Bishop Paprocki: Catholic Church Can Provide a Clear Path for COVID-19 Response

Catholic principles of ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life can aid society’s approach to pandemic, the Illinois bishop says in a recent essay.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki
Bishop Thomas Paprocki (photo: Fil e photo/CNA)

As the coronavirus shutdowns stretched into months, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, realized he was witnessing something extraordinary. 

“I had never seen anything like this in my life,” he told Register correspondent Judy Roberts in an interview in mid-September.

What he observed caused the vice president of the Illinois Catholic Health Association to draw on his background in medical ethics and apply the standard of ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life to evaluate the response to COVID-19.

Bishop Paprocki has since written an essay, “Social Shutdowns as an Extraordinary Means of Saving Human Lives” for the September issue of Ethics & Medics, the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s newsletter. Although addressed to a Catholic audience, he hopes the essay will reach those charged with making decisions during a second COVID-19 wave, if there is one, or when considering how to respond to another virus or even the annual flu. 

“The Catholic Church provides principles like these, but I think our moral principles are not just for Catholics,” he said. “They’re for the common good.”

Bishop Paprocki, an adjunct professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, is sending a copy of his essay to Attorney General William Barr and would like others in positions of influence to see it as well. 

“If the question does come up about locking everything down again,” he said, “I’m hoping they will take some of these moral principles into consideration and say perhaps we don’t have to take such draconian measures, but more ordinary measures to protect life.” 

In his essay, Bishop Paprocki proposes that the Catholic principles of ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life, first articulated by Pope Pius XII in a 1957 address to Catholic physicians and anesthesiologists, can be applied to the societal response to a pandemic. These principles hold that there is no moral obligation to take on an extraordinary burden to preserve life. 

“It is not a sin to decline a treatment, for example, because it is too expensive and one does not have the financial resources,” Bishop Paprocki writes. “Moreover, it is not a sin to decline artificial life support machines for a terminally ill person when such treatment would only prolong the suffering of a person who is in the active stage of dying.”

Applying this to a pandemic, Bishop Paprocki writes, there would be no moral obligation to shut down society, require people to remain home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain and prevent worshippers from going to church. 

“That would be imposing unduly burdensome and extraordinary means,” he said in the essay. “While some people may voluntarily adopt such means, only ordinary means that are not unduly burdensome are morally required to preserve life, both on the part of individuals as well as society as a whole.” 

He added that the burdens of lockdowns and other restrictions are not only economic but social, as people are told to keep an adequate distance from others to reduce the risk of being contaminated. In the process, he writes, “People are becoming isolated from each other as they shrink in fear of human interaction.”

Bishop Paprocki said he witnessed this himself as his aunt and godmother was to celebrate her 102nd birthday on March 25 and was barred from being with family members, except to wave at them through a glass window. 

“I worry more that [she] will die of a broken heart rather than from the coronavirus,” he says in his essay. 

“Sure enough, a few months later, she has declined,” he told the Register. “And she never declined that rapidly before. She wasn’t this way a year ago, even six months ago, but the fact that she has had very little social interaction I think has contributed to her physical and cognitive decline.” 

In reflecting on and writing about what has been done in response to the pandemic, Bishop Paprocki said he is not trying to second-guess those in leadership, but to look to the future.

“What I was hoping was to provide a moral aspect to this conversation because if we don’t think about this very carefully, I think we’re just making very simplistic decisions,” he said. 

He said more than 35,000 people have died in automobile accidents in the U.S. each year since 1951, but people do not stop driving because it would be an extraordinary burden if they could not get to work, school or other obligations. 

Instead, they take ordinary steps such as wearing seat belts, installing air bags and driving as safely as they can. 

“There are always risks in life,” Bishop Paprocki said. “To say that there is some danger that somebody could die if we don’t shut everything down, there is some danger somebody could die if they walk outside the door.” 

“What we try to do in the Catholic tradition recognizes that there are nuances to these questions.” For instance, he said, the Fifth Commandment clearly says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But the Catholic principle of self-defense would not deem someone guilty of violating that commandment when acting in self-defense. 

“Do you have to use every extraordinary measure to prevent absolutely everybody from dying?” the bishop said. “No, because you’re weighing the consequences.” 

For example, Bishop Paprocki said, if everyone stayed home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 then no one would be working. If no one was working, nobody would be producing income, and people would starve. 

“We can’t be so simplistic that this is the only option we can do,” he said. “This is very complicated, and we have to recognize it’s complicated.” 

In his essay, Bishop Paprocki mentions a teacher who attempted to explain in a television interview why schools should not reopen. When told that young children do not have a high risk of becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus and do not have high rates of transmission, the teacher said, “Well, even if the rates are low, the risk is still there.” She then added, “Somebody could die.”

Bishop Paprocki writes, “If ‘somebody could die’ were the sole criterion for deciding to engage in any given behavior, we would be paralyzed by fear of doing anything. If ‘somebody could die’ were the simple moral standard that could disqualify partaking in any given human activity, then I should not be running marathons or playing hockey, even though mortality rates are low for these activities.” 

Conversely, he continues, physical inactivity is not morally acceptable either because it can contribute to heart disease, some cancers and stroke. 

“It is here that the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life is important,” he writes, “for if a means is extraordinary — that is, if the burdens outweigh the benefits — then it is not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by state power.” Bishop Paprocki also makes the point in his essay that although human life is a great gift, it is not a moral absolute and is secondary to the eternal life of the immortal soul. 

Asked by the Register whether the extraordinary response to the pandemic reflects a decline in this belief, he said, “That may be a factor for people who don’t believe in God or an afterlife. If the only thing you value is life on earth, well then, yes, it heightens the steps you have to take to protect life on earth.”