By Dan Lunney
As some commentators seek to ease physical distancing and re-open the economy, despite the spread of COVID-19, it is essential to reaffirm a theological anthropology flowing from Catholic social teaching.
The primary tenet of Catholic social teaching is that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, thus we all have inherent dignity. The concept of personhood does not depend on productivity or other arbitrary measures. A human being is imbued with dignity because we are created in God’s image and likeness. The elderly and infirm do not cease to have inherent dignity because of their age or infirmity. Calls to sacrifice some of our elderly sisters and brothers to save the economy are totally inconsistent with Scripture and Catholic social teaching.
Throughout Scripture, societies are judged on how they treat the most vulnerable (the widows and orphans in the Hebrew Scriptures and Matthew 25 in the New Testament). But today, proponents of the prosperity gospel have inverted the teaching of Jesus to parallel the predominant values of Western culture, raising productivity, wealth, strength, power, and the individual to utmost importance. From that perspective, the elderly are expendable because they do not contribute to society in a way that is deemed to have worth. Everything is commodified and viewed as a transaction rather than a relationship.
However, an inclusive concept of personhood reminds us that no one is expendable and affirms the sanctity of life. This is not a call to vitalism, an extreme position that everything possible needs to be implemented to sustain life. Instead, this is a call to affirm the dignity of each human person in our approach to COVID-19. The economy must not be the sole criterion upon which decisions are made. Policy decisions which view certain people as expendable must be rejected outright.
The shortage of medical equipment such as respirators means that painful triage decisions may have to be made. Those decisions are outside the scope of this essay. But older people disproportionately die from COVID-19, especially if they have other underlying health conditions. That includes the entire population with whom I minister as the chaplain in a long-term care facility. Restricting visitors, cancelling group activities, and restricting staff with symptoms or who may have been exposed, are essential to keep COVID-19 from entering the community. Especially for families and residents, these sacrifices are difficult. Because of recent travel, I am prevented from going to work for 14 days as a precaution, but I accept the restriction to protect our residents.
And these restrictions are only effective in conjunction with personal, citywide, statewide, nationwide and worldwide containment policies and initiatives. The spread of COVID-19 demonstrates how interconnected we are and how individual practices in conjunction with others can lead to better outcomes for all. In Catholic social teaching, this working together is called solidarity. We who abide by stay-at-home orders and physical distancing are in solidarity with those who are working on the frontlines as healthcare workers, essential service providers, and first responders.
Although the rates of death are lower for younger people, physical distancing and self-quarantine will reduce the possibility of transmission. Of course these practices involve sacrifice and hurt the economy — but the economy ought not to be the primary benchmark of a society. How we care for one another, especially the least among us, should be the moral compass used to drive policy.
Today we face the challenge posed in Deuteronomy 30:15, “See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.” This passage includes an admonition to refrain from bowing down to other gods. That includes not making the economy into a god that we serve. Choosing life and good does not mean that there will be no suffering or death. It does mean that our decisions will be consistent with scripture and Catholic social teaching. Let us put more value on the worth of human beings than on the stock market. Let us make decisions which support our essential workers and those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Let us make decisions which affirm the dignity of the human person and our responsibilities to one another. Let us embrace a concept of personhood which is inclusive rather than one that excludes certain members of the human family. Let us make decisions which affirm life and good.
Dan Lunney, BCC, is the director of pastoral care and mission integration at St. Joseph Village of Chicago sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. This essay first appeared in slightly different form at academia.edu.