper.

For many in my generation, America’s failing response to COVID-19 may not be a surprise. Our societal power structures have been marked by depravity and corruption our entire lives. America’s responses to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession are not lauded as successes regardless of political perspective. Institutions like Congress, the military, courts, big business, and yes, the Catholic Church are increasingly distrusted.

None of these crises, however, prompted a reorganization of our societal power structures. If and when we reorganize after prevailing over this virus, let us turn to Catholic Social Thought for our organizing principles, something we are failing to do in our ongoing response.

Szymon Barnas is a third-year student at Vanderbilt Law School. Previously he studied Economics and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame with a focus on Catholic Social Thought.

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