The Start of a Reckoning

As the coronavirus seems to be receding, many questions will now arise. Some quite surprising.  For instance, who – other than the historical greats like St. Benedict, St. John of the Cross, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn – knew that confinement could have beneficial effects? And in so many ways? Inspiring spiritual reflections (here, here, here, and here). Good practical advice (here, here, here, here). And much (gallows) humor: (here, here, here, and here).

And that’s just scratching the surface. We’re not as poor and mean and savage as we sometimes seem, even to ourselves.

A legitimate Christian debate is underway about whether the virus is a “chastisement” for the many sins of the modern world, even in Christian and formerly Christian nations. In the nature of things, we can’t say for sure, unless we receive some message from on high. But whether God sent the plague or has merely permitted it, He must want good things to come from it. And in unexpected ways they already have.

On the personal side, the virus has made me, I’m convinced, healthier than before (antsiness aside): no exhausting professional travel; no crowded planes with their own pathogens; no nights in foreign hotels, and dinners in restaurants; more regular work, food, rest, and exercise; quiet time at home. Even a few better spiritual habits. Among things I once said I’d do “if I had the time,” I’ve learned the Hebrew alphabet (אלף – בית, hard labor, believe me). Simple OT passages are next – unless I forget what I’ve learned before I get around to that.

I’m curious what benefits TCT readers too think they’ve gotten from this odd time. We’ve focused a lot on losses: deaths, hospitalizations, closings, financial threats, isolation, disruptions. Terrible, to be sure, but maybe we can put all that aside, at least for a moment.

There have been public benefits – in the Church and the world – as well. Not least that the virus is going to force us to rethink many things we took for granted not long ago.

Just a partial list:

The Mass. No one previously expected that, in essence, the whole world would have to do without regular Masses. The palpable feeling of spiritual deprivation that has emerged not only in this country but in several foreign nations as well, indicates that the Mass is not as marginal to people as we might have once thought. Some may drift away now; but many more may have a sharper appreciation when public Masses return.

Churches. Yes, there were reasons, quite good reasons, for bishops to recommend social distancing guidelines. And yes, there are places where – if churches were left open – people would not have followed guidelines and put themselves and others at risk. Still, the most faithful Catholics feel – rightly – that we could have done something more, while observing good medical advice, since for Catholics sacraments are urgent, tangible realities. The Feds are preparing in case of another viral wave next Fall. The Church needs to as well. As we’ve discovered, churches are essential.

Care of  severely ill and dying. The sacraments are God’s ordinary means of imparting grace. Priests can learn the medical precautions needed to anoint the dying, or comfort the sick without spreading contagion. Some dioceses have experimented with this already; every diocese ought to give it a try. The virus has taught us that God’s people want priestly care.


And this raises some other questions.

Church and State. The modern State has long been elbowing religion out of its traditional places in society. The State has its role in a pandemic; but so does the Church.

Nations. Jesus told the disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations. Even allowing for a difference of meaning in what he meant, this should give us pause. The Church is an international body, but it’s a misunderstanding of the mission when Church leaders try to make the nations of the world into a universal state. It didn’t take long for EU nations to close borders when the virus hit. America was right to do the same. Individual nations, taking into account their particular circumstances, manage quarantines, care for the sick and dying. So do regions, towns, even individual families. It’s textbook Catholic subsidiarity. We’ve even been seeing a rediscovery of Constitutionalism in the debates over how to deal with the virus.  Nationalism is not Nazism, as some Church leaders think. Rightly understood, nationalism and the nation, as we can see thanks to the outbreak, play a role in the good ordering of the world.

International Bodies. So do international bodies. But as we’ve seen quite clearly with the China case, even seemingly benign international bodies like the World Health Organization (long a promoter of abortion, by the way) have their political agendas – and their personnel have their interests. The pandemic has revealed that international is not always good, national not always bad.

The fundamental things apply. Even ancient pagans, when pagans were savvier and knew virtues were the key to flourishing, looked at life and death and saw the need for human beings to discipline themselves to meet the inevitable challenges of life. And to see how much of what people think important in their everyday lives can be a distraction, even corruption. The virus has stripped away a lot of that, and we can hope people will not turn back to empty illusions once the danger has passed.

Christians, of course, believe that the formation of the self is, in addition to good personal discipline, a way to “configure” ourselves to Christ. But even Christians can fall into dead habits. Some of us need to be blasted out of the routine to find our real lives. And, just maybe, that too is a benefit of the virus.

But we can be sure that if we take seriously the questions the coronavirus has put before us, we will not only be better prepared for such pandemics in the future, but prepared to live better lives of faith, and civic engagement, than we did before COVID-19 put us to the test.


*Image: Doctor Schnabel von Rom (a plague doctor) by an unknown artist (published by Paulus Fürst in Nuremberg), 1656 [British Museum, London]

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.