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COVID-19 & Catholic Social Teaching

Update on Nebraska Legislature: Due to CDC guidelines limiting the size of gatherings, Speaker Jim Scheer has postponed the legislative session. The Legislature will soon convene for the limited purpose of passing some emergency appropriations to respond to the coronavirus. Beside that occasion, it is unclear when our State Senators will return to conduct normal business. Pray for all our elected officials—federal, state, and local—who have been and will be for some time regularly engaged in making difficult decisions to protect society from a devastating outbreak of the coronavirus.

Subsidiarity. The common good. Solidarity. Human dignity.

These four fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching can often seem like amorphous terms and realities. They are not only difficult to define, but also seemingly impossible to identify and apply in the day-to-day of life. In fact, The Catholic University in America (“CUA”) produced some polling/marketing research several years ago which confirms this.

In their research findings entitled “Faithful Measure: Gauging Awareness of the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine,” the CUA professors and researchers found that “U.S. Catholics lack a knowledge about teachings of the Church on social and economic matters” and that “[o]n the knowledge of the core principles of Catholic Social Doctrine, Catholics are often indistinguishable from non-Catholics.” This was true not only for those who identify as Catholics but do not practice, but also for practicing Catholics.

For example, around 17% of practicing Catholics were able to identify and explain what the Church means by “subsidiarity.” The number dropped to 10% when it came to “common good.” “Solidarity” was understood by around 28% of practicing Catholics surveyed. While terms like these and others deeply resonated strongly with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, both groups were unable to correctly identify and define these terms.

There are, no doubt, numerous reasons why these basic building blocks of Catholic social teaching are misunderstood.

I would argue that at least one reason is that we often fail to see the world through the lens of these four basic principles of Catholic social teaching. We look at the world not with the eyes of Christ, but through different standards. We do not take the conscious effort to ask questions like these: Are my actions in conformity with solidarity? Is this corporate behavior consistent with human dignity? Is the government respecting subsidiarity when it adopts this policy? Are we generally in pursuit of the common good?

No doubt these are difficult questions to ask of ourselves. Just like with a regular examination of conscience, it takes time, effort, and honesty to ask these questions. And, frankly, they can be difficult questions to answer.

With that said, the current coronavirus crisis we are experiencing has been an excellent moment to see these four basic principles in action. This is not to say that these principles have not been violated, but that at this unique moment, it seems that these principles are alive and well in the hearts and minds of women and men across our communities.

When it comes to respecting the basic fact that each person is created in the image and likeness of God (“human dignity”), we are seeing a unique respect for the life of each and every person. There is a recognition that life is precious and to be preserved from diseases that can be combatted.

There has also been a unique “unity arising from love of one’s neighbor” (“solidarity”). You are seeing a special concern for those who are most vulnerable among us, such as the poor, elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions. As well, there is a sense that we must act together in this effort if we are to do things like “flatten the curve.”

There has also been clear evidence of respect that higher social groups should have for lower social groups, and vice versa (“subsidiarity”). In the realm of governmental decision-making, there has been regular interaction between local, statewide, and national government officials, with each sphere of government recognizing that the other sphere has a proper role to fulfill if we are to successfully maneuver through the crisis together.

Many of the actions already mentioned have ultimately been in service of ensuring that both individuals and society as a whole have what they need in order for both to experience fulfillment (“common good”). There has been a recognition on the part of individuals that, at times, their own desires must be checked by whether the desire ultimately serves broader society.
As well, there has been a broader understanding that if society as a whole is going to be fulfilled, then the individuals who make up the collective must also be respected, and their needs and rights cannot be discarded for the good of the whole.
As the spread of coronavirus continues, pay particular attention to how these principles of Catholic social teaching take place. See how they are fulfilled and be vigilant and call out their violations. This is a special moment in our history. Pray that God provides the grace that we would respect the laws He has set for the just ordering of society, and take action to the extent that you can to further this just ordering.

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