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Columns Justice Perspective

Global pandemic and solidarity – an examen of conscience

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We have entered a period of response to the pandemic now when there is a great deal of discussion about which social policies are appropriate going forward. Should we open businesses? Which ones? Should we wear masks or not? Should we maintain social distancing? Which activities should still be banned? When and under what conditions should we reopen churches?

Each of us is called upon to form our consciences with regard to any of these policies and actions, and to make our insights known to those around us and, if appropriate, to local, state and national governments.

However, as in all other moral situations, we cannot rely on political perspectives or even “practical” thinking to drive our decision-making. When we are making judgments of conscience on the balance between individual freedoms and social safety policies, we are compelled, as Catholics, to see every issue and every proposal through the eyes of our faith. Like it or not, as disciples we are obligated to follow the gospel values that have been taught and practiced by our Lord Jesus.

Certainly, there is nothing in the Gospels – or any of Scripture for that matter – that speaks directly to a global pandemic and national and local government response. To inform our conscience, then, we have to turn to the teaching of the Church and our Catholic Social Teaching principles. Even then there is no specific teaching that directly informs the specifics of this situation, but there are some principles that can guide our thinking. I offer the following as a sort of “examen of conscience” on what approaches are most aligned with our Catholic faith:

Towards the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pontifical Academy of Life issued a document entitled, “Global Pandemic and Universal Brotherhood.” Among many other observations, the paper had this insight:

“There are no individual acts without social consequences … Reckless or foolish behavior, which seemingly affects only ourselves, becomes a threat to all who are exposed to the risk of contagion, perhaps without even affecting the actor. In this way we learn how everyone’s safety depends on everyone else’s.”

When does our behavior or our demand for opening businesses, schools and churches become “reckless or foolish behavior”?

2. Catholic Social Teaching also recognizes that with rights come responsibilities – the two are always joined:

“Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other” (St. John XXIII, “Peace on Earth”).

Are we more focused on our rights than on our responsibilities? If we insist on removing restrictions to ensure our rights, what are our duties, then?

3. The Church also emphasizes our focus on the “common good,” with preferential treatment for those most vulnerable:

“While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable, and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship).

Are we making decisions based on putting the most vulnerable first in our thinking, or are we setting their needs aside in favor of other concerns?

These are choices and conclusions that, to a great extent, we have not had to deal with before, but we may have to deal with again. We are obligated to create our decision-making model based on the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, and to make all other concerns and perspectives secondary.

Deacon Don Weigel is the diocesan director of Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.

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