It has been a hell of a year here in the U.S., a time of diminishment and decline and desperation. How can the Catholic Church respond to the moment in which we find ourselves, and might those responses, in turn, be a part of the ongoing effort to renew the Church?
Diminishment. For years, budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels have prioritized those who carry guns over those who carry bedpans. Funding for the U.S. military and the police has gone up, while funding for health care and social services and education has gone down. Bureaucracies needed to help a complex society cope with complex problems have been hollowed out and were unprepared when a new threat like the coronavirus appeared.
I read in the paper that the European Union is preparing to open its borders again, after being in lockdown since March. They may continue to bar entry to U.S. citizens because of the spikes in the rate of news Covid-19 cases. In Texas, the second-largest state in the union, new cases are up 15% in the past week, and in Arizona they are up a horrifying 39%. Georgia’s Hartsfield airport is the busiest in the world, and that state has seen cases increase by 13 percent. No wonder the Europeans want to keep the door shut.
But think about this: Americans are being barred from traveling the world because our society and polity was incapable of keeping up with other countries that have successfully confined the spread of the virus. Is this was making America great again, what was average supposed to look like?
Every time President Donald Trump opens his mouth, a lie pops out, or several of them. In a recent interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, the president lied about mail-in ballots and about all he had done to protect statues from vandalism. He lied about John Bolton and about the DACA decision from the Supreme Court. Every time a lie from the chief magistrate goes unchecked, deviancy is defined down, and our commitment to democratic norms declines.
Nowhere has the decline in public morality been more obvious than in the cavalier way some people have placed their desire to avoid discomfort ahead of the dignity and even the lives of fellow citizens. Some people, egged on by the president, refuse to wear a mask in public. They refuse to maintain social distance. If you think wearing a mask is uncomfortable, you surely wouldn’t want to wear a ventilator. People who work in hospitals and nursing have repeatedly pointed out that they are the ones whose lives are most on the line, yet the clown at the paint store won’t wear a mask? And the president of the United States holds a massive rally and does not require attendees to wear them?
The elderly, especially those in nursing homes whose lives are characterized by loneliness to begin with, simply do not enter into the picture as far as the president and his reelection team is concerned. And young Americans, convinced that they can survive the virus, are unwilling to inconvenience themselves on behalf of frontline workers and the elderly. Libertarianism has triumphed.
If all that was not enough, the entire nation was confronted by an instance of almost pure evil as a Minneapolis cop knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while the life flowed out of the handcuffed man, and we all watched in horror. The pent-up rage of black Americans, for whom police violence has become all too common, spilled into the streets, justified to be sure, a cry of desperation. The moral arc of the universe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned was long, but insisted it nonetheless bent towards justice, seems to be bending very slowly, if at all.
Instead of seeking to unify the nation against a renewed effort to confront the original national sin of racism, the president stoked divisions, sent troops to tear gas peaceful protesters so he could have a photo op at a church, and saw an opportunity to restore his election chances by riling up his white nationalist base. His desperation – immoral and narcissistic – could enter into a dangerous symbiotic relationship with the desperation of black Americans.
What can the Catholic Church do in these circumstances? At a time when our culture is so badly divided, Catholics must take steps to build up the culture. Culture, by definition, is inclusive, it unites people; it builds them up and confers significance on all that is beautiful and true. Like all human creations, it is susceptible to sin and corruption, to be sure, but the building up of culture is fundamentally a generative, creative process.
The Catholic Church is catholic. It is found everywhere, and everywhere it must seek to comfort those afflicted by the COVID-19 virus, including those for whom the afflictions are economic not just medical. Millions have lost their jobs. The Church must reach out to foster racial unity, helping our society to invest social capital into neighborhoods bereft of hope and hope into the hearts of those filled with despair. The Church must, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, proclaim to our society: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (IS 5:20) The Church must teach the parable of the Good Samaritan, in our pulpits and in our ministries and in the way we lay Catholics conduct our lives, asking searching questions about our life choices: What have we done, personally, to help correct the gross inequality Black and Latino Americans suffer? Protest? Yes, and vote as well. But have we made brothers and sisters of some of our black and Latino neighbors such that we might help them overcome the disadvantages they face in employment opportunities or in obtaining credit? Do our parishes work with community banks and with realtors to help black Americans achieve the home ownership rates that white Americans enjoy? Do we work to ensure that real estate agents help our neighborhoods integrate?
There is much that the Catholic Church can do to help the nation face the various crises we face at this moment. Each of them requires the Church to look outward, not inward. I am reminded of what then Cardinal Bergoglio told the gathered cardinals before they entered into the conclave at which he was elected pope: “I think of the image of Jesus knocking at the door. Perhaps he is knocking to get out.”
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.