Monday, March 23, 2020

Shutdown Questions

The other day, I was pointed to an article on the conservative website First Things, entitled "Questioning the Shutdown -

There is certainly some validity to the author's concerns, but I also find them problematic in more ways than one.
The author's concern seems to be that the present precautionary procedures against the COVID-19 pandemic - this "extraordinary shutdown" - will, especially if they are prolonged, likely have harmful consequences and do lasting damage to our institutions, and in a special way our religious institutions.

There is obviously some truth to that observation. In fact, many people from various perspectives have expressed concern about what long-term damage society will suffer from this experience. The immediate point at issue, however, is how we prudently evaluate the necessity of measures that might well in the long-term contribute to those consequences - and then what longer-term institutional reforms may help to undo some of that damage. I have no doubt that this crisis will take a terrible toll on all of our institutions. The challenge will be how we respond and what resources - cultural, social, political, and religious - we will still have with which to respond.

The author is especially harsh in his evaluation of the response of the Churches. "Cancelling services and closing churches," he claims, "underlines the irrelevance of institutional Christianity in our technocratic age." To me, that seems like a very strange statement. Institutional Christianity may indeed be increasingly "irrelevant" to many Americans, but why should the Churches' concern for public health make Christianity any more "irrelevant" to them than it already is? Other institutions have closed, institutions which many secular Americans may already consider much more relevant than religion - for example, schools, businesses, and (this society's most particularly pernicious substitute for religion) sports. Their closing hardly underlines their "irrelevance." Moreover, I can hardly think of anything more likely to contribute to religion's "irrelevance" right now than for Churches to oppose - or not to cooperate with - necessary public health measures, prioritizing a politicized theory of religious liberty over the common good, including the health and safety of their own congregations. 

Of course, the Church's mission transcends public health and safety. With several simple but remarkably powerful gestures (for example, his pilgrimage walk in an empty Rome to San Marcello al Corso last week and his repeated invitations to moments of prayer) Pope Francis has highlighted that the Church's mission is, above all, a spiritual one - and also one which can still be exercised while supporting (and certainly not undermining) the common good of human society. The Church is a unique society with a supernatural end, which transcends the legitimate natural ends of civil society, but she is not an automatic obstacle to civil society's legitimate natural ends.

But perhaps the issue is not so much the Church's mission versus the common good of human society, but competing notions of what is in fact the good of society - or of the individual (for those "conservatives" who, echoing Margaret Thatcher, argue that there is no such a thing as society). The author, for example, seems to have no hesitation accepting guidance from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, which is worried about "a drastic decline in GDP." 

One would think that concerns about public health and safety are at least as legitimate for Churches and religious people to care a lot about in this transitory life as is "a drastic decline in GDP." Indeed, down through the centuries in this vale of tears, the Church has canonized for their heroic sanctity men and women who have devoted themselves to caring for others' physical health and well being, often founding religious communities with that as their mission. I can't recall anyone who has been canonized for caring about the GDP.

And surely one of the main reasons for religion's increasing "irrelevance" today has been precisely the alliance of elements of American religion with capitalism and its dire social consequences - so many of which are increasingly on display in the precarious situation in which so many now find themselves as a consequence of this pandemic. 

Some temporary "social distancing" may be a prudent response to the threat of contagion.  The long-term social isolation of so many on the margins of our society has been a moral calamity.

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