(REVIEW) One sure sign that the pandemic is fading may be the steady stream of books about it that have started to trickle out. It’s true that COVID-19 affected the planet like nothing else in our lifetimes. In fact, the fallout from what has transpired over the last 15 months could be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
How it affected the church, specifically Roman Catholicism, is of great importance to parishioners as well as societies around the world. That’s what a new book by journalist Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, aims to explore. The book is detailed and exhaustive when it comes to the events of the last year. It also answers many of the questions Catholics, specifically those in the United States, may have now that virus is subsiding.
Were the lockdowns too draconian? Could government done things differently? How did both these affect the church and Catholicism going forward? Lawler’s book, “Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic” (published by Crisis Publications), is one of the first to closely examine how the pandemic affected the church.
Lawler’s book, whether you agree with his theory or not, is thought-provoking and not afraid to attack secular orthodoxies and narratives regarding public health and how its often adversarial relationship with religion led to the current situation the church finds itself in.
The 176-page book, a combination of reporting and research, argued that the lockdown message was “pounded by the media into our consciousness, encouraging us to live in isolation and to fear closeness with others, have produced the sort of dystopian environment that Thomas Hobbes sketched as the basis for his Leviathan: a society that sees human existence as a war of all against all, sees lives as ‘nasty, poor, brutish and short.’”
Lawler adds that he “was wrong to add arguments about Covid to the traditional list of dangerous topics for dinner-table conversation. It might be more accurate to say that the debates about Covid and the lockdown really were disputes about politics and religion, because they reflected some fundamental differences about the purposes of public policy and the meaning of human life. Humans are social animals. We are made to live in society, to interact with our family members, our friends, our neighbors. To avoid interaction is to work against our very nature. To see other people — all other people — as threats is perverse, an insult to the emotional and spiritual hard-wiring of the human person.”
Epidemics are nothing new to humans. Plagues date back to Biblical times, and in the ensuing centuries, have long involved the church. In those cases, the church was seen as a refuge for those who suffered. During this pandemic, it was not considered essential. Lawler’s book argues that cardinals and bishops were quick to comply with church closures, forcing Mass to be transformed into a Zoom call.
Lawler writes that churches in the United States, for example, “rely so heavily” on government funding to keep their charitable agencies afloat. He even notes that the sex-abuse scandal, resulting in negative press coverage over the years, had been “so badly scarred by the fallout” that it left the church in a weakened position.
Starting in March 2020, all public Masses were suspended in Vatican City and Italy due to the coronavirus. These suspensions began in late-February in the Archdioceses of Milan and Venice and soon spread across Italy and eventually the world. At the height of the outbreak, Pope Francis gave his Urbi et Orbi blessing, normally reserved for Christmas and Easter, from an empty Saint Peter’s Square. It was a sad sight and one that encapsulated how much the world had come to a standstill.
In hindsight, Lawler argues the pandemic, which has so far killed 3.5 million people in over 200 countries, could have been better managed. He argues that secular officials’ response to the virus was “at odds with Christian thought and doctrine.” He does acknowledge that the coronavirus was, and is, a serious health issue.
“The loss of community is a loss of solidarity, a loss of charity, a loss of apostolic opportunity for evangelization. Worse, the lockdown and the closing of churches meant that lay Catholics were deprived of the sacraments, the wellsprings of sanctifying grace,” Lawler writes. “The church, obedient to divine command, sees communal worship not merely as a useful and salutary thing but as a moral obligation. … The costs of the lockdown have been greater than the toll of the virus; the cure has been worse than the disease.”
Is Lawler a COVID-denier? Not at all. Instead, he takes on the uniquely Catholic perspective that life is “not our ultimate destiny nor our ultimate goal. We are all mortal; we shall all die. While we uphold the right to life for every human being, we do not and cannot pretend that anyone has the ‘right’ to be preserved forever from death by natural causes. We can and do fight against disease. But when the crusade against one disease becomes the medical equivalent of a scorched-earth military campaign, with costs greater than the toll of the disease itself, responsible adults should recognize that the disproportionate response is immoral.”
This is where readers may disagree with Lawler — and that’s all right. This book is a great starting point for a debate and not just among Catholics. While the book is directed at Catholics, Christians, Jews and other faith traditions would benefit from reading it. After all, not just in-person Masses were canceled in the United States (while big box stores stayed open), but all religious services.
As we approach a post-pandemic world, the church has to grapple with falling attendance in places like Ireland. It was a problem that had begun pre-pandemic. It’s true that online church may continue and even grow. The virus may have actually accelerated the decline in in-person attendance and potentially forever disrupting communities filled with mostly-empty houses of worship, just one more fallout of the events of the last 15 months.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.