Existing for Others in Times of COVID-19

Jeroen Jans is a PhD student at Radboud University (the Netherlands) and is a teacher of Catholicism in secondary education in Belgium

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have been confronted with all sorts of inconveniences and limitations in our normal lives, and the effects of our efforts are often unsure. Some of us are obligated to wear face masks in public spaces, some live in countries where our social contacts have been reduced by the state, and some are faced with restrictions on religious services and rituals. This poses the question of how much we should allow a state to intervene in our lives—how far can it go? I address this question from a Roman Catholic perspective, based on three key principles in Catholic Social Thought: interdependence, the common good, and subsidiarity.

Key Principles of Catholic Social Thought

Interdependence, a first key principle, implies that we are all connected to each other in some way; no one is an isolated individual.[i] In other words, I can only fully develop myself in relation to others. This also implies that we affect each other by our actions, which has become abundantly clear during the pandemic. If I go out clubbing without respecting COVID-19-related guidelines, I am likely to be infected and infect others. Not only can these others end up in the hospital, the people I infect can potentially infect more people. The elderly and cardiac patients among those newly infected are highly at risk of not making it. So, by not respecting the rules, I can unintentionally kill other people. A connected life brings with it not just rights, but responsibilities as well. It is also important to understand that rights and responsibilities should be balanced. For example, my own (mental) health might require social contacts of some sort, like meeting a relative or a friend in person, but I should limit these social contacts to protect others.

The common good is another key principle of Catholic Social Thought. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004: § 164) we read that the common good “stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people.” The Catholic Church holds that the common good belongs to everyone and can only be attained together. This also has become clear during the pandemic: when we collectively respect measures to fight COVID-19, the number of infections often declines. But when a significant number of people no longer respect the rules, the numbers stagnate or, even worse, start rising again.

In § 165 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, we read another essential aspect, the common good:

A society that wishes and intends to remain at the service of the human being at every level is a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person— as its primary goalThe human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists “with” others and “for” others.

Two elements of this paragraph are striking: society should have the good of all people as its most important objective, and we exist with and for other people. Applying this to the pandemic, we could say that society should take no risks when the health of anyone is concerned, and we should be willing to experience some discomfort if it can protect other people. Especially the vulnerable—the sick, the elderly, and the poor—are of particular concern to Catholic Social Thought.

Subsidiarity is a final key principle I want to address. The principle of subsidiarity places the most weight on communities and institutions that form the meso-level, or the level between the individual and the state. The initiative should primarily come from individuals and communities, while the state can devote itself to: “directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands” (Quadragesimo Anno 1931: § 80). We could thus argue that when the “occasion” is a global pandemic, a state is “required” to take measures and to ensure that such measures are respected by its citizens. However, the state should leave space for individuals and communities to take initiative. One example is how the Flemish government expanded free health insurance for volunteers to anyone who aided others during the Belgian lockdown.

Catholic Social Thought in Times of a Global Pandemic

Now the question remains: how should we evaluate COVID-19-related restrictions and obligations by the state in light of Catholic Social Thought? To answer this question, we should bear in mind that COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus. Acknowledging that we are interdependent and therefore have rights and obligations towards others implies that we should protect each other as much as we can, but it should be properly balanced with our own rights. In practice, this could mean that we wear our face masks in public areas, restrict our social contact, and even accept a temporary lockdown. However, interdependence also implies that we require some form of social contact. So interactions can therefore be limited but not excluded. In this sense, we should balance the good of others with the good of ourselves.

Some might ask what to do with face masks, when their effectiveness is still being debated among scientists? If we take seriously the common good, in which we live with and for others, then we could pose a “counter-question”: is avoiding the discomfort of wearing a face mask worth putting the lives of, especially the elderly, at risk? Since Catholic Social Thought grants moral priority to the vulnerable, the answer clearly is “no.” If we live for others, we should be willing to accept some form of inconvenience on their behalf. Even though individual autonomy matters to the Roman Catholic Church, it is not a higher priority than the wellbeing of the vulnerable.

Another question is: does the state intervene too much and too directly in our lives? To answer this question, first, we need to bear in mind that it concerns a global pandemic. Second, the different types of managing recent outbreaks by different states show that higher-level coordination (i.e., the state level) is desirable to reduce infections. In other words, this type of state intrusion does not violate the principle of subsidiarity, in that it is impossible to manage the pandemic on an individual or community level.

This being said, there are limits to how far a state can intrude into communities and the daily lives of individuals. I illustrate my point of view by using Roman Catholic services as an example. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state is entitled to require that religious communities respect a number of rules concerning the maximum number of people allowed inside a building, social distancing between individuals, or the number of different families that are allowed within the same indoor space. The state does, however, violate the principle of subsidiarity when it, for instance, forbids formations and baptisms but allows weddings and funerals. The rationale behind such a regulation is clear: weddings and funerals can be limited to one or two families, while formations often include multiple families. But this does not need to be so. Another well-intended rationale probably is that weddings and funerals are most important to people. However, it makes no sense for a state to decide which Catholic rituals are most important for Catholics. In light of subsidiarity, it is better for the state to just limit the number of different families allowed in one indoor space, but to leave the practicalities to religious communities.

Conclusion

Even Catholic Social Thought, which is normally weary of high levels of state intrusion, allows for significant levels of state interference in our communities and individual lives during the coronavirus pandemic. But it does not follow that a state is entitled to set priorities on behalf of communities and individuals. The state is entitled to impose restrictions on, for example, (religious) gatherings. However, the state should abstain from interfering in matters that lower levels, like communities, can decide for themselves. These matters include the abovementioned priority of some religious rituals over others, which can best be decided by religious communities.

However, I want to finish by arguing that, although it is healthy for individuals within a democracy to question the state’s actions, these exceptional times require all of us to accept inconveniences and limitations in our daily lives for the sake of the vulnerable in society.

[i]Cf. Mounier, Emmanuel. (1949/2007). Personalism. Boughton Press; John Paul II 1987, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, § 38; Francis 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, § 39.