In the midst of this dark spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has already killed more than 95,000 Americans and left 39 million without a job. A continuous argument revolving around these two numbers has been a backdrop to the crisis. The shelter-in-place order, and other measures taken by the authorities, is aimed at lowering the number of victims and keeping the healthcare system from imploding. Those who are demanding the reopening of the economy point out the consequences of closing down the largest economy of the world.
In the Church, we have also heard different opinions about the suspension of public Masses and the closing of churches. We should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the leaders responsible for making decisions during this pandemic.
On one hand, they face criticism for the measures taken to stop the pandemic in addition to the financial, psychological, and social impact of those measures. On top of that, they now have to figure out how to repair the damage caused by the measures that were taken in the interest of saving lives. Of course, the pundits and protesters who criticize social distancing or the use of masks don’t have to respond to the consequences their proposal could cause.
It should be noted that opposing quarantine measures is not just the reaction of the supposedly “unenlightened” populace. Respected intellectuals, from the Catholic editor of First Things, Rusty Reno, to French atheist philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, have criticized, mocked, or opposed the quarantine. And 350,000 worldwide deaths have not made them change their minds. Of course, since they are not making the decisions, they won’t be accountable for the consequences their ideas would have if they were put to the test three months ago.
Nobody will ever know how many lives were saved by Bishop DiMarzio’s decision to suspend public Masses and close all the churches in Brooklyn and Queens. Nor we may never know the financial impact of such a decision. However, what we will know is the sadness of the faithful who have not been able to participate at Mass and receive Holy Communion. We should thank God when leaders make the right decision without thinking about popularity rates.
Now, we enter a new phase of the crisis. The death toll and the fear of COVID-19 are declining as the financial, political, and social price of the quarantine escalates. We are reopening the economy and the churches while the risk of contagion is still present, but not as daunting as two months ago.
We will need prudence and discipline in order to return to a resemblance of normality without provoking another gigantic outbreak. If the authorities were responsible for making the decision to isolate the population in order to stop the pandemic before, each of us will now also be responsible. Maybe this second phase will help us better understand the daunting challenges civil and ecclesiastical leaders have faced during the past few months.
A democratic society requires the active participation of its members in public life. Debating different opinions and criticizing those in positions of authority is not just a right but a duty of those privileged to live in freedom.
However, we should also recognize other concepts that are not as popular — the limits and responsibilities freedom always entails. Criticizing measures related to the quarantine is our right, of course, but protecting our neighbors is our duty.
Since last Tuesday, we can now go to most of our churches and pray. Let’s hope that in our prayers we will thank God for the reopening of our churches, but that we will also be prudent and responsible for the sake of our brothers and sisters.