Two recent viral videos that circulated on Twitter recently underscored just how divisive mask-wearing has become. The videos themselves might elicit embarrassment-by-proxy and certainly aren’t reflective of everyone who chooses not to wear a mask, but these videos are emblematic of debates that have been happening all over the country: at the corner grocery store, on the internet, and even—in some cases—at Catholic churches. Some who choose not to wear masks might simply be self-styled rebels or free-thinkers, but in many cases they are exhibiting a kind of fear: a fear of change and the loss of freedom.
Two myths about mask-wearing seem to be very prevalent: first, that wearing a mask is primarily to protect you from contracting the virus, and, secondly, that wearing a mask is unnecessary. What should be common knowledge by now but—to my surprise—apparently isn’t, is that only certain kinds of masks offer good protection from others. In general, the everyday cloth mask that is recommended is used primarily to protect others from contracting the virus from you. A cloth mask helps to catch droplets in your breath that might carry the virus into another person’s airways.
Regarding the second myth, at some point it may be determined that masks are truly unnecessary to slow the spread of the virus, but until then, widespread mask-wearing could help permit the easing of restrictions. In Austria, where mask-wearing was made compulsory on April 6, infection rates have remained consistently low even after other restrictions were eased. Just as in the U.S., members of Austrian culture are not accustomed to wearing masks. As their Chancellor Sebastian Kurz put it, “I am fully aware that masks are something alien to our culture.” Mask-wearing has been stigmatized in western countries, but as an April 2 article in The Atlantic suggests, the opposite is true in many Asian countries, where people are often shamed and discriminated against for not wearing one. There is nothing harmful about masks when worn correctly, and they might also slow the spread of the virus, so the question is really, “Why not?” If we can resume more of our regular activities, but under the condition that we wear masks when in public, would this not be a fair exchange?
Obviously, wearing a mask is different and new. We’re not used to it. Wearing a mask can be physically and socially uncomfortable. It is also a visible reminder of the invisible virus, which in itself can make people afraid and uneasy. Other obstacles include ignorance about the risks of the virus and the understandable confusion about the way it spreads; right now, there are still many things we do not know about it. Moreover, the health directives we have received have been inconsistent and are often counterintuitive. (I will not address the self-revealing complaints of those who say that masks look “dorky” or “un-American.”)
On a deeper, spiritual level, however, there is a fear of change and the concern that freedoms are being denied. These are not new problems at all, however. In fact, we are impacted by these fears on a daily basis, in many different aspects of our spiritual life, even if we’re not aware of them or understand them that way. This is the same fear we might have when we avoid the homeless on the street or that prevents us from taking responsibility in our local parish or community. As Christians, we often fear handing over every aspect of our lives to our Lord and we fear abandoning our desires to him. It is no surprise that these fears have found another outlet in mask-wearing. These spiritual problems are widespread. They work against the Spirit, and we often leave them unchecked. This is why Francis has spoken out so forcefully against them.
Pope Francis has spoken about how our fears of change and the unknown can stifle our love. He writes in Gaudete et Exsultate,
Let us listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word. (66)
Our attempts to preserve a sense of normalcy can lead to spiritual harm, just as not wearing a mask can lead to physical harm. In either case, we might think we are only putting ourselves in harm’s way. More often than not, however, those around us suffer the most when we fail to practice love in changing circumstances. We often continue to do what we have always done because we are comfortable with it or it has worked in the past. As the world changes, however, we must change along with it, always applying the Gospel message to the present reality. Francis says, “the forces of evil induce us not to change, to leave things as they are, to opt for a rigid resistance to change. Yet that would be to block the working of the Spirit” (Gaudete et Exsultate 168). The coronavirus pandemic requires a change in how we show love to our neighbor.
People might fear losing their freedom, but it is important to remember that true freedom is never immune from claims upon it. As Pope Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi, “Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good” (24). The pope emeritus’s point is made in light of the fact that human beings are simply awful at exercising freedom well. Even when we have the freedom to make small changes that exhibit love, we fail to do so. We have the freedom to choose to be more careful and considerate, to temper our anger, and to put another person first. More often than not, we don’t. Worse yet, the moment someone challenges us to exercise our freedom for the “cause of good,” we bristle. An egotistical freedom is not freedom at all but a shackle around our hearts, a lie that undergirds pride and selfish attitudes.
By the grace of God, we have the internal freedom to love, which was won for us by Christ. It is true that sometimes we don’t have the freedom to take a course of action that we feel is best. In certain times and places, there can be laws, restrictions, or competing obligations preventing us. Given internal freedom, however, we can always choose the most loving course of action at any time with respect to our individual circumstances. Parents know this well, as children are constantly calling our attention to the present, frustrating our grand plans for their future. True freedom requires us to adapt to accommodate the reality of “the other.”
We often carry ideas of what we would like to do and how things should go. Unfortunately, these may conflict with the practical demands of charity. One salient example Francis describes in Gaudete et Exsultate is obsession over Church discipline or on a specific form of liturgy. These obsessions are often devoid of grace and only marginalize people or shut people out. Pope Francis also discussed this challenge in Evangelii Gaudium. He writes,
Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. (232)
Wearing a mask during a global pandemic is a considerate and potentially life-saving exercise. Rather than being a sign of fear, mask-wearing is an act of love. The refusal to wear a mask and live according to new social obligations betrays a deep-seated fear of change that stifles creative love. The ironic reality is that what has been castigated by some as nothing more than an act of “virtue signaling”—a term applied to statements or actions that only point to virtue but actually have no moral content—is actually a sign of true virtue. It is loving to put others ahead of our fears, discomfort, and self-centered ideologies.