Not a few prognosticators have mused that the global crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic might be an opportunity for a much-needed “reset” of social, economic and political systems. Indeed, the experience of confinement and self-isolation has led many to become more deeply conscious of, and grateful for, community, family, neighbors and friends. Almost instinctively, they have begun reaching out in gestures of solidarity. Teachers deliver books, tablet computers and food boxes to needy students and their families. Others check in on and run errands for elderly neighbors. Many are reaching out to family, friends, colleagues and students through countless video conferences. Families sheltering in place share meals, conversation and leisure activities once again. We are rediscovering the importance of staying connected.
A colleague recently observed the need to reflect on this new experience of “globalized vulnerability.” Could this be a chance to rediscover the true meaning of humanity? And whoever said we were invulnerable? Those born since the Second World War, especially those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, may just be the first generations in human history who have not lived with a constant concern for survival and the fear of death from successive waves of disease, infection, famine or violent conflict. Until this period—an age of antibiotics and technological prowess—the experience of humanity was marked by a profound consciousness of both the fragility and the giftedness of life, and indeed, by the knowledge of our interdependence on one another, other creatures and the earth.
Scientists see a clear connection between humanity’s aggressive assault on the natural world and the arrival of a global pandemic. Over the past decade, international teams of scientists have made the case for the recognition that since beginning from the mid-20th century, the earth has entered into a new geological epoch defined by humanity’s irreversible impact upon the earth, its ecosystems and climate. The Anthropocene era—shaped by unprecedented levels of atmospheric CO2, rising sea levels, desertification, deforestation and the mass extinction of species—they warn, is one where reckless modes of human living have been “playing with fire.”
Who can deny that much of the human community has been flying blind through an age of hubris, defying the gods, under the spell of excessive self-confidence? How else are we to comprehend the failing of leaders around the globe to heed the warnings of scientists and epidemiologists, neglecting to take sensible precautions, ignoring the inevitable? It will never happen, they told themselves. Or it will happen somewhere else, on some distant continent, and not impinge upon more “developed” societies. When it does, they thought, scientists would produce an antidote, a vaccine in short order. Even when the pandemic had reached their shores, the leaders of the many wealthy nations continued to deny, minimize and obfuscate in a breath-taking show of insouciance.
Pope Francis points to the dangerous technocratic paradigm and a “cult of unlimited power” that has seeped into our culture in his exhortation on the Care of our Common Home, Laudato Si. He rightly observes that our lifestyle reflects a “misguided anthropomorphism” where human beings have placed themselves at the center of everything. This, he suggests, has led to a dangerous relativism that “sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interest.” The poor and the vulnerable are easily forgotten, lost from view. In such a world, not a few have fallen prey to the false choice between human health and economic wealth.
Canada’s chief public health officer reflected in one of her daily news briefings that the pandemic “humbles us.” COVID-19 has confronted the global community with the limits of our scientific knowledge and shone a bright light on the fissures of our public health, social and political structures. The way forward requires a rediscovery of solidarity and the common good: the good of all the earth and all its inhabitants. This journey toward self-transcendence begins by the embrace of our mortal nature and need for others. It is high time to set aside the foolish pretentions of invincibility, to embark upon the path of humility and embrace our true humanity.
The health care crisis and the looming period of economic depression should not distract us from the crisis in the church and for the need for a comprehensive “reset” in the way the community of the baptized choose to live together and continue Christ’s healing mission on the world. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has called for a humbler church, one that is close to the poor and goes out to the peripheries. He has preached often and at length concerning the spiritual ills in need of healing within the culture and structures of the church and its ministers: the love of riches, honors and flattery, lack of transparency, rigidity and holier-than-thou-ism. It is this culture that led many to defend the institution and its clergy at all costs from accusations of abuse, to reject the advice of competent medical professionals and psychologists, to deny and minimize the maladies of spiritual and sexual abuse and many abuses of power, blinding them to the true pain and suffering of survivors.
Church leaders might take a lesson from the public health crisis. Sadly, some have yet to take to heart the advice and warnings of competent experts—not just lawyers, but medical professionals, psychologists, educators, theologians and survivors. They will need to test, study and arrive at a more accurate diagnosis of the disease, share information widely and take the full measure of its spread and better protect our children and the vulnerable. Greater transparency, honesty and open communication will be essential to restoring the confidence that church leaders are fully committed to creating safe and healthy communities.
When Pope Francis, inspired by Alessandro Manzoni’s work of historical fiction, The Betrothed, described his vision of a missionally engaged church as a “field hospital,” he could hardly have imagined our present predicament. Instead of looking for the church in the gathering of virtual communities provoked by confinement orders, let us not lose sight of how the gospel is being lived out away from the camera’s eye. There, countless men and women are working every day to comfort and care for the sick, the dying, the elderly and the disabled, the newly unemployed and the many uncounted victims of the crisis. In their humble service and self-gift, the church and the human community are being renewed.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.