Editorial: Our Collective Fragility

In my first editorial for Today’s American Catholic in September 2018, I wrote the following:

I come to this editorship at a particularly fraught time, both for the church and the world at large. Many of our prevailing institutions and power structures are being openly called into question, from economic policies that have furthered global inequality, to self-protective patriarchal workplaces exposed by the #MeToo movement, to questions about our country’s role in the world and fissures within our two-party system. All around, it feels like a dismantlement of old standards happening in real time. This can be thoroughly disorienting, but it gives us the opportunity to ask anew what kind of church, and what kind of nation, we want to be.

I could never have predicted how this “dismantlement of old standards happening in real time” would reach its inflection point less than two years later. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, we are witnessing not only a dismantlement, but a wholesale denuding of so many things we had previously thought fixed: the preparedness of our health care system, the stability of the global economy, even the small-scale securities of our humble daily routines. If we were tending toward questioning these false assumptions a few years ago, the events of the past month have forced us into direct confrontation with the structural elements of our society—and, above and beyond them, with the matter of life and death itself.

It seems too soon to begin diagnosing the problem from any one particular perspective, including a Catholic one. For now, the most important thing we can do is to keep each other safe, practicing extreme caution and applying social distancing measures, limiting trips outside the home to absolute essentials, and frequently washing our hands and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. We might also check in with friends, family, and neighbors who are self-isolating, particularly the elderly. As countless news outlets and health organizations have repeated, this is a time of solidarity through separation.

Yet even apart, we can remain united in prayer. Though Masses may be canceled, we can use this time to turn inward, to deepen our interior lives as we reach the climax of the liturgical year in Holy Week. Some religious leaders have pushed back against restrictions on large gatherings, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, who stated in an online letter that Catholics should attend Mass regardless of the coronavirus outbreak. While we hunger for the sustenance that only the sacrament can provide, we might remember that our individual actions at this time can have dire consequences for others. It may be that meditating on the life of Saint Mary of Egypt, who wandered the desert for 48 years before she was able to receive communion from the hands of the holy elder Zosimas, is a more salubrious means of approaching the mystery of the Eucharist at this historical moment. As we follow her in repentance and longing, so, we hope, may we soon follow in the joy of her fulfillment.

This time of enforced quarantine might also give us an opportunity to iterate new modes of being—as individuals, as church, as nation, as world community. Making it clear that we should not “denigrate the loss of life,” Paul Monks, a professor at the University of Leicester, called the pandemic “the largest-scale experiment ever seen” in the reduction of air pollutants. Nitrogen dioxide levels over China have fallen by as much as 30 percent, and 40 percent across parts of northern Italy, as industry and transit are forced to slow down. Cases such as these may become models for how to address the climate crisis. Monks spoke of a realization “that there is considerable potential to change working practices and lifestyles” as we continue to learn that not every business meeting requires a flight, nor every sudden impulse a trip in the car.

We are also seeing how, in moments of crisis, it is not the powerful who offer protection but those nurses, hospital janitors, mail carriers, and supermarket cashiers who put themselves at risk to maintain some semblance of a functioning society. In a recent apostolic blessing, Pope Francis addressed them when he said: “It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people—often forgotten people—who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time.” As with the reduction in emissions, the pandemic might offer here an instructive moment: that when, God willing, we have overcome the virus, we remember this moment of interdependence and treat others with respect not only spiritually, but materially, with a just wage and benefits for their labor.

Related to our treatment of the workforce is the need to hold off restarting the national economy too soon. While there have been protests from some business leaders and promises from some government officials to have things up and running by Easter, the truth is that our public safety is of too grave a concern to rush back into feverish cycles of production and consumption. This is a moment to recognize that the market was created by man, not man to serve the market, and that calls to sacrifice lives for a few points on the S&P 500 Index are not only shortsighted but skewer the value of the human person. “In the best-case scenario,” Sonia Shaw wrote at the website Politico,

the trauma of the pandemic will force society to accept restraints on mass consumer culture as a reasonable price to pay to defend ourselves against future contagions and climate disasters alike. For decades, we’ve sated our outsized appetites by encroaching on an ever-expanding swath of the planet with our industrial activities, forcing wild species to cram into remaining fragments of habitat in closer proximity to ours. That’s what has allowed animal microbes such as SARS-COV2—not to mention hundreds of others from Ebola to Zika—to cross over into human bodies, causing epidemics.

However we choose to modify our behavior in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—be it through a return to smaller-scale, regional supply chains, the creation of a robust public health care system that is equipped handle crises of this magnitude, or a conscious reduction in consumption as we learn the differences between wants and needs—it will be rooted in a new understanding of our interdependence. Our exhausted earth has been given a momentary reprieve from our restless comings and goings, our extractive economies based on instant gratification and little thought for how our decisions impact others. Now, as we enter uncharted territory, something shifts within us; we realize our collective fragility and are pulled deeper into the vital logic of prayer. The health of my neighbor becomes my own, as it was all along but is now revealed to be in even starker terms. To move forward with this knowledge—not as theory or even Gospel precept, but as true, lived experience—will be our test and our salvation in the days ahead.

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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