A Pandemic Retrospective: Did We Pass the Test?
IMPRUDENT PROHIBITION & PANIC
By profession I am a software developer. In my line of work, we conduct a review process called “the retrospective.” Over a relatively short period of time, covering a phase of a project — typically from one to four weeks — the team discusses what went well, what went poorly, and areas for improvement. When undertaken seriously, the process helps the team address problems that are under its control.
I am not suggesting that the Catholic Church become more like the software industry — heaven forbid — but I do think we can apply the retrospective concept constructively to determine what, if anything, we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns of the past three years.
As COVID policies varied wildly depending on the location, time of year, and so forth, I will paint with a broad brush. My goal here isn’t so much to come up with answers as to help frame the questions that all of us, but especially our priests and bishops, should be asking ourselves. Here goes.
During the early days of the pandemic, the faithful were prohibited from attending Mass. Was this prohibition prudent? Under what conditions should such a prohibition be enforced in the future? Granted, the prohibitions were imposed largely out of obedience to civil authority, but Catholic bishops likewise possess authority of their own. Under what conditions should they exercise their authority when it differs from that of civil leaders?
One of the many unfortunate impacts of the pandemic and the response to it was a pronounced division in the Church. This was particularly evident at the parish level. In some parishes, masks were eschewed; in others, to refrain from wearing a mask was to risk ostracism; in still others, almost no one attended Mass, save virtually. Even today, Mass attendance is down across the board. How did parish policies impact Mass attendance, both during the pandemic and afterward? Did we inadvertently imply that attending Mass online was as good as the real thing? Was the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass thus made to seem inessential?
In some dioceses, priests were forbidden to provide Last Rites lest they contract COVID. Granted, the coronavirus — like other ailments — was a threat to human life. But what of the threat to eternal life posed by the inability to receive a sacrament at the hour of one’s death? Under what circumstances should the lay faithful be prohibited from receiving Last Rites? Under what conditions should the priestly successors of Christ — who healed the sick, including lepers — refrain from imitating His example?
Similarly, in many dioceses, baptisms were delayed. The Church teaches that the Sacrament of Baptism is indispensable to salvation; under what conditions should it be dispensed with, if only for a time? If the lay faithful are prevented from obtaining baptism for their children, ought they to baptize their own children?
Related questions could be asked regarding weddings and funerals, both of which were postponed at various times during the past three years. How can we act so that what we profess about both the essential nature of the sacraments and their efficacy is made manifest in our lives?
In many of the nation’s schools, including Catholic schools, children were compelled to attempt to learn “remotely” via computer screens. Evidence has been mounting for some time about the pernicious impact of screen time, especially for young children. Predictably, remote learning was a disaster, especially for poorer children who don’t have consistent computer or Internet access or adequate adult supervision.
When schools reopened, children were often forced to wear masks for long stretches of time. Whatever the impact of masks on the spread of COVID, they caused numerable problems, especially among the very young. Many toddlers now require speech therapy, as their inability to see the full human face delayed their ability to form words. Children of all ages are more anxious and more depressed. Teachers, who were likewise required to mask, have been experiencing burnout, as the ostensible goal of education has become increasingly difficult to achieve.
Did diocesan school policies facilitate human flourishing, or did they likewise sacrifice our children in the effort to limit the spread of COVID at all costs? Under what conditions should teachers and students wear masks in the future? Under what conditions should children be made to learn remotely? Should we be encouraging increased use of technology in schools, or should we insist on actual encounter between incarnate human persons?
Anyone who questioned public policy during the past three years was deemed to be failing to “follow the science” — despite constant change to said science. Ever altering and always infallible are its mysterious ways. Without getting into the matter of what “the science” really “said,” it is a gross mistake to insist that a finding of science requires a specific public-policy response. A policy to be implemented will be informed not only by science but by a particular philosophy, implicit or otherwise. To take a deliberately reductive example, if our philosophy held that the world is overpopulated, our reaction to COVID would have looked a lot different.
Catholic philosophy teaches that life, though undoubtedly a good, is still subordinate to other goods, including charity. It recognizes our obligations to children and the poor. Given that the cheerleaders of science do not follow this philosophy, how can the Church trust policy recommendations from those who are operating under an erroneous understanding of human flourishing? How can the Church better rely on Catholic scientists and philosophers so the policy recommendations that bishops follow are based on Catholic philosophy?
At her best, the Church confronts the world with the contradiction that, as G.K. Chesterton said, is at the heart of the Cross. She gives us St. Peter Claver, slave of the slaves. She gives us St. Teresa of Calcutta, who washed the putrid wounds of lepers in the gutters of India. She imparts a holy wisdom that strikes the world as folly. She sets the world aflame with her charity.
Whether we want to think of them in this way or not, the lockdowns were a test. Those who imposed them know they will be able to impose them again. We already hear rumbles of lockdowns to combat climate change; we may need to “flatten the curve” of rising energy prices in Europe. We may never know definitively how COVID-19 originated, but labs continue to perform the gain-of-function research that was the probable cause of the pathogen. Hence, another variant, with or without hubristic human enhancement, may cause another pandemic.
Like so many other things in the modern world, “the retrospective” is an unintended parody of Catholic practice, in this case, what our Church calls an examination of conscience. It requires an honest admission of fault and a commitment to amend one’s life. The faults of the past few years were not small, and they require much contrition and conversion, above all from our leaders, to whom much was given and from whom much will be required (cf. Lk. 12:48).
As Christians, we are called to forgive those who wronged us, Church leaders included. But crucial to forgiveness is an honest admission of fault. Otherwise, it’s just cheap mercy without even the pretense of justice. Predictably, all kinds of people are ready to just move on and “declare a pandemic amnesty,” to quote from the title of an article by Emily Oster in The Atlantic (Oct. 31, 2022).
We don’t need a cheap amnesty; we need accountability from our leaders, civil and religious. Without the acknowledgement of wrong, we thwart justice. We also make it more likely that the same people who bungled the response to COVID-19 will get a chance to bungle again, knowing full well that amnesty awaits those who were only trying to do the right thing.
The retrospective is intended to prepare us for future challenges. When the next test comes, will the Church be ready? Will we?
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