BY ANDY BARTON
I wonder what school children will think when they read about Covid-19 in their history books decades from now. How will they judge the actions our generation took or failed to take? History tends to make the difficult decisions of living through an era seem simple: we all know how well hindsight scores on vision exams. The passage of time will surely bring to light many lessons and perspectives from this very difficult year. We will look back on what failed, from supply chains to testing protocols, but perhaps the greatest cautionary aspect of the 2020 pandemic will be the dangers of neglecting the common good.
Within Catholic social teaching, there is plenty from which to design a blueprint for how we could have avoided the seriousness of our current situation. It most certainly should be our guide for a way back. With its foundations in scripture and application of the literature from papal and episcopal teachers, the tenants of Catholic social teaching — and the centrality of the common good specifically — provide direction on how we find fulfillment in our lives. Yet, our increasingly individualistic and divisive society seems to have forgotten that the good of all is dependent on the good of each individual.
On this point, the Social Doctrine of the Church is clear, stating: “No expression of social life — from the family to intermediate social groups, associations, enterprises of an economic nature, cities, regions, states, up to the community of peoples and nations — can escape the issue of its own common good, in that this is a constitutive element of its significance and the authentic reason for its very existence.”
This notion that society cannot escape the “issues of its own common good,” provides context for why we find ourselves grappling not only with case counts and death tolls but also protests and social unrest. Many of us may not know someone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19, much less someone who has died as a result; but, this lack of personal experience does not mean that the virus does not exist. Instead, it demonstrates how a danger to any of us has the power to destroy the “authentic reason for (life’s) very existence.”
Each day children are not in schools, parishioners are not at Mass, or social groups are not able to meet, which undermines the very foundations of our human lives. We need the social interactions that have been taken from us by the pandemic. Yet, to get back to them, we must acknowledge those who are vulnerable and do everything in our power to keep them healthy. Simple actions like wearing a mask or social distancing become profound symbols of our commitment to the common good.
People are understandably angry about what we have lost and continue to lose. It is hard to express our fury at a virus, so instead, it is deployed on the next easiest targets: political leaders from the other party, scientists, or each other. This rage at our neighbors is the worst possible response to this moment. Instead, we must go to those who are poor and vulnerable, those who have been oppressed, and make whatever sacrifices are necessary so that all of us may rise. As long as this virus is killing some of us, it puts all of us at risk. Now, more than ever, we need to embrace God’s greatest commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The general distaste for facemasks, as well as the government mandate to wear them, is understandable. But even if masks are only marginally effective in preventing the spread of the virus that is paralyzing our society and economy, it seems proper to wear them. The same is true for social distancing. We should do these things out of longing for the social structures that bring value to life. We should do these things because a wave of the unemployed and evicted is waiting on the horizon and growing with every passing week. We should do these things because our poor are most vulnerable to the deadly effects of the virus. When our great-grandchildren read of how our generation overcame the pandemic, let them judge that it was first and foremost the actions we took for the common good.
Andy Barton is the President and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado. This article first appeared in the Colorado Catholic Herald.