Some Thoughts on the Coronavirus Crisis

In a time of crisis, we need the Church and prayer more, not less.

(photo: Peter Linforth/Pixabay/CC0)

The unique nature of Coronavirus, and what we don’t yet know about its spread, has fostered a sense of panic, not just in the United States but around the world. Some of the reactions to this situation, especially on the part of ecclesiastical authorities, however, merit some comment, especially from an ethical and moral viewpoint.

First, the question of Mass.  In a time of crisis, in which mortal threats are real, the Church’s succor is more necessary, not less. I understand that various civil authorities have wanted to limit or even ban “public gatherings” in the name of public health. But I am also concerned that the Church’s reaction has in some places played into the contemporary secular narrative which, in the balance between God and Caesar, puts its thumb on the scale in the latter’s favor by saying—essentially—“believe whatever you want in the self-quarantine of your house, but what you can do with that belief, i.e., go the Church, is subject to Caesar’s rules.”

Now, if we were talking about a total social lockdown, perhaps that Caesarean overreach might be justified. But Caesar hasn’t closed stores: indeed, in some places, our 24/7/365 business culture is being lauded because it might presumably spread out when customers go shopping. Wall Street shut down only when stocks fell too precipitously, not because stockbrokers weren’t keeping their social distances. Nor has Caesar closed workplaces, even though he’s counseled employers to consider telework and other options to reduce staffing. Few civil authorities have yet decided to impose their determinations of “essential” and “nonessential” economic activities.

So it should be none of Caesar’s business to decide whether a church service is “essential.”

What is even more concerning to me, however, is the attitude of many bishops. I admit my sympathy with the Polish episcopate: in a time of crisis, we need the Church and prayer more, not less.

I absolutely agree that bishops should exercise their pastoral responsibility and dispense the faithful from the Sunday Mass obligation. I think that dispensation is, in some ways, superfluous, because Catholics are not bound by the dominical obligation if they are sick or imperiled by sickness. Catholics who are sick or who are in vulnerable categories have no obligation to attend Sunday Mass and should stay at home.

But there is a profound chasm between dispensing from the obligation of precept and stopping public Masses. Striking tent in the middle of a battle seems a dubious posture for those who vaunt the Church as a “field hospital” that “smells the sheep.” Those who “live in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79; cf. Psalm 23:4), i.e., all of us, are truly the “poor” – poor in spirit – in need of the Church’s active ministration. Bishops who bewail “clericalism” might think twice before paternalistically deciding a priori that no one should come to Church, especially for the central act of ecclesial identity that is Sunday Mass. 

I applaud those pastors who, in response to the crisis, actually added Sunday Masses so that the numbers in church might be less dense.

Second, the question of hoarding. Visit your local grocery store and discover what’s out-of-stock. For me, last Friday, it was the local meat section—although there was still salmon left, which reminded me I don’t live in a very Catholic state. (It also reminded me of store shelves in 1980s Poland). Others report lack of hand sanitizer, cleaning agents, or toilet paper.

In a time of panic, people will “stock up.” It doesn’t take coronavirus. Look at empty milk shelves in your local store’s refrigerated section whenever snow is predicted.

Now consider a story carried in the March 14 New York Times about two brothers who cleaned out 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer from small stores across Tennessee and Kentucky. Buying each bottle for $1-2, they prepared to sell them marked up on Amazon and E-Bay for $20-$70. At first, they tried to paint themselves as savvy entrepreneurs, but when Amazon shut down their sales for price-gouging (and the Volunteer State served them with a cease-and-desist order) they launched into classic appeals to Adam Smith economics: it really costs us a lot to mail Hand Sanitizer, which is deemed a hazardous good, and all we were doing was “simply fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and [we’re] helping send the supply toward the demand.” Bless the Invisible Hands of Tennessee, which also just happened to be holding plenty of mammon for their facilitating the flow of supply and demand. Finally, given the unfriendly publicity, the brothers decided they might try to unload their cache locally. ““If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.” They’re hoarders out to make a buck; they just don’t want to be known as hoarders out to make a buck.

When it comes to essential supplies, society has a responsibility to compel just and equitable distribution against those who would make a quick buck. But this episode should also remind us of the fundamental gap between the vision of the person in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and in classic, laissez-faire economics. For the former, man is a creature who is social by nature and, while sinful, still nevertheless is drawn by love. For the latter, man is a creature who is individualistic by nature and is drawn by self-interest and benefit. (If everybody is only doing their “own thing” however, how does any charity ever occur?  That’s where Adam Smith postulates his “invisible hand” that somehow unconsciously spreads disinterested good while the conscious moral agents are all wrapped up in their interested benefits).

Third, the question of Gnosticism. I have to admit that the Coronavirus crisis seems to mesh well with contemporary inclinations toward Gnosticism, toward avoiding the body and the physical. I get the logic of “social distancing” and the need for space. But our society has been into “social distancing” long before Coronavirus appeared, and I fear that this crisis may be a major stress test of how tenuous our social ties as a community really are. Recent partisan polarization have tested social cohesion, but those strains were there long before current political divides: our society has always glamorized the “rugged individualist” who “did it my way” over and against social norms and expectations. The post-1968 generation may have just  accelerated that fascination and projected it ever more forcefully into social norms and law: consider the Supreme Court’s claim that fathers have no “interest” in the abortion of their unborn child or the image of “no-fault divorce” that leaves both parties basically free agents to put their union asunder practically at will. So we are told to be satisfied to worship God in spirit and truth from the confines of our McMansions.

Some even try to paint this absence of liturgy situation in quasi-Good Friday tones. “The church’s absence, its literal emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location. The church remains the church whether gathered or scattered.” In one way that’s true for the Catholic Church, where the sacramental Presence of Christ makes it church regardless of the presence of the faithful. But for a Protestant like Esau McCaulley, who wrote this passage, coming from a tradition of sacramental Real Absence, this “emptying” of a church of its people after already having been emptied of the Real Presence is Gnosticism: all you have left is an empty hall. It’s not Good Friday all Lent (at least not in the Catholic tradition).

If people really practice “social distancing,” not substituting closed churches and workspaces for free time in clubs, malls, or shopping, we might actually learn something about objective and real presence. It might be a useful lesson in a “virtual” world.