In recent days, we have seen the rise of many articles in American media (and particularly in Catholic publications), questioning the public health regulations implemented around the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One of those articles stood out, both because of the negative feedback it received and because it encapsulates the arguments of the prominent mindset of those who oppose the COVID-19 policies. I’m referring to the article by First Things
editor R.R. Reno, “Say No to Death’s Dominion.”
Reno is concerned about the societal effects of the COVID-19 safety measures. With good reason. It is undeniable that shutting down all non-essential business and prohibiting most everyday activity will have an enormous socio-economic impact. This will certainly cause all kinds of problems in society at large. However, the alternatives he presents and the reasoning he employs transcend these practical considerations. In this article, Reno attempts to make a case against these measures by drawing from — among other things — Catholic bioethical principles. In doing so, he makes several doctrinal and ethical blunders that I think should be addressed. As a Catholic doctor, who deals with life and death decisions demanding serious bioethical formation every day, I believe I have a duty to step in.
Society is a moral, not a living organism
In another recent article
on the same topic, Reno uses the metaphor of a living organism to describe society, and how, as a living organism, society cannot stop. He says:
Society is a living organism, not a machine that can be stopped and started at our convenience. A person who is hospitalized and must lie in bed loses function rapidly, which is why nurses push patients to get up and walk as soon as possible after sicknesses and operations. The same holds true for societies. If the shutdown continues for too long, we will lose social function.
Undoubtedly ‘shelter in place’ will slow the spread of disease, but at what cost to the body politic?
What Reno apparently doesn’t realize is that this exact metaphor has been addressed by a pope who had a great deal of expertise in bioethics. This pope warns us to be wary of reading too much into this metaphor (emphasis from now on is always mine):
Crusades against human finitude
It must be noted that, in his personal being, man is not finally ordered to usefulness to society. On the contrary, the community exists for man.
The community is the great means intended by nature and God to regulate the exchange of mutual needs and to aid each man to develop his personality fully according to his individual and social abilities. Considered as a whole, the community is not a physical unity subsisting in itself and its individual members are not integral parts of it. Considered as a whole, the physical organism of living beings, of plants, animals or man, has a unity subsisting in itself. Each of the members, for example, the hand, the foot, the heart, the eye, is an integral part destined by all its being to be inserted in the whole organism. Outside the organism it has not, by its very nature, any sense, any finality. It is wholly absorbed by the totality of the organism to which it is attached.
In the moral community and in every organism of a purely moral character, it is an entirely different story. Here the whole has no unity subsisting in itself, but a simple unity of finality and action. In the community individuals are merely collaborators and instruments for the realization of the common end.
What results as far as the physical organism is concerned? The master and user of this organism, which possesses a subsisting unity, can dispose directly and immediately of integral parts, members and organs within the scope of their natural finality. He can also intervene, as often as and to the extent that the good of the whole demands, to paralyze, destroy, mutilate and separate the members. But, on the contrary, when the whole has only a unity of finality and action, its head — in the present case, the public authority — doubtlessly holds direct authority and the right to make demands upon the activities of the parts, but in no case can it dispose of its physical being. Indeed, every direct attempt upon its essence constitutes an abuse of the power of authority.
— Venerable Pope Pius XII
An Address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System
The moral failure of avoidable triage
The greater good
Saving all lives at all costs
Since the common good is defined as the good of all and of each individual, does this mean that we need to save all lives at all costs, as Reno accuses? My years of medical practice have shown me that I need to be realistic: not all lives can be saved. Yet, even if we cannot save all lives, this does not mean that we should not strive for the common good as our aim.
And this is where Reno’s argument fails spectacularly. He could certainly emphasize the economic and social costs of the COVID-19 measures, but the way he does this backfires. As Brian Killian said in an excellent Twitter thread
You could argue that the cure is worse than the disease, but it has to be based on the same impulse behind the cure — the protection of human life and the common good. You can’t subordinate human being to the stock market (…) If there’s an economic argument to be made it’s because the economy affects human life, not because the economy is more important than human beings
But Reno doesn’t do this. He is not providing an argument, he is simply mocking the idea of “saving lives.” The question of the economic and societal impact of the quarantines is a serious concern and, therefore, mandates a serious debate. However, Reno has not contributed to that debate, since his line of reasoning is, ironically, filled with the same sentimentalism he accuses others of having.
It is sentimentalism to argue that measures taken to avoid the spread of a deadly virus are somehow counterbalanced by Reno being able to host a small dinner party, or by young people being able to play basketball in a New York City park, as he argues. It is sentimentalism to play the victim card for being glared at as a “moral criminal” for — I kid you not
— spitting into the street. And it is sentimentalism to sabotage a life-saving contingency plan designed by leaders, public health officials, media personalities, and clergy, by creating this false dichotomy: “What about justice, beauty, honor, and truth?”
What about justice, beauty, honor, and truth indeed? Those values are not a list of disembodied and abstract ideals: they must exist in connection with something tangible, otherwise we veer into sentimentalism. As Pope Francis teaches in Evangelii Gaudium
, one of the principles that guides the development of society and orients it toward the common good, is that “realities are more important than ideas.”
There is no justice, nor beauty, nor honor, in artificially maintain societal functioning at the expense of the death or suffering of thousands of people. Also, his proposal is clearly not based on truth, because it grossly misrepresents Catholic, medical, and bioethical principles. And his ideas are disproven by sound medical expertise and authoritative magisterial teaching. So no truth in his reasoning.
However, opposing his ill-informed arguments is indeed based, not on sentimentalism, but on justice, honor and truth. And no one can say that there is no beauty in the solidarity that so many people have shown by abiding by these life-saving safety measures.
It is not sentimentalism that drove me to write this article, but Christian charity and my duty as a professional in the field of medicine. The World Health Organization has brought attention to the dangers, not only of the epidemic itself, but of an “infodemic”
of false information regarding COVID-19. Similarly, an “infodemic” of sorts has been spreading throughout formerly Catholic media since the election of Pope Francis (and arguably even before). I hope that Reno’s scandalously irresponsible articles will serve as a wake-up call to many who, affected by the disease or not, will see the fallibility of these pundits and publications, and will return instead to full communion with the Vicar of Christ and the Successors of the Apostles, as well as to a healthy trust in their healthcare professionals and health policy makers. Human lives, justice, beauty, honor and truth are all at stake, now more than ever.