Much of our national debate around the COVID-19 pandemic and the appropriate government response to it has been framed as opposition between those who say they follow “science” and those who do not. This framing is one which is used to devalue and dismiss critics of ever-shifting state responses to the pandemic, as well as to insulate politicians from any sort of accountability for their own prudential judgements.
In this context Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, has written a thoughtful essay titled, “Social Shutdowns as an Extraordinary Means of Saving Human Lives,” published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The bishop’s essay contributes to the national conversation by rejecting the naïve scientism which frames so much of our current discourse and brings attention to the ethical framework that should underlie our public policy discussions. The Catholic News Agency helpfully distills the main thrust of Bishop Paprocki’s argument:
“The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life is important, for if a means is extraordinary – that is, if the burdens outweigh the benefits – then it is not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by state power,” he wrote.
“[I]n the face of a pandemic, do we have a moral obligation to shut down our society, require people to stay at home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain, and prevent worshippers from going to church? I would say no,” the bishop concluded, saying that such actions “would be imposing unduly burdensome and extraordinary means.”
Speaking to CNA, Bishop Paprocki describes the extraordinary impact of the state response to the pandemic:
The impact that it’s been having on people being able to go to church, receive Communion, go to their jobs, go to school, with all that being basically shut down for a period of time, again, it just struck me as extraordinary, that this had never happened in my lifetime, and probably in the lifetime of most people who are alive today, and so the word extraordinary kept coming back to me.
The threat to public health posed by pandemics is both real and serious but does not constitute the only threat to the common good. The use of extraordinary means such as those used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is, according to Catholic tradition, often a threat to the common good itself:
This distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means was first made by Venerable Pius XII in a 1957 address to medical workers, during which he said that “Normally one is held to use only ordinary means … that is to say, means that do not involve any grave burden for oneself or another. A stricter obligation would be too burdensome for most men and would render the attainment of the higher, more important good too difficult. Life, health, all temporal activities are in fact subordinated to spiritual ends.”
Bishop Paprocki’s reflections offer an ethical framework that merits careful consideration by both public servants and the public at large. Our political decisions affect the good of the entire body politic, and often the burden of them falls more severely on some than others. It is for this reason that a multitude of perspectives need to be brought to bear from the natural sciences, economics, and ethics, because “plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).
(Photo credit: AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, Justin L. Fowler.)