NEW YORK — While much is uncertain during this global health crisis, the belief that Catholic social thought requires valuing human life and dignity over economic concerns was the widespread consensus among Catholic leaders during an online forum convened by Georgetown University.

The range of voices included a small business owner, healthcare professionals, a policy expert, and a priest — all of whom met virtually last Thursday for an online dialogue on Catholic Social Thought and the Coronavirus Crisis, organized by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

“This is a moral test for us,” said John Carr, director of Georgetown’s Initiative and moderator of the panel. “The scale of suffering and death and tensions and division and isolation is just overwhelming and a test like this reveals who we are, what we believe, and what type of society we’re becoming.”

Carr said that the traditions of our faith are being turned upside down at the moment, noting that honoring the Sabbath means staying at home and honoring your father and mother may mean keeping your distance in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Father Myles Sheehan, who is both a Jesuit priest and physician, turned to Ignatius of Loyola who said that love is shown in deeds, not words, emphasizing that social distancing is one concrete way of loving one’s neighbor. He also highlighted those on the front lines who are putting their own health at risk for the sake of the community, such as healthcare workers and grocery store clerks who still show up for work to provide essential services.

“We need to look at our communities with respect for the individual and ways that we can balance that and a time like this certainly stresses it,” he said of the tensions created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even so, despite these sacrifices for the sake of the common good, panelist Sister Carol Keehan, D.C., a nurse and former president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said that the United States is fortunate that there are “echoes” of Catholic social thought in the founding documents of the country.

In particular, she said it will help to ensure that the poor and the marginalized are “not left out or are the least in line” during this pandemic.

Reyna Guardado, a Salvadoran immigrant and co-owner of a family restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland, provided a firsthand testimonial of that, speaking of the hardships she and her family have faced in recent weeks of making the difficult decision to lay off workers — but also of the support she has received from the community through a crowd funding campaign which has allowed them to rehire four workers that have families to support so that the restaurant can in turn deliver meals for delivery and takeout.

John Monahan, the senior advisor for global health to the president of Georgetown University who worked with Health and Human Services during the H1N1 pandemic, said that while the U.S. may be a diverse and pluralistic nation, “we have to use moral language,” in making a case for the common good and that Catholic social thought is particularly useful for that.

“If we’re constraining individual freedom and rights on behalf of doing something that is going to benefit the public good or benefit people you’ll never know — there are 300 million people in this country and seven billion people on earth,” he noted. “If we take steps to mitigate, those steps are going to save lives that we don’t know.”

Monahan specifically highlighted the notion of solidarity and gave the example of discussions and eventual decisions that were made during the last pandemic where that principle came into particular focus when President Barack Obama decided that if a vaccine became available, the U.S. would share ten percent with the World Health Organization for benefit of low income countries.

He said that it’s very possible that the U.S. will soon once more face similar decisions regarding antivirals, diagnostics, or perhaps an eventual vaccine to fight the coronavirus and that the principles of Catholic social teaching are useful in answering the question “how much are willing to share?”

While the participants were all positive about the use of the Church’s social teaching, they warned of challenging times ahead, both at the macro and micro levels.

Keehan and Sheehan both warned that healthcare workers are still in need of basic supplies such as facemasks, while Guardado wondered what will happen to the undocumented workers who won’t receive support from the recent economic stimulus package that was passed by Congress.

The panelists also highlighted that broad structural changes are needed, especially when it comes to the way the U.S. healthcare system operates, but also emphasized that local action is needed to, with multiple speakers suggesting that healthy Catholics e-mail their local parishes to find out if elderly parishioners need help getting groceries or support with their basic utilities.

“We can’t win this thing unless we have a sense that all seven billion of us have a threat from this virus,” said Monahan.

Closing out the 90-minute discussion, Carr told the more than 500 people who tuned in via Facebook Live, that Pope Francis epitomizes Catholic social teaching, especially through his metaphor of rejecting the throwaway culture, which reduces life — from the elderly, the unborn, to the environment — as disposable.

“We’re staring it in the face right now,” he said. “We would do worse than to follow the message of Catholic social teaching and the example of Pope Francis.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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