May 8, 2020

Editorial

No time for second-guessing

“Omnis virtus moralis debet esse prudens.” (“All virtue is necessarily prudent.”) St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Virtue, 12 ad 23.

On April 27, an article appeared in First Things by the publication’s editor, R. R. Reno, that is severely critical of the actions taken by religious and secular leaders in response to COVID-19. To summarize, and oversimplify, Reno’s argument, here is a quote from the opening paragraph:

“The coronavirus pandemic is not and never was a threat to society. COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised. Otherwise, for most who present symptoms, it can be nasty and persistent, but is not life-threatening. A majority of those infected do not notice that they have the disease. Coronavirus presents us with a medical challenge, not a crisis. The crisis has been of our own making.”

In a similar article in First Things, on April 17, concerning the decision of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Bishop Peter Baldacchino to authorize the resumption of public celebrations of Mass in his diocese—but with only five people in attendance—Reno suggest that Las Cruces has the only courageous bishop in the United States. You can respect Bishop Baldacchino’s decision without agreeing with it. In fact, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, courage exercised without prudence is not a virtue.

Benedictine Father Mark O’Keefe, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, has written an insightful book titled, Virtues Abounding:

St. Thomas Aquinas on the Cardinal and Related Virtues. Father Mark writes, “A courageous choice must also be a prudent choice. Some dangers are too great to be met head-on. Sometimes retreat is the right response. The virtue of courage not only moderates fear, it also moderates the urge to be daring and engage in impulsive efforts to confront threats.” From this perspective, a strong case can be made that those religious and secular leaders—here in Indiana and throughout the world—who “retreated’ in the face of the deadly coronavirus pandemic were exercising the virtue of courage.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably true that our society, and our Church, has placed too much trust in one-size-fits-all strategies at the expense of targeted protection strategies for the elderly and vulnerable. If more had been done from the beginning to protect those who are at the greatest risk, we might have avoided the serious problems that many residents of nursing homes and retirement communities are experiencing.

At the same, as Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson have repeatedly stated, what was done was “out of an abundance of caution” considering all the unknowns and the dire predictions which, thanks be to God, have for the most part, in most places, not come to pass. Would this still be true if the extreme social distancing and closures not been mandated? There’s no way to know this for certain.

Certainly, we should proceed—with all due caution—to reopen our churches and our economy while paying special attention to those whom the evidence shows are most vulnerable. As Pope Francis has said, there is a virus that is infinitely worse than COVID-19. That is “selfish indifference” (sin). We need to treat this spiritual pandemic even more aggressively than the coronavirus by the traditional “cures” of repentance and conversion.

How do we know whether our personal attitudes and/or public policies represent “selfish indifference”? Pope Francis has given us a clear measure. As our Holy Father explains, attitudes or policies that are selfishly indifferent can be characterized as: “A virus spread by the thought that life is better if it is better for me, and that everything will be fine if it is fine for me.” This is the reality of sin which Pope Francis says “begins with selfishness and ends up selecting one person over another, discarding the poor, and sacrificing those left behind on the altar of progress.”

Responsible people should beware of extreme positions on any side of a controversial issue. Prudence, which is a cardinal virtue, requires that we consider carefully all points of view and then make decisions—especially risky ones—with a healthy mix of caution, courage and trust in the power of God’s grace. Let’s pray that our bishops and government leaders are blessed with the right mix!

Clearly mistakes have been made. Our leaders are not perfect. But they deserve our wholehearted gratitude and support, as they continue to lead us in this unprecedented time of economic, social and religious uncertainty.

—Daniel Conway

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