Plagues, Politics, Prayers

In Sicily, where rainfall this year is 75 percent below normal, local communities are turning to ancient practices – prayer, penitence, processions – to ask God to save crops that would usually be harvested later this year, but stand in great peril.

It’s astonishing what myths and magical thinking still exist in our postmodern world. For example, a sociologist, consulted by Italian media, remarked that the processions were “an effective way to strengthen community” in times of crisis, such as drought or famine. Under cover of such pseudo-scientific myths, whole millennia of human belief and practice about prayer and our relationship to the Divinity simply disappear into the sociological mists.

It’s too bad for the faithful Sicilian farmers that Sicily is not in Amazonia. Otherwise, the sociological fraternity and – who knows – maybe even certain priests, bishops, and cardinals, might treat their ancestral practices, and the very notion of petitionary prayer, with more respect. Pachamama, according to the literature, is (among other things) the goddess of planting and harvesting. And who among our cultural or religious elites today would dare say that praying to Pachamama is really only community organizing?

We will have to let the academic world find its own way out of its crippling myths. But how about the rest of us? Do we, too, think that large-scale threats like drought or famine or our current plague, the COVID-19 virus, are just brute physical facts? That it’s useless, even foolish, to look at them as bearing some further dimensions that might call on us to do something as primitive as pray? Or even just think?

Human suffering is an old problem for apologetics. But one thing at least is certain about an epidemic like the Coronavirus: we should not look at it, or any other natural evil, in merely materialistic or even medical terms. We need good medicine, good policies, even – God knows – good sociology to respond to such epidemics. But we can’t take them as something divorced from God’s Creation.

Only a fool would try to explain why the Almighty has allowed the COVID-19 virus to emerge and spread globally at this point in history. It’s particularly at times like these that the passage from Isaiah speaks to us: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,/ So are My ways higher than your ways,/ And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Still you can’t help but wonder about God’s intentions in permitting specific evils. Memento mori (Remember you will die) is good advice, in every season. The world is always in greater or lesser denial about death – greater, it would seem, just now in comfortable, developed societies.  But a global outbreak like this one evokes something more.

Trials like this seem to be meant to teach us something that our materialist, technological civilization is virtually dedicated to denying: that we are not in control, not individually, not collectively. That in important respects, the false belief that we are in control is even more destructive than serious diseases.

What precisely is the nature of the lack of control in our current circumstances? Well, to take just one example, globalization has made us tremendously closer to one another, wherever we happen to be in the world, than in all of human history. An outbreak in Wuhan, China – who had even heard of that city of 11 million souls earlier? – touches people on the other side of the world, and everywhere in between. (Blessed are you if it hasn’t yet come to a place near you.)


Normally, we think that global community is a good thing. And in many ways it is. But the virus raises the old porcupine problem: close enough to keep one another warm, far enough away not to be pricking one another.

Globalization is a mixed blessing, like all things human. It has lifted (pace Pope Francis and other tercermundistas) hundreds of millions out of poverty. It has also disrupted essential human communities – marriage, family, work, Church, nation – all over the world, not least in the wealthiest countries.

Those for whom everything is about building bridges and never walls might learn a lesson here. Both in America and Europe, the first, correct steps to limit movement across borders were reflexively denounced as racist and/or xenophobic. Until we saw that there are reasons why borders need to be controlled and why, as every five-year-old learns from mom, you should be friendly to people you don’t know but also careful.

The current partisan bickering over what should have been done and at what levels is one manifestation of the false belief that we can foresee and control everything. Debate and differences of opinion, of course, are good things when we’re facing grave problems. But the partisanship is silly.

Politicians, who never let a crisis go to waste, happily give the impression that the proper policies (their own) are obvious – even if scientific authorities sometimes disagree; that resources are infinite and don’t need to be directed to meet multiple needs, as they emerge; that only evil or stupid leaders (of the other party) are the cause of all earthly ills.

Here in America, the Democratic Party attacked a populist president for intending to spend too little early on to meet the threat. In Italy, where the equivalent of our Democratic Party is currently in power, Matteo Salvini, the Italian Donald Trump, attacked the Italian president for spending too little.

It’s good to have these confirmations that human nature is always and everywhere the same. But it’s even better to look beyond partisan squabbling, the easy assumptions that we control the world, that if we only put the state, or the market, or the right scientists or (Lord have mercy) political leaders in charge, we’ll never have to experience disruptions of our comfortable lives.

Those are lies, deadly lies as recent history shows beyond any doubt, and in their way as mortal as any disease. So wash hands, use sanitizer, follow good public health guidelines.

Pray and seek wisdom, too.


*Image: The Healing of the Ten Lepers (Guérison de dix lépreux) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.