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After the Force Majeure

In the 2014 Swedish film, Force Majeure [1], a violent avalanche just about reaches and almost engulfs a family enjoying lunch on the deck of a ski resort in the French Alps.  The film’s director, Ruben Östlund, had formerly made ski films.  As you would expect, both the scenery and the setting, the resort of Les Arcs near Mont Blanc, are stunningly beautiful. In fact, much of the film’s power comes from the contrast it draws between the glorious beauty of nature and luxurious ski vacation, and the poverty of the life of the family it scrutinizes.

It’s the near miss with the avalanche that begins to reveal that poverty to them – not the avalanche itself, but the father’s reaction to it. As the clouds of the avalanche swallow up the family on the deck, the father gets up and runs for his own safety, leaving them behind. This subjective response, his selfishness and cowardice, becomes far more important than the objective threat. The wife thinks his character was revealed by his abandonment: his past obsession with work was never really “for them” after all. He thinks his actions were excused. All bets are off when an avalanche comes, he argues. When pressed, he even denies what he did: it’s just his wife’s perception, he says. One cannot speak of truth in such things.

When I think of the goods that will come out of the COVID virus, I believe that among the most important will be the revelation of character in our reactions to it, the subjective not the objective side of the pandemic. We will reach conclusions about both persons (friends “I never knew were like that”) and public agents. And as in the movie, there will no shared consensus: the sorting out will be seen and accepted only by some.  The revelation of who sees things in the same way will be important. There will even be disputes about whether long-lasting conclusions should be drawn.

I am convinced these personal realignments about character and judgment will be most important. Yet you can find other, more visible goods, of interest to Catholics. None is determined, of course, but dependent on free will and grace. I’ll state them under the following headings:

1. Homeschooling. Many parents under lockdown are discovering three things: first, children in public schools are shockingly ill-educated and have no good habits of study; second, their jobs are such that one parent at least can work from home, which makes homeschooling possible; and, third, homeschooling is actually pretty good. In fact, if planned, homeschooling is excellent – as even the schools now implicitly admit, since they concede that what they were doing can be carried out from home.


2. Disruption of higher education. The core of higher education is students with books, in a library most of the time, and sometimes with a professor, in a seminar room, classroom, or laboratory. It turns out that when students “migrate” from on-campus to online study, this core is the best preserved, while many other things must be jettisoned: athletics, extracurriculars, social gatherings, and everything else modern university bureaucracies cater to. It also turns out that the most studious students are those who least miss what was jettisoned.  Universities and colleges are generally not refunding tuitions from the online migration; therefore, they have conceded that this “core” provides the essential value of a college education. This core has been conferred equal standing and comparable prestige. Therefore, look for this core to be offered on its own in the future – and accepted by serious students and their parents.

3. Consumption. Many Catholics I know are admitting now that Pope Francis was wise in Laudato Si when he attacked the mania of consumption, along with the churning and incessant demands for growth that mark the modern global economy. The distinctions we have had to draw between “essential” and “non-essential work” – however crude – at least invite us to reset, simplify, exercise thrift, and save.

4. Work. At the same time, it’s likely all Catholics in the coming months will come to appreciate sharply the Church’s teaching in Centesimus Annus that to create wealth and jobs is a good service to others; if done with the right intention, it is an expression of charity.

5. The role of the laity.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that bishops, of themselves, have made no significant contribution to public discussions of Corona virus policy. Generally, they have deferred to civil authorities and public health experts. “But it’s for bishops to set down the general principles,” you might say by way of explication, “and for the laity to work through the problematic questions in how to apply them.” I don’t disagree, but would merely point out that ordinary questions of the economy are far more complex than finding the appropriate pandemic policy, and bishops have even less immediate expertise over them.  So, just perhaps, the right model of the role of the laity, envisioned by Vatican II, has now opened up. At the same time, many Catholics are recognizing that, without a life of prayer, devotion, and catechesis in their personal life and families, the institutional Church is like a flame that never ignites anything.  Maybe the necessary role of the “domestic church” has also now opened up with great clarity.

6. Pro-life. The evil of the Communist regime in China ought to have been apparent already (watch One Child Nation [2], if it’s not clear to you); many Americans have at last attained a welcome clarity here. And we can thank our governors for providing a clear example of how executives ought to act to protect human life: anything short of an executive order shutting down abortion clinics is simply not serious enough.

God sends us tribulations in part to chasten us.  These remarks are meant to be a start. Let’s draw out as much good as we can from this trial, and persevere in it.  History shows us there can be much worse.


*Image: The Village Fair by Gillis Mostaert, 1590 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.