Catholic Writer: During the COVID-19 Outbreak, Protecting Life is Overrated March 25, 2020

Catholic Writer: During the COVID-19 Outbreak, Protecting Life is Overrated

Fundamentalists tend to come out with the worst theology in times of crisis.

In an article making its rounds across the internet, published in the faith-based and anti-choice publication First Things, editor R.R. Reno offers what another Catholic publication is calling a “downright dangerous” take on religion during the COVID-19 outbreak to date.

For example, Reno criticizes New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for… saying he wants to save lives. At what cost?!, Reno wonders.

At the press conference on Friday announcing the New York shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York — I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism. Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”

Reno’s tribe are the very same people who will move Heaven and Earth to save just one fetus from abortion. Does life no longer matter when you’re old or immunocompromised?

A number of my friends disagree with me. They support the current measures, insisting that Christians must defend life. But the pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing, not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.

Let’s be real here: It’s not splitting hairs anymore to say that people are being killed. They’re being killed by capitalism: All those non-essential workers who have been forced to put health and safety at risk by showing up to the office — looking at you, Jerry Falwell — is in danger. Every hourly worker who isn’t salaried and forced to resort to unemployment for health coverage during this time — looking at you, Hobby Lobby — is in danger.

There’s nothing more “pro-life” right now than imitating governors like Cuomo, who are doing everything in their power to test and treat COVID-19 patients.

The fact that some people may have to be sacrificed to save others doesn’t seem to bother Reno, either. That’s just how our system works, he explains, ignoring how it doesn’t have to be this way.

Put simply: Only an irresponsible sentimentalist imagines we can live in a world without triage. We must never do evil that good might come. On this point St. Paul is clear. But we often must decide which good we can and should do, a decision that nearly always requires not doing another good, not binding a different wound, not saving a different life.

Reno is saying the quiet part out loud: Your life only matters if you’re rich. That’s not Christianity. That’s capitalism. Incidentally, nations with universal health care have far less concern about this “triage” and rightly find our system horrifying.

What about closing down big cities? Self-quarantining ourselves?

All of that is awful, Reno complains.

Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.

Is it also “demonic” to resist death by wearing a seatbelt? Looking both ways before crossing the street? Checking the expiration date on milk before drinking it?

More than one hundred years ago, Americans were struck by a terrible flu pandemic that affected the entire world. Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.

That’s because knowledge of how viruses work was rather limited back then, compared to what we know now. That one is obvious. The 1918 influenza took roughly 50 million lives worldwide; if there was a way to get a vaccine, surely people would’ve accepted the necessary tradeoffs to get to that point.

Reno closes by saying we’re living in fear — and that’s a sign that we’ve given up. He wants us to ignore the advice of experts and just get going with our lives. Which is to say he’s willing to sacrifice everyone’s health for some perceived freedom that doesn’t really exist.

Fear of death and causing death is pervasive — stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age. As long as we allow fear to reign, it will cause nearly all believers to fail to do as Christ commands in Matthew 25. It already is.

It’s hardly any consolation for the grieving families of people who have already been killed by this virus.

In Reno’s world, we’re better off visiting our elderly relatives because that’s life… even if exposing them to a virus could kill them. It’s a trade-off he’s willing to make.

It’s not one any reasonable person should agree to. By going through some inconvenience right now, we can keep our most at-risk citizens safe. If it works, everyone will be better off on the other side. Reno wants to ignore that advice. His short-term thinking is irrational and selfish.


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