Yes to Prudence, No to Fear — Why the Mistakes We Made During COVID Must Never Happen Again

I pray that never again will we allow our civil and religious liberties to be so easily forfeited and trampled.

A lone priest offers Mass on May 30, 2022, in Sallanches, France, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A lone priest offers Mass on May 30, 2022, in Sallanches, France, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo: godongphoto / Shutterstock)

Now that the COVID-19 public health emergency has officially been declared over, it is time for us to assess the horrific toll these draconian measures took on our human family. A recent commentary by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch provides us with a starting point for this assessment. In his remarks, he gave a scathing overview of how civil liberties were trampled during the COVID shutdowns, restrictions and mandates, and warned of the lessons that America should learn from it. Here are a few of his remarks:

Fear and the desire for safety are powerful forces. They can lead to a clamor for action — almost any action — as long as someone does something to address a perceived threat. A leader or an expert who claims he can fix everything, if only we do exactly as he says, can prove an irresistible force. We do not need to confront a bayonet, we need only a nudge, before we willingly abandon the nicety of requiring laws to be adopted by our legislative representatives and accept rule by decree …
[During COVID the U.S.] may have experienced the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country. … Executive officials across the country issued emergency decrees on a breathtaking scale. Governors and local leaders imposed lockdown orders forcing people to remain in their homes. They shuttered businesses and schools, public and private. They closed churches even as they allowed casinos and other favored businesses to carry on. They threatened violators not just with civil penalties but with criminal sanctions too. They surveilled church parking lots, recorded license plates, and issued notices warning that attendance at even outdoor services satisfying all state social-distancing and hygiene requirements could amount to criminal conduct. …
Make no mistake — decisive executive action is sometimes necessary and appropriate. But if emergency decrees promise to solve some problems, they threaten to generate others. And rule by indefinite emergency edict risks leaving all of us with a shell of a democracy and civil liberties just as hollow.

Indeed, I hope that many of us learn the many and often terrible lessons of these past three years. I pray that never again will we allow our civil and religious liberties to be so easily forfeited and trampled.

Some will seek to shame those of us who look askance at many of the COVID restrictions. It is true that many died of the virus, and many more suffered from its physical effects, but if we are going to speak of numbers, can we ever really tally the entire toll — especially to our spiritual health — related to the COVID shutdowns and restrictions? Let’s look at some of these costs:

If we are going to count COVID deaths and shame those who, like me, sincerely wonder if the severe measures were really necessary or worth the cost, we should include these other costs in the assessment. Count too the destruction of trust and relationships that occurred in the overheated climate of silencing opposing views and shaming everyone who raised questions, not a few of which were later shown to be right or legitimate.

Finally, as a priest and disciple of the Lord, what concerns me most is the toll that fear took even on believers. In the Letter to the Hebrews (2:14-15) a central work of the Lord Jesus is described thus:

He destroyed him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

During the plague, where was the central biblical summons, “Be not afraid?” It was seldom heard. The Church was hunkered down, anxious, fearful of being called reckless for summoning people to courage. There is, of course, a middle ground between recklessness and cringing fear, and it is called prudence. But the fear, even among Christians, and the willingness to surrender so much was disturbing and embarrassing.

Disturbing too is the unbalanced fear of physical threats versus spiritual ones. Would that God’s people were as concerned to avoid mortal sin and the loss of their souls as they were to avoid getting or spreading COVID. It seems that COVID-19 demanded sweeping, life-changing action — but COMMANDMENTS-10, not so much.

As the last COVID restrictions end, I can only pray that we learned important lessons and never again allow ourselves to so readily hand over important freedoms and our precious liturgy and sacraments. There is so much more to life than avoiding COVID or some other illness. Say Yes to prudence but No to fear.