As our journey through the trying time of COVID-19 extends into May and promises to be with us through the summer and into fall, the dimensions of this crisis are difficult to comprehend. The scientific data are being conscientiously shared with us by women and men of great skill and dedication, but this highly contagious and deadly disease persists.
Beyond science, defining the social reality created by the coronavirus is what many of our leaders and we as citizens struggle with each day. The social reality encompasses our personal existence, our care for our families, our neighbors, and the wider society. The paradox of COVID-19 is that we must confront it together or we will not defeat it, yet the measures we are called to observe — social distancing, staying at home, masking our faces — force us instead to remain separate and apart from each other. What we are experiencing, and likely much of what lies ahead in the near future, is so far from what we’ve known. Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have given us wise and reasonable measures to observe. One sure way of working together is to do our part to help mitigate the spread of the disease.
Beyond personal and social disciplines, there are other resources we can rely upon. In modern societies, faith and science are sometimes seen as adversarial. In my view, the common danger posed by COVID-19 invites us to unite these two manifestations of the human spirit. Success lies in maximizing our intellectual and spiritual capacities.
In different ways, faith and science are distinct resources that assist us in interpreting the world we inhabit. Modern science continues to deepen our understanding of our common home. One of the principal characteristics of our society is that the full range of modern science has opened doors for us, from biomedical research to aeronautics.
Faith complements science; it does not compete with it. It asks questions science does not ask, and in response to questions dealing with meaning and morality, faith speaks to the human spirit and the inquiring intellect. The coronavirus, whatever its origins and its consequences, can leave any of us with the sense that each of us faces its threats alone and unprotected. Science searches for methods of prevention and protection; faith speaks to us about the abiding presence of a God we cannot see or touch, but who surrounds us with care and endows us with courage. As part of the ancient legacy of faith, we were once told that every hair on our head is valued by the creator of the universe.
Faith and science, each in its own way, become sources of human hope. Hope involves the capacity to face reality and not be overwhelmed by it. Science gives us hope based on the conviction that, while the universe is mysterious, its inner laws can be discovered and enhance human life. In just the last century, scientists in this country split the atom and cracked the genetic code, opening frontiers unimagined for ages before us. Faith gives us hope based on the conviction that God works through us, and in our work God is closer to us than we could imagine.
This belief that God works through us brings us back to the social reality of COVID-19. Understanding that social reality begins with a sense of how the coronavirus has impacted our community, our country, and our world. It illustrates in vivid terms that the virus does not recognize borders or boundaries. As we look at the Commonwealth and the country, while all of us are threatened by COVID-19, some are clearly more burdened than others.
There are multiple examples in the media each day that hundreds of citizens are working to alleviate the burdens of those most affected by COVID-19. Health care professionals, including nurses, doctors, and hospital staff are the premier example of those risking their lives to save lives. They are joined by first responders, food suppliers, and pharmacy and transportation professionals. New England poet James Russell Lowell once wrote, “New occasions teach new duties.” We are surrounded by professionals and plain citizens coming forward to fulfill these duties.
Duties to whom? No list would be complete. Any social calculation would have to begin with the statistical data that fills our news each day. But even the best statistics can’t convey the deep human significance of what we are experiencing. Behind every statistic is a life, a face, a family, a narrative of loss and grief. Three examples may exemplify, but will not exhaust, the scope of our reality.
The number of people unemployed exceeds anything we could have imagined, not only now but also, it would seem, for months to come. This consequence of our health crisis cuts across every level of society. From minimum-wage workers to high-income executives, the pace and scope of unemployment is shocking. Work has many dimensions in life; it is not only economic. Work is what gives purpose, direction, and meaning to much of life. Without it, the negative outcomes seamlessly cross from issues of income to identity and a sense of worth. The response to the emerging threat of unemployment requires generous and wise public policy, safety nets, and protection of families from eviction and the provision of health care. It also requires being aware of our neighbors who are experiencing a threat to livelihood and stability.
Unemployment can threaten all sectors of our society. A different focus needs to be directed to specific communities in the Commonwealth and the country. Here, the impact of COVID-19 on the Black and Latino communities requires immediate, specific attention. The social disparities of health have never been more vividly displayed. COVID-19 provides yet another chapter in the nation’s history where race and ethnicity illustrate multiple forms of inequality and require concentrated attention and action. Clearly, we will need an economic recovery that is just and humane.
A different challenge resides in the immigrant communities in our midst. It needs to be said in very clear language that plans to use the COVID crisis to implement policies of expulsion and exclusion of immigrants are unjust, inhumane, and malevolent. Not least among these policies are the conditions in which some detainees in prisons are kept not only at the southern border but in other locations as well.
These three examples do not exhaust those most vulnerable among us. Senior citizens and all those in nursing facilities deserve our prayers; they, and all those who have died and their families, all need to be remembered in our prayers.
We are all at risk. We all need to do whatever must be done to strengthen the bonds of solidarity, civility, and charity in this land; we will do all this only if we do it together. Only if we remember President Lincoln’s exhortation to act from the better angels of our nature. Only if we remember, in religious and secular ways, the words of Jesus: Love one another.
Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley is the archbishop of Boston.