Panel discusses Catholic response to moral questions arising from the pandemic

3 mins read
John Carr
John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. CNS

To keep holy the Sabbath might require the faithful to stay away from church during a pandemic. To hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer may violate the Tenth Commandment’s prohibition against coveting your neighbor’s goods.

“Now honoring your father and mother means keeping your distance,” said John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, during a March 26 online panel discussion.

With social distancing and staying at home being so important to “flattening the curve” and saving lives from the highly contagious novel coronavirus, Carr noted with a sense of irony that the pandemic, in a sense, has turned the traditional demands of the Catholic faith upside down.

“There is a hunger for discussing the moral questions in these really, really tough times,” said Carr, who moderated the online panel that was hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

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The discussion focused on moral principles to guide the Catholic response to the coronavirus pandemic, and it featured perspectives from Father Myles Sheehan, a Jesuit priest who is a bioethicist and physician; John Monahan, a former Obama administration official who worked on pandemic response; Sister Carol Keehan, the former president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States; and Reyna Guardado, a small business owner in Bethesda, Maryland.

Instead of sharing a microphone and sitting next to each other at a table, the coronavirus forced the panelists to speak from different locations through a shared live feed, which was broadcast on Facebook. Just like how many people are now using Zoom and other online tools for virtual meetings, the panelists took advantage of modern technology to discuss how Catholics can respond to a pandemic that forces them to stay more than 6 feet away from each other.

“This crisis forces all of us to make lots of decisions,” Sister Carol said.

The common good

The panelists touched on topics that many Catholics nowadays are reflecting on, such as how they can best support one another and maintain hope. They emphasized how all levels of society, from neighborhood groups to the federal government, are being challenged to work together in solidarity against a virus that does not respect international boundaries.

“How we make tough decisions for the common good, whether they are to mandate isolation, social distancing, closing schools, canceling major sports events and other gatherings, and major economic decisions regarding businesses and borders, all will benefit greatly from using the principles of Catholic social teaching,” Sister Carol said.

One such principle — the innate human dignity of all people — is especially illuminating for the discussion about when and how best to allow industries to reopen. Several panelists noted a troubling strain in that discussion, as evidenced by some recent media commentary that the elderly should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the economy.

“That is so contrary to our faith and so contrary to the values of our country,” Sister Carol said.

Father Sheehan said it was “way too soon” to talk about opening up the economy anyway since thousands of new coronavirus infections, and hundreds of COVID-19 deaths, are being reported every day and are threatening to overwhelm the hospitals in New York City and other “hotspots.”

“If we open up too soon … we’re going to be swamped, and this ongoing pandemic is going to create a greater hit to the economy than the difficult choice now to keep us isolated, distant and to have businesses closed,” Father Sheehan said.

Revealing ‘who we are’

Monahan, who helped craft the Obama administration’s response to the H1N1 virus while working in the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services, said individuals and institutions, including global organizations such as the United Nations, all have important roles to play in responding to coronavirus.

The United States, Monahan said, is seeing the effects of not having enough coronavirus testing kits or sufficient resources for the hospitals that are already stretched to the breaking point. He added that the economic fallout has already revealed the country’s “fragile, torn safety net.”

“The bottom line, we have a long way to go to have a system that’s going to help people,’ Monahan said.

Guardado, an El Salvadoran immigrant who owns a family restaurant, shared her struggles in having to lay off most of her workers because of the pandemic. But regular customers and neighbors began ordering takeout, which allowed Guardado to hire back some of her employees.

“We are thankful to God,” said Guardado, who added that her faith is sustained by watching Pope Francis’ daily Mass every morning on YouTube. She expressed concern for many people who are not as fortunate, especially undocumented immigrants and their families.

The panelists also expressed appreciation for the countless health-care workers who are struggling to treat coronavirus patients, often without adequate equipment, and at great personal risk to themselves. Father Sheehan likened their plight to the U.S. soldiers early in the Iraq War who were sent to the front lines without body armor.

“That’s just awful,” Father Sheehan said.

With the likelihood that social distancing will be an ongoing necessity for several more weeks, if not months, Carr said the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University is planning another virtual panel in early April that will focus on the economic and moral dimensions of the pandemic.

“A test like this reveals who we are, what we believe, and what kind of society we are becoming,” Carr said.

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.