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.
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:
- The cost of our elders, locked away in nursing homes, with no visitors, and the severely ill in hospitals who could not be visited for months on end. So many suffered and died alone, apart from their families and the spiritual support of clergy. I myself remember lying in the ICU of a Catholic hospital for two weeks with COVID but without sacraments. The chaplain who wanted to visit me was refused entrance to my isolated room unless and until my death was imminent.
- The cost of closed churches and the lasting spiritual toll of no Mass, no Communion or confession and all sacraments suppressed except in danger of imminent death.
- The cost of increased suffering and death resulting from deferring routine medical care that would have detected conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and so forth.
- The cost of the tragic loss in educational progress that resulted from locking away our children for more than two years.
- The cost related to the loss of important rites of passage, many once in a lifetime, such as graduations, weddings, funerals, baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, family reunions and so many others.
- The cost due to the rise in depression, youth suicide, alcohol abuse and domestic abuse.
- The cost of deepening addiction to pornography and other internet problems such as gambling and cyberbullying.
- The cost of weakened connections with families, coworkers, casual acquaintances and other necessary and nourishing friendships.
- The cost of the horrible political divisions and how terribly we often treated each other.
- The cost of cancel culture, the suppression of free speech, and attempts to silence any dissent or even questioning of what officials were saying and requiring.
- The cost of fear and suspicion of every interaction as a potential cause of disease rather than a blessing.
- The cost of the constant and nagging fear that was cultivated and demanded as the only proper response.
- The cost to human interaction by years of required masking.
- The cost in lost jobs and businesses.
- The cost of draconian quarantines imposed for even incidental contact with someone who later tested positive even if they had never been sick.
- The cost of cynicism and the sad toll that COVID took on the trust in government officials and other authorities with their years of conflicting declarations and political posturing. Few came out of this horrifying period with a higher opinion of or trust in political leaders, the CDC, the wider scientific community and the media.
- The cost of subjecting science and medicine to political ends.
- The cost of the cynicism and anger produced by the asymmetry of permitting some gatherings such as political protests but forbidding and criminalizing other gatherings such as outdoor church services.
- The cost to souls of deferred and denied sacraments and the spiritual support of gathering for worship.
- The cost to one-third of the souls who never returned to church.
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.