Reflections on Coronavirus and the Pontifical Academy for Life

What is the problematic methodology undergirding the PAL’s new document?

Parishioners pray at a church during the celebration of the feast of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers and drivers, in Guatemala City on July 30, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parishioners pray at a church during the celebration of the feast of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers and drivers, in Guatemala City on July 30, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo: Photo by Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

The Pontifical Academy for Life’s July 22 paper on the new coronavirus has already been criticized in various quarters for its quasi-secular character — a Vatican document about a crisis that had at one point managed to shut down public celebration of the Mass in most of the world, a text in excess of 4,000 words, not once includes among them the words “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ” or “Spirit.” Not even “holy.”

That fact should superficially give pause, but I suggest that the problem may lie even deeper. What is the methodology undergirding this document?

The Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL) presumably should study problems related to human life from the perspective of science and of faith. It is, after all, a “pontifical” entity. Like at least pontifically chartered universities (if not the whole philosophy of Catholic education — but that’s another problem), PAL should examine subjects from an integrated perspective of science and faith. Science should inform the phenomena, but their analysis also requires the light of reason and of faith.

Analysis of problems in the life sciences through the lenses of reason and faith is essential for two reasons. First, our tradition affirms the unity of faith and reason. There are not “two truths.” There is not science over there and faith over here, at best ignoring each other, at worst snarling antagonistically at each other. This insight is nothing new: it goes back throughout our tradition. Second, the life sciences are at the service of life, above all of human life. Our theological and philosophical vision affirms that human life is not just another variant of biological life. The human person is the only being in the material world that God wanted for Himself, made in His Image and Likeness, and gave the dominion of responsible stewardship over the rest of the material world.

Do either of those perspectives show forth in the PAL document? One might argue that they can be inferred “between the lines,” but a Vatican document discussing a global pandemic that has had huge consequences for the Church and the world should not be dealing with fundamental theological perspectives by indirection and inference. Furthermore, with all due respect to the incumbent Roman Pontiff, PAL’s grounding for its arguments are not the best, or at least not complete. One example: when the document (in its third paragraph) speaks about “our common responsibility for the human family,” far stronger Scriptural and Magisterial foundations could be adduced than just the 2019 letter of Pope Francis restructuring the Academy.

But my concerns about the methodology of this document run deeper.

Science can talk about how the universe or the world or life might have come about, but it cannot talk about why. That is not within science’s competence. At the same time, because that why is not within science’s competence means (i) that science cannot by its own authority dismiss that question nor (ii) offer an opinion masquerading as an answer.

My point: science can tell us how the universe or the world or biology or ecology might function, but it cannot tell us whether there is any teleology there, whether that function tends towards some end, some purpose. Nor can it rule that question out just because it cannot answer it.

As Catholic Christians, we affirm that the world makes sense: it was the medieval Christian affirmation of cause and effect in the world that made modern science as we know it possible. Indeed, it is Catholic philosophy that sustains that discovery and affirmation against various “Enlightenment” thinkers that jettison all manner of causality. It also resists the post-Hegelian “Enlightenment” view that the created world is not so much something to be understood as to be changed.

Simply put, we Catholics affirm that natures have ends. Nature tends to a purpose, a goal which, if allowed without interference to achieve it, will do so. That notion of nature is in many ways lost in the modern world, which reduces “nature” to a blind force that somehow (serendipity, magic, a lucky roll of the dice?) seems to act consistently.

I am not sure how much of that vision of “nature” is in PAL’s document. It concerns me because of another Vatican action on COVID.

On March 30, the Congregation for Divine Cult and Discipline of the Sacraments published a decree, approved by Pope Francis, revising the Votive Mass in Times of Pandemic. Those who compared it to the “Mass in A Time of Pestilence” (Missa Tempore Mortalitatis) contained in the old Roman Missal noted that any reference to pandemic or pestilence and Divine chastisement had been thoroughly excised. It followed pushback from various episcopal quarters against the suggestion that the COVID pandemic might be an occasion for a particular call to conversion, especially since its initial impact struck in the middle of Lent. The new Francis text stresses healing and reconciliation and God’s support of His People, but contains no idea of Divine punishment nor any connection between sin, suffering, sickness, and death.

