Fear is contagious.
Sometime early in 2020 — at different times for different people — we Americans learned about Covid: a disease unlike anything we had experienced. We heard expert predictions that the disease would cause millions of fatalities. We saw the projections. We calculated the odds that the victims would include our friends, our relatives, ourselves. And we were afraid.
Although a disease of this sort was new to us, dwarfing any public health crisis in recent memory, it was not without historic precedent. Even by the most pessimistic estimates, the Covid epidemic never figured to be as deadly as the Spanish flu of 1918. But our fears, amplified by the mass media, were much more pronounced than the justifiable fears of our ancestors a century ago. Our responses were more extreme. The disease itself was not as damaging as the flu of 1918, but the effect on society was far more debilitating.
The thesis of this book is that in the Covid crisis of 2020, the fear of the disease was deadlier than the disease itself. And the fear, in turn, was caused by a lack of faith. As a society, we had drained down the reservoir of Christian belief that would have given us hope to balance our fears. When the crisis arose, sad to say, even Christians succumbed to the epidemic of fear.
The Covid crisis challenged Christians to examine our consciences. Did we surrender to a fear that is foreign to, and unworthy of, our status as children of a loving God? Did we fail to offer an attractive alternative to fear, a balance to the climate of despair, a witness to hope? Did we show, by our actions, a living faith that could inspire others: a faith that could balance the fear of disease, a faith that might be contagious?
Whom Should I Fear?
What are your greatest fears? What secret terrors keep you awake at night? Do you worry about the prospect of natural disaster, violent crime, disease, lost love, financial collapse, or social ostracism? These are all legitimate reasons for worry. But in most cases, you can recover from these setbacks. Death is different; fear of death is a different sort of fear because from death there can be no recovery.
But wait: Jesus tells us that He has overcome death. He even gives us the formula: "the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die." He assures us that "he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (John 6: 50, 54). So death does not draw down the final curtain; death is not the greatest tragedy, the thing that we should fear the most.
There is something worse than death: damnation. And from that, there is no recovery. But Christian faith brings the good news that damnation — the final failure, the greatest legitimate fear — can be avoided. Our faith, our Church, brings us the means of salvation and, therefore, the reservoir of hope.
Unfortunately, we live in a post-Christian society marked by a lack of the lively faith that inspires hope. Formed by secularism, our neighbors search for some form of salvation on this earth, where none will be found.
The Pagan Approach
In an intriguing new book entitled American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, Joshua Mitchell, a Georgetown University political scientist, compares the political conflicts of America today with the ritual of ancient pagan societies. Those ancient peoples, he remarks, sought scapegoats to take the blame for the evils in the world and made war to suppress or eradicate (dare I say to "cancel"?) the people identified as scapegoats. Christians countered that primitive approach by teaching that the source of evils is in ourselves, in our own failings, in Original Sin. Christians, when they are behaving as Christians, do not blame others for their woes.
But in 2021, the Western world is not really Christian — not in its fundamental beliefs, not in its behavior. So when we faced Covid, an enemy we did not know how to fight, we relapsed into the behavior that Mitchell saw as characteristic of paganism: looking for scapegoats, blaming the people who failed to wear masks or maintain the approved social distancing. We looked to government for a solution because we have become accustomed to asking government for solutions to our problems. But the government cannot eliminate disease. So we took another step toward the pagans and looked for someone to blame.
Ordinarily, if someone dies in a natural disaster or loses a battle with a natural disease, no one is to blame. But in the supercharged political atmosphere of 2020, there were charges and countercharges galore: unfounded claims that politicians bore the blame for Covid deaths. Worse, there arose a general suspicion of one's neighbors, a fear that any stranger might be the source of the disease that could kill. Once again, the fear was more dangerous than the disease, and (as I shall argue) the political response was more deleterious to public health than the virus.
The Good Samaritan
Christians should never have fallen in with a secular society's panicked reaction to Covid, never accepted the counsels of fear. We should always have maintained a healthy skepticism toward the notion that our government can solve our problems. We should be mindful that there will always be problems — including some grave problems, and certainly including natural death — in this world. But we have overcome the world.
When we faced Covid, an enemy we did not know how to fight, we relapsed into the behavior that Mitchell saw as characteristic of paganism: looking for scapegoats, blaming the people who failed to wear masks or maintain the approved social distancing.
Instructed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, we Christians have been trained to see all men as our neighbors, especially those in need. We should recoil from the notion that "social distancing" — isolating ourselves from others, especially potential carriers of the virus — is an elegant solution. We should be bringing health and hope to others, seeking out rather than avoiding personal contact. And the best help we can offer is our faith, our hope. "Say to those who are of fearful heart, Be strong, fear not!" (Isa. 35:4).
