First Things has published several articles in the past few weeks dismissing the attempts by churches and governments to reign in the COVID–19 pandemic, suggesting they are overreactions. In R.R. Reno and Bioethics of a Pandemic, Dr. Pedro Gabriel addresses these articles from the perspective of a medical doctor and in light of Catholic teaching on bioethics. It is also important to understand the political and philosophical motivations behind such a position. Can there even be a Catholic argument against extreme social distancing, and if so what would it look like?

Toleration (as as opposed to doing) of evil in order to avoid an even greater evil is a longstanding Catholic moral principle. As Pope St. Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae, “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it” (HV 14). The same idea is found in Pope St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae: “while public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which–were it prohibited–would cause more serious harm…”. One can also appeal to Evangelium Vitae’s consistent ethic of life approach. This approach to abortion and other life issues has always recognized that there is a “life” aspect to the economy, and that poverty kills. “Seamless garment” pro-lifers, who have been long ignored by the most of the pro-life movement, have always insisted that we should not ignore the impact of social and economic factors on abortion. The social and economic impact on life issues perhaps provides an opening to argue against public health policies encouraging social distancing. It seems that an argument, based on these factors, against extreme social distancing could be made.

It’s telling that some Catholics, like Reno, don’t explicitly make that case. Or rather, Reno only invokes the first half of the argument. He points out that we can tolerate evil for the sake of a greater good, but what is the greater good here?

“We must never do evil that good might come. On this point St. Paul is clear,” Reno says. “But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.” True, but what is the good that we can and should do, and why? What is that great good that must be preserved, even at the cost of millions of human lives? Is it the economy? The stock market?

There is no Catholic argument that justifies the subordination of the lives of human beings to the economy. The stock market was made for man, not man for the stock market. A Catholic economic argument must be based in pro-life principles. Such an argument is only possible because the economy affects human life, not because human life is subordinate to the economy. You can argue that the cure is worse than the disease, but only if it’s based on the same impulse as the cure: to safeguard human flourishing and the common good. The protection of human life is the constant. There is no price that is too high to pay for saving lives. To put it another way, the only way to measure the cost of saving lives is in human lives. It’s an important distinction because it’s the difference between a utilitarian argument that places the economy (or, as many Catholics have argued, access to the sacraments) above human life, or an argument that is driven by and for the inherent and inviolable dignity of human life.

This inviolability of human life is not mentioned in Reno’s discourse, however. He doesn’t elaborate on why we must allow the virus to take its awful human toll. He presents no positive argument for his preferences. He mostly just mocks the impulse to save as many lives as possible, dismissing it as “moralism,” a demonic “sentimentalism,” and cowardice in the face of death. To this accusation of materialism another First Things editor, Matthew Schmitz, adds the accusation that “because we value health above all, we subordinate the spiritual to the temporal.” This rhetoric is now moving into the territory of gnosticism.

What would that even look like—Christians subordinating the spiritual to the physical? Would it be akin to thinking, contra Jesus, that it’s better to lose one’s soul in order to gain the whole world? But in what way is social distancing “gaining the whole world”? Is it like saying, contra Socrates, that it’s better to do evil than to suffer it? But isn’t making sacrifices to keep the health care system functioning a form of “suffering evil”? Isn’t “doing evil” and “gaining the whole world” a more apt description of putting the economy ahead of human lives? Schmitz’s charge makes no sense.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus teaches what it means to love our neighbor. The parable is about someone physically saving another person’s life. The Priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side of the road did so in order to remain pure for liturgical worship. They literally put worship ahead of saving human life. Jesus rejects this false dissonance between worship and saving lives. If anything is demonic, it’s Reno’s inversion of all this. He calls protecting human life a “false god” when it is temporarily prioritized over the public reception of the Eucharist. Yet just a few months earlier, his ideological buddies were busy lecturing Amazonian Catholics that it’s perfectly fine that they only receive the Eucharist once a year. And the lack of access to the Eucharist for the people of the Amazon was not due to the “false god” of saving human lives, but for something far more important to them—their unyielding rigidity regarding the discipline of clerical celibacy.

Jesus identifies himself with suffering humanity; he explicitly told us that–on pain of Hell–what we do to our neighbor we do to him. It is impossible to set  the spiritual against the physical, nor can worship and saving human lives be set against each other. Loving our neighbor by caring for their physical needs is true spiritual worship. We call them the corporal works of mercy. Reno recognizes this when he sees people feeding the homeless in New York. But he fails to connect it to the importance of protecting our neighbors from getting infected with a potentially deadly virus, or to efforts of trying to slow the spread of the disease. In fact, he reacts defiantly when faced with collective and widespread communal, social action. Why?

A clue may be found in one of his “coronavirus diary” entries. He reveals, through the words of a staff member, a fear that is surely driving these articles at First Things. “The response to the growing economic crisis will mean still further government-sponsored sharing of risk,” Reno quotes the staff member. “We’ll end up at an indirect socialism. The government will be the backstop in pretty much every domain of life.” The fear of socialism, indirect or otherwise, is animating the staff of First Things. This individualism, this political Pelagianism, which is more afraid of the government than Hell, is not compatible with the Gospel.

In contrast, Pope Francis lauds the governments that put the people first. He described the human cost of governments that put the economy over the people as a kind of “viral genocide.” If a new awareness of civic virtues, a new consciousness of the interconnectedness of all of society, a new thinking about the common good, and an acknowledgment of our inter-dependency are what First Things fears as “socialism” then, God willing, may our country become more socialist.


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Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer. Having briefly lived amongst the cacti and coyotes of Arizona, Brian now resides in the Canadian prairies.  Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.

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