One does not want to draw simplistic, straight lines between contagion and chastisement, but the utter disappearance of any connection between them is alien to the Catholic tradition. Catholicism has always recognized that sin, sickness, and death have some connection: to recognize that the connection is complex and perhaps indirect is not an excuse for pretending it is not there. Christianity is Good News, but it is a Good News that is also sober and realistic. It recognizes that human persons need that Good News, because of their brokenness that derives ultimately from their own doing. Christianity is not Bobby McFerrin with religious lyrics: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

I raise this issue because of the juxtaposition of that Votive Mass with the image of the pandemic painted in the PAL document. As remarked above, the PAL document presents us with a quasi-secular vision of the pandemic that paints COVID as a blind, presumably inexorable outcome of ecological forces.  The Votive Mass speaks of God as He who the refuge of His People from the pestilence that stalks in darkness and the plague that lays waste at noon (Psalm 91:6, a text curiously absent from the Lectionary readings authorized for the new Mass).

So, how do we put these two together? Is the disorder in the impersonal natural world just the way things go when fail in “our common responsibility for the human family” while our loving God is He who saves us from the results that threaten us? One gets the impression that nature is driven by blind forces while God rescues us from them. That God might work and express His will through nature seems unclear.

The PAL document recognizes, however, something of a moral dimension to the pandemic. Failing in “our common responsibility” is, after all, something moral: responsibility presupposes obligation, whose neglect normally entails some measure of culpability. Sure enough, the PAL document admits that “… COVID-19 is not just the result of natural occurrences. What happens in nature is already the result of a complex intermediation with the human world of economical choices and models of development, themselves “infected” with a different “virus” of our own creation … financial greed, the self-indulgence of life styles defined by consumption, indulgence, and excess.”

There then follows a litany of choices, presumably indicative of that “greed” and “self-indulgence of life styles,” that a critic might say is more indicative of an ideological agenda than a scientific assessment. It is suggested, for example, that perhaps part of the reason for COVID is that “first world” countries eat too much meat. Presumably, as with general worldwide climate goals, cutting back is the order of the day for the First World, while the Third World (and Third World wanna-be’s for exemption purposes) get a pass. Interestingly, amidst the potential etiologies for COVID-19, two other words are also missing from the PAL document: “China” and “Wuhan.” Scoring mass production of meat in sanitary Western countries while saying not a word about the sanitary standards of mainland Chinese wet markets is a double standard.

This tendentious pairing of constant criticism of the developed world with opaque prose characterizes the entire document. I said above that the PAL document “recognizes something of a moral dimension” precisely because of that criticism. The teleology of nature is unclear, probably absent. (Is this how the Vatican now understands Gaudium et spes on the “autonomy of created things” (no. 36), one that could be argued as veering very close to deism?)  Human moral failings stemming from a lifestyle of “consumption indulgence and excess” [sic] are thrown up serially, with inference of arguably debatable links between some of them and COVID.

But even those moral failings aren’t really classic moral failings, because the document — adapting a kind of eco-liberation theology — seems to see them through a “structures of sin” model. So, while I myself really can do little to nothing about the supposed wrong of agribusiness meat production, perhaps I might pay double or triple the price to make sure I eat only free-range eggs?  One suspects advocates of such “moral choices” would see it as a symbolic contribution to the good: I would argue it’s a form of religious virtue signaling, making its doer feel better (except at the cash register) while really doing nothing about the problem (if there really is one). One might imagine Bonhoeffer calling this a modern example of cheap grace.

 Last October’s Amazon Synod floated the notion of an examination of conscience of “ecological sins.” The treatment of bad moral choices contained in the PAL document, when contrasted with the traditional understanding of mortal sin (an act I know is wrong and I can and do freely choose completely) shows how dissonant this new notion of “sin” is with what Catholics have hitherto understood it to be.

Finally, one might note in passing that this document, while emphasizing the importance of finding a vaccine against COVID and the need to make any such remedy available to all people, does not appear to say anything about the ethical issues involved in its production, i.e., whether the use of cells from aborted fetuses are employed. This is particularly surprising, given that this question should be a clear and timely focus of a Pontifical Academy for Life, which did in fact issue a document on the moral development of vaccines three years ago.

In sum, the document says some very valuable things about the nature of human solidarity and community, but they need to be sifted out of a logorrhea whose methodology is, most charitably, unclear and opaque and, perhaps most honestly, confused.

Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Senate of the Italian Republic in Rome.

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