To help our neighbors, however, we must first strengthen ourselves. We cannot spread our faith if we do not live our faith. We need the help of grace. We need the sacraments. And in the greatest tragedy of the Covid era, access to the life-giving sacraments of Christ's Church was choked off during this time when we needed it most.
To bring the gift of hope to our neighbors, we must be able to show that our Faith is alive and real: that we practice what we preach. We must demonstrate to them that our life in Faith — our life in the sacraments — is our top priority, that our spiritual health is more important to us than our physical health. Sadly, that is not the story of the Catholic Church in the Covid era.
Infectious diseases are an unhappy reality of life on this earth. They arise unpredictably, spark fears, take their toll, and eventually subside. In 2020 the world was paralyzed by the Covid epidemic. But worse diseases, more infectious and much deadlier, have swept the world in the past. Many people died, but our societies and their institutions survived. We mourned and moved on. Not so in 2020; something utterly unprecedented happened in response to Covid.
By the time you read this book, I hope and pray that the Covid epidemic will have subsided. But inevitably there will be another epidemic in our future. How will we respond? I write now in the hope that we — especially we Christians, we Catholics — will learn to respond more appropriately, to help our neighbors escape — not just from the disease that afflicts the body but from the more dangerous disease that afflicts the soul.
A Thought Experiment
Just to help clarify our thinking, let's imagine an unpleasant possibility: that we learned, late in 2020, that sooner or later we would all be infected with the Covid virus.
This isn't an outlandish idea. Masks and social distancing hadn't stopped the spread of the disease. The virus had continued to spread — at an accelerated rate, toward the end of the year — despite painful and intrusive government restrictions on our behavior. The vaccines that were just becoming available were unproven at best; they may not work, and their potential side effects were daunting. Experts (some experts, anyway) were telling us that herd immunity was not a realistic prospect for the foreseeable future.
There are other experts who said that we were actually very close to herd immunity. Although their arguments were largely ignored by the mainstream media (which prefer the sensational bad news) and by ambitious politicians (who enjoy their newfound control), I found these experts more persuasive. But here I am not addressing the scientific arguments — which I am not competent to assess in any case. I am conducting a thought experiment. What if we were all going to be infected?
But inevitably there will be another epidemic in our future. How will we respond?
So put yourself back in, say, December 2020. Suppose that you know that eventually you will have the disease. If you are in reasonably good health, it's very unlikely that Covid will kill you. You might have no symptoms at all. Or you might be miserable for a few days, even a few weeks. There may be some lingering effects. But you'll probably live.
If you know your day with the disease is coming, you can do a few things to increase the likelihood of a quick recovery. Eat a healthy diet. Make sure you're getting plenty of vitamin D. Exercise regularly. Don't smoke. Use alcohol in moderation. In other words, you can do your best to stay healthy, with your immune system functioning at its best. But of course, you should do all that anyway.
Should you wear a mask, keep your distance, stay at home? Not for your own sake. What would be the point? In our scenario, you know that you will contract the virus someday. Why postpone the inevitable? You may even prefer to catch a mild dose right away, while you're feeling fit. Who knows? A more virulent strain of the disease might be coming, and people who have already survived one bout will probably be immune. Although you're healthy now, who knows what medical problems might crop up in the future, so that you won't be ready to combat the infection? All things considered, it may seem better to live your normal life, accepting the fact that some day you will be infected.
Do It for Others
You've been encouraged to wear a mask for the sake of others, though, on the theory that you might be infected without knowing it, and thus you could pass along the virus to others. In our scenario this logic is questionable, too. If everyone is doomed to catch Covid sooner or later, how much should you sacrifice to postpone someone else's day of reckoning? For the vast majority, a bout with Covid will be an inconvenience. Does that sound insensitive? Bear in mind that most of the people who contract the virus will experience no noteworthy symptoms. Granted, others will suffer though something more than just an ordinary "inconvenience." But you can't prevent that.
Ah, but there is another scenario, and it's one that has been sketched for you again and again. Even though you feel fine, you could be infected unawares, and you might pass along the virus to someone else, and that someone could be vulnerable, and so you might be indirectly and unintentionally responsible for a Covid fatality. The odds are heavily stacked against that prospect, but it is not impossible. Needless to say, you don't want to be responsible for a neighbor's untimely death.
