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The Pandemic and Catholic Social Doctrine

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2020

Events that disrupt and radically alter our daily lives can also provide opportunities to see our world more clearly and then change for the better.

Quoting a hymn that was already sung in his time, Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians:

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”*
(Eph. 5:14)

The passage speaks to us on many levels. While the stanza may refer to those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, it also applies to us during our life now on this earth. To “awake” means to turn from sin, to turn to the Light of Christ.

There is another kind of sleep that affects human persons, especially in our times. It is a kind of malaise, or “mere” existence where we get stuck in the ordinariness of things. Indeed, writing in the early Fourth Century, one of the earliest commenters on Saint Paul’s letters wrote that “by sleep [Paul] signifies a stupor of the mind.”

Big things like natural disasters or terrorist attacks can awaken us from this type of sleep. So can little things. Catholic novelist and existentialist philosopher Walker Percy’s antagonists are often awaken by little things that cause the subject to reevaluate or see for the first time their entire life and the world they inhabit.

COVID-19 and the responses to it, however, have not been little things. The pandemic has has upended our world, from our personal lives to entire economic systems and government. Moreover, the effects of this disruption will be long lasting.

With pain and struggles, however, can come awakenings. The things we have overlooked because we were lost in daily ordinariness might come into sharper focus or might be appreciated again. They might even be grasped for the first time. In times like these, we ask “What really matters?”

Besides our own salvation and path to greater holiness, the Catholic view of the social world might gain greater appreciation.

In Catholic social doctrine “what really matters” is the life and dignity of every human person. It is not the economy. It is not our individual freedoms. It is not governmental laws. It is not scientific advances. All of those “goods” have their importance and role, but all must serve and respect the life and dignity of every human person from conception to natural death.

Our response to COVID-19 has highlighted our natural ability to recognize this truth. It is natural, because it is part of the natural law written into our hearts. (Rom. 2:14-15). We stopped what we were doing and the way we were doing things to put the health and safety of others first.

Our response has also highlighted that we are social creatures. Humans were not created to be autonomous individuals. We are meant to be connected to each other and to creation. The response to the pandemic has brought this truth forth in several ways. The spread of the virus revealed the interconnectedness of our world. At the same time, it has become apparent that attacking the virus requires reaching out across communities, countries, professions, and disciplines. Meanwhile, as we practice social distancing, staying at home, and even missing church, we feel the pain of isolation. The pain tells us something about who we as creations of a Triune God and made in His image.

We have also seen a refocus on what is the common good. Community responses to the pandemic, especially government responses, should always promote the common good. The common good, however, does not mean what is best for the highest number of individuals.

The common good means “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 26) “The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 164)

This means that the responses, in addition to always respecting the life and dignity of everyone in the context of community, should look at the broader, moral, aspects of human dignity and development. This includes the principles of solidarity, a preferential option for the poor, respect for creation, recognition of the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and the importance of local decision-making when appropriate.

Catholic social doctrine does not provide answers to all the decisions that we must make during the pandemic or any other time. It does, however, provide principles for guidance. Straying from these principles harms human persons, our environment, and God’s plan.

Too often we do not realize that we have strayed until a disaster strikes. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social consequences could awaken us from our sleep and again see His light.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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