For many people, this time of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to mind Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, the story of a North African port city quarantined during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Camus’s subject is not really the plague itself but the response it evokes, and what it reveals about a range of people, some of whom (not generally religious people) emerge as heroes.
For Camus, the plague was a metaphor for its moral counterpart. Among other things, he had in mind the response of French citizens—whether collaborators or resisters—to the German Occupation. But even the Occupation was, in turn, an instance of the eternal problem of evil. One of Camus’s complaints against Christians was his suspicion that their belief in eternal life rendered them passive in the face of injustice and the suffering of the innocent.
To bring “the plague” back to our own situation, on one level, the present administration’s response to the virus has been consistent with a pattern of incompetence, spin and lies, denial of reality, self-congratulation, partisan boosterism, scapegoating of foreigners, blaming the messengers and truth-tellers. But as with Camus’s novel, the virus is also a metaphor for a spreading moral contamination. During his campaign, Trump made no effort to disguise his cruelty, divisiveness and authoritarian tendencies; on the contrary, he ran on this persona. What has been surprising is how quickly his particular brand has infected large portions of the country—an entire political party, three branches of government, various agencies, portions of the media and broad swathes of the religious community. Political rivals who once called the Leader a conman and pathological liar eventually caught the virus: pledging their loyalty, repeating his lies, attacking his enemies, laughing at his “jokes,” saluting his assaults on the law, the Constitution and basic decency.
Has the leadership of the Catholic Church in America also caught the virus? For many decades, American bishops signed on to the message that abortion is the preeminent political issue—trumping all others. This made it easy for the Republican Party to lay claim to the “Catholic vote” by touting itself as the “pro-life” party, even while espousing policies that denied key tenets of Catholic social teaching. Even Trump, the avatar of hedonistic indifference to any virtue apart from “winning,” found it easy to claim this “pro-life” mantle.
Where has this brought us? On a recent conference call with 600 Catholic bishops and other “leaders,” Trump called himself “the best president in the history of the Catholic Church.” He said his support for the pro-life cause has “been at a level that no other president has seen before.” The agenda of the meeting was ostensibly support for Catholic schools, but Trump made a naked pitch for support in his reelection, warning that victory for the other side would be disastrous for Catholics. For his part, Cardinal Dolan called the president a friend and joked that he talked with him more than he does with his own mother. In a later Fox News interview, the Cardinal praised Trump for his “leadership” in the pandemic and expressed particular appreciation for his sensitivity “to the feelings of the religious community.”
An editorial in America magazine defended the conduct of these bishops in seeking common ground with the president on topics of grave concern to American Catholics. The problem with this argument is that in lending support to such a man’s reelection, one doesn’t get to pick the policies that one happens to agree with, or that benefit one’s own community. You buy the whole package: the racism, the cruelty, the reckless disregard for the weak and vulnerable, the wanton assault on the environment, the disdain for any sense of global community or common good.
The true subject of The Plague is not the virus itself, but what it reveals about us. Camus’s heroes—and those of our own moment—are those who resist the plague, who cry out ceaselessly on behalf of the vulnerable, who affirm basic decency, practice solidarity, defend what is right and true, and hold out hope for a world that is safe, just and good.
In a famous talk to Dominicans after the war, Camus described what the world expects of Christians: that they “should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt ... could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.”
The story is not about the virus, but how we respond to it.
Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.