Now wait; let's take a careful look at the ground we've just covered. What is an "untimely" death, in this context or any other? (Is there ever such a thing as a "timely" death?) We shall all face death; we just don't know when. "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour," Jesus warns us (Matt. 25:13).
Catholics boldly proclaim that every human being has the right to life. But no one has a "right" to escape death. We cannot protect our neighbors from the prospect of death by natural causes, and disease is a natural cause. Of course we avoid actions that would be likely to spread disease, and so responsible people stay home when they are sick. But we cannot eliminate every possible avenue of infection. As long as people live with others, some disease will spread and for some, the disease will be fatal.
Let me take my thought-experiment one step further. Imagine that — contrary to fact — you could predict the time of your own death. Imagine that you knew that you would be dead in a month. Would you want to isolate yourself from your neighbors, friends, and relatives? Would you withdraw from social life entirely? Instead, wouldn't you want to do what you could, while you could, to enjoy the company of those you love?
Or suppose you knew that you would be dead within a year, but the exact date could be sooner or later, depending on what precautions you took. Then would you withdraw, to stay alone in a sterile room and try to stretch out your term on earth as long as possible? Or would you still want to live a normal life? How many weeks of normalcy would you trade for an extra week of isolation?
Catholics boldly proclaim that every human being has the right to life. But no one has a "right" to escape death.
Stonewall Jackson was renowned not only for his strategic brilliance but also for his personal bravery in battle. When asked how he could appear untroubled by the shells that burst around him, he answered: "God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me." That's good advice for anyone to follow.
St. Charles Borromeo was playing a friendly game of chess when someone asked him: "If you were told that you were about to die, what would you do?" He answered: "I would finish this game of chess. I began it for the glory of God, and I would end it with the same intention." He had his spiritual affairs in order; he saw no reason to panic.
Our society needs the courage of Jackson, the confidence of St. Charles. In an era living under the shadow of despair, our people need hope. Not hope in a vaccine or hope in a political policy, but hope that is enduring, hope that is not shaken by earthly worries. That hope will only be found in Jesus Christ. We Christians, charged with the mission of bringing that hope to the world, must provide that hope.
The Beacon of Hope
If fear is contagious, so is faith. But to be contagious — to attract others, to light up the beacon of hope — faith must be lived with courage and confidence. Jesus taught his disciples to live their faith boldly:
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (Matt. 5:13-16)
"Do not be afraid," said Pope John Paul II, as he began the homily at the Mass inaugurating his pontificate. That same phrase, that same directive — "Do not be afraid" — occurs twenty-nine times in the Bible. Again and again, God tells his people not to shrink from confrontations with worldly powers and worldly problems. The Lord assures His faithful that He will support them with His own almighty power.
Today the modern world cries out for a new introduction to the hope that our faith can bring. To make that introduction, however, we Christians must cast off our own unhealthy fears.
"Do not be afraid," Jesus tells his first disciples, as they reel in astonishment after a display of his power over nature; "henceforth you will be catching men" (Luke 5:10). With assurance of the Lord's help, Christians should not shrink from the troubles of our day. We should recognize them as opportunities to bring our neighbors closer to God.
The year 2020 was not a happy one for Americans. The Covid menace was not the only trauma that we suffered. Our political system was strained to the breaking point; our cities were battle zones; our confidence in our future as a nation was shattered. Too many people lived in fear — not only fear of Covid but a more general fear for the future.
In the past Christianity has often grown — sometimes at a spectacular rate — during times of societal crisis. The dispirited people of Jerusalem, living unhappily under Roman domination, were ready to hear the message of St. Peter on the first Pentecost. A few centuries later, as the Roman empire collapsed, the city's people noticed that the small band of Christians, enduring through persecution, offered far more hope than the old gods or the new Goths. Today the modern world cries out for a new introduction to the hope that our faith can bring.
To make that introduction, however, we Christians must cast off our own unhealthy fears. Our neighbors must see us living with the confidence proper to children of God. If we Catholics profess that the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of our spiritual lives, our neighbors must see us making sacrifices and even running risks to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. They must see our devotion — not as a cold pious display but as a source of energy that sustains our lives. Faith is contagious when those who lack faith become curious about those who do and, finally, realize that in an era clouded by despair, Jesus Christ offers the only real hope.
Will we find a cure for Covid? I don't know. But we already have a cure for the Covid panic — if only we will share it.
Phil Lawler. "Introduction." Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic (Manchester, NC: Crisis Publications, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler.
Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN) and the director of Catholic Culture. He attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He is the author of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic, The Smoke of Satan, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture and A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future. He is the editor of When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories of the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok.Copyright © 2021 Phil Lawler
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