Monday, April 20, 2020

To Open, or not to Open

At Mass yesterday, we momentarily opened the church door during the Sprinkling Rite, so that I could sprinkle some Holy Water on the church steps, symbolically blessing all the people and their homes. Such a gesture facing a totally empty street is symbolic in those most reductive sense, symbolic nonetheless of the widespread desire to recover some of what we have lost as inherently social beings.

The passage of time this past month has only highlighted what a loss this has been for all of us. Of course, we have lost so many things in this time - from the simple joy of time spent with a friend to all those places and activities we used to frequent routinely and only now appreciate how precious they were. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed it, "It is repugnant not to have closeness, to be afraid of it, to recoil from it." Most of all, perhaps, we have lost our confidence that the world we live in is predictable and that we can make plans for the future. Over and above all this, of course, has been the terrible toll this pandemic has taken on so many people's livelihoods, jobs lost, educations interrupted. And the the greatest loss of all, those who have died, and for those they leave behind the impossibility of even grieving for them in the normal way with family and friends. These are difficult times - much more so for some than for others, but difficult for most if not all of us. 

So inevitably the pressure increases to loosen up, to let more of life resume, if not normalcy, then at least some semblance thereof. Still, most of us know that the restraints under which we are operating are not (as some fantasize) the arbitrary exactions of tyrants but rather, as Queen Elizabeth II said on Palm Sunday, "the right thing to do."

But what of those who don't know this - or, rather, refuse to learn this, probably for the same reasons so many refuse to learn the reality of our changing climate or other scientific facts, for example, the value of vaccines? Given that such people may be endangering themselves and those they likely care about, one should not a priori exclude the possibility of actual ignorance. Ultimately, however, such apparent "ignorance" is more of a moral than an intellectual problem. People who assemble in mobs in defiance of proper precautions to denounce public health measures and utter threats against lawful authorities - actions affirmed by The Great Leader himself - such people may or may not be ignorant of science and common sense, but their primary failing is a moral one, a failure of fraternity, a failure to see themselves as part of a common human community rooted in mutual obligations to one another, that take precedence over modern fantasies of individual "rights."

Freedom of Assembly is, of course, a constitutional right, as is the right to say despicalbe things (e.g., "Lock her up") about one's Governor. But no constitutional right - neither freedom of religion, nor of speech, nor of the press, nor the right to assemble - is absolute, as American constitutional jurisprudence has long rightly recognized. Indeed, much of our 1st-amendment constitutional jurisprudence has historically been precisely in those intermediate, gray areas, trying to sort out what restrictions on such rights are appropriate and which are not. Rightly or wrongly, a key component of that has been the larger social consensus about what is appropriate.  For example, the one serious instance of real religious persecution by the U.S. government - the persecution of the Mormons  - certainly had an arguable legal basis but more importantly was based in the widespread social consensus that supported monogamy and reprobated polygamy, which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually termed "a notorious example of promiscuity" (Cleveland v. United States, 1946)

The point, of course, is that all constitutional rights - including assembly, speech, press, and religion - are inevitably limited by what, referring to religious liberty Vatican II in 1965 famously called the provision that "the just demands of pubic order" be observed (dummodo iustae exigentiae ordinis publici non violentur - Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, 4).

Of course, when it comes to organized resistance against the provisions put in place throughout the United States in defense of public health, all talk about constitutional rights may really be just an ideological superstructure for a decades-long anti-government movement whose effective purpose has been advancing a particular party's agenda to make the rich richer and everyone else worse off.

Meanwhile, the infamous virus, which has no political party (nor for that matter any passport, nationality, or ethnicity) continues to ravage the world, while those with the most morally depleted sense of community invoke ideologically motivated claims of constitutional "rights" to harangue against "the just demands" of public health.

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