CHICAGO — Americans must move past the health-wealth dichotomy that dominates public debate about how to manage the current pandemic to find a way forward, said a panel of Catholic scholars during a webinar June 2.
“Either you want to kill Grandma or you want to destroy the economy and leave millions of people unemployed, and people fight and they polarize, but we don’t ask, ‘What is the wealth for?'” said Mary Hirschfeld, associate professor of economics and theology at Villanova University.
“And on the health side, it’s just a very thin idea about health” that doesn’t consider the importance of social interaction, work, productivity and human relationships, she said.
Consensus is absent in liberal, present-day society about what goods to pursue and tends to emphasize “instrumental goods,” such as health and wealth, she said. However, a “thicker conception” of the common good is needed and is precisely what Catholic social teaching can contribute to the public conversation.
The online event was organized by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago as a follow-up to an event it held last month that addressed the COVID-19 response mostly from an economic perspective. Much of the June 2 discussion, moderated by Joseph Capizzi, moral theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, hinged on the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Georgetown University, underlined competing conceptions of the common good that emerged during the public debate, including the utilitarian, neo-liberal and totalitarian perspectives.
He contrasted these views with the Catholic understanding of the common good, which he described as “integral,” where the good and flourishing of the individual is in part constituted by the good and flourishing of the whole and vice versa. This “integral” approach seeks both to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 and to act in solidarity with the poor, he said.
Kirk Doran, associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, also emphasized that “there is no dichotomy between health and wealth.” Rather, health and wealth are “intimately related.”
“What we’re trying to do is to understand a very subtle set of responses that are rippling through our economy, rippling through people’s emotional lives, rippling through everything, and they’re all affecting each other at the same time, and that’s what makes this super complicated,” said Doran. “If it was simple tradeoffs between health and wealth, it would be easier.”
Doran’s observation of the social movement that emerged online — what he called “a viral desire” — to protect others by not engaging in usual economic activity, opened the discussion on the principle of solidarity in Catholic social teaching.
The “strong sense” of solidarity that played out in social distancing was “really very moving,” said Hirschfeld. However, she wondered whether it “could have been extended” to consider the “downstream effects” of people’s individual and collective decisions on local businesses, as well as on the poor around the world, who suffer the effects of a slowdown in the global economy.
“I just wonder if the culture could have arrived at a better balance, thinking about our solidarity on all these dimensions,” she said.
The scholars agreed that local responses to the pandemic, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, was coherent with the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching.
“The way (COVID-19) affects Montana is not the same as it affects New York City — the population density, the subtypes of the virus circulating in different areas need different responses,” said Sulmasy.
He addressed misperceptions on the panel about the gravity of the pandemic, saying he has never in his 35 years of medical practice seen an infection admit so many people to the hospital and strain medical resources as COVID-19.
“I would not downplay this,” he said. “Symptomatic COVID is more lethal than symptomatic flu. The speed by which it spreads through the population by contagion is greater.”
He also was tentative about students returning to colleges and universities in the fall. While he said he doesn’t believe people could stay in “total lockdown forever,” he urged caution and a wait-and-see approach over the summer.
“We don’t have enough information yet about whether every place will come down to a low-enough level (of contagion) that we can find ways to open up places like universities again, so that it will be safe to the general population,” he said. “There’s minimally effective treatment, some hoped-for vaccines, but certainly no guarantee, and even when young people get this disease, it’s no picnic.”
As regards the economy, Doran underlined that the decision of individual citizens to practice social distancing prior to government-imposed lockdowns had already led to a drastic decline in the service industry and was likely responsible for half of the current economic downturn.
Panelist Jesuit Father Paul McNelis, who holds the Robert Bendheim chair in economic and financial policy at Fordham University, warned the unemployment rate would likely continue to increase post-lockdown, despite a return to market activity. Historically, many people who lose their jobs in an economic downturn “never go back to work,” he said. “Firms recapitalize with labor-saving technologies” and workers are replaced or found “obsolete,” he added.
Hirschfeld offered her reflection on an aspect of Catholic tradition, which she said has gotten “very little attention” in the ongoing debate — that “this world is not the only world there is.”
“Every life will have death and suffering it in, no matter what,” she said, attributing some of the social tensions to the “modern conception” that humans can somehow control or “get away” from death and suffering.
“I think if we can just bring it down a notch and say, ‘I love people, and I want to them live, and every life matters and that’s truly important, but I can’t fix every suffering, and I can’t prevent every death,'” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s not our show. We don’t get to fix everything.”
Panel members shared their hopes for possible positive social outcomes of the pandemic. First among them was that experts in different fields, including epidemiologists, public health experts, lawmakers and economists, would talk to one another in a future health crisis, prior to implementing responses, to avoid unintended consequences, economic or otherwise.
Hirschfeld said she also hopes for opportunities to build on the “strong impulse” of solidarity among the population. Sulmasy spoke of the potential of developing better care for elderly and minority, inner-city populations, who were both “disproportionately affected by the virus.”
McNelis took his inspiration for post-COVID-19 from the 1950s, after the Second World War, when “a lot of good things happened,” even though people were expecting another Great Depression.
“I think there will be a new patriotism and a new willingness for social cooperation,” he said. “We can hope and pray for that as we recover.”