Church can help as 'social distancing' raises risk of isolation and loneliness

Church can help as ‘social distancing’ raises risk of isolation and loneliness

Church can help as ‘social distancing’ raises risk of isolation and loneliness

People line up to enter in a shop to buy supplies in Barcelona, Spain, March 17, 2020. (Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP.)

Marcus Mescher, PhD, is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says social distancing — necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus — is exposing more of us to the isolation and loneliness that many American adults have been feeling for years.

[Editor’s Note: Marcus Mescher, PhD, is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He specializes in Catholic social teaching and moral formation, and is the author of a dozen academic articles and book chapters. His writing has also appeared in America magazine, Millennial Journal, and Daily Theology. He and his wife Anne are the proud parents of Noah, Benjamin, and Grace. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, The Ethics of Encounter.]

Camosy: It is difficult to imagine a more timely contribution than your new book on The Ethics of Encounter. On multiple levels. Can you say a bit about what motivated the book and what your central thesis is?

Mescher: I’ve been Catholic all my life and I feel very grateful for many wonderful teachers, mentors, and friends who have nurtured my faith formation over the years. As I look back on it, my faith has been deepened more by connections with other people than by content I learned in a sermon or lecture. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

I keep that in mind to remember the presence and power of God in each person I encounter, although it’s not always easy to be mindful of that in every interaction. I am who I am because of the encounters that have changed the way I see myself, others, and the world – especially in places and people I did not expect. I wrote this book in response to widespread despair, division, and distrust because I believe Mother Teresa was right when she observed, “If we do not have peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

In the seven years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been calling on people all over the world to build a “culture of encounter,” and in this book I explore the possibilities and limits of bringing people together across differences in an American context. I am responding to the same problem of “throwaway culture” that you address in your book, but where you focus on specific moral issues, I focus on the attitudes and actions that might overcome the obstacles that keep us from recognizing that we are equals in God’s eyes who belong to each other. My goal for this book is to leverage Pope Francis’ vision for a “culture of encounter” in order build more inclusive networks of belonging.

In my view, you are absolutely right to start with “The Divided States of America” in setting up your argument. But how do you respond to the view that we aren’t nearly as divided today as in other eras–such as during the cultural rending that took place over slavery and civil rights?

In January, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. I was stunned not only by the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but so many human experiences of suffering that I had been shielded from in my upbringing and education. I am sure the same could be said following a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s true that our nation’s history is filled with barbarism and division. By starting the book with “The Divided States of America,” I aim to demonstrate that our differences are not just a matter of opinion or bias; they are historical, geographical, and institutional.

Marcus Mescher. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

This is why it’s not enough to embrace civility or invoke tolerance. Yes, the world needs more kindness, but kindness is not enough to resist social sin, restore right-relationships, and deliver on the demands of justice at the personal, social, and structural levels. Many of my students describe a mentality of “I do me, you do you.” This sounds nice at first, but it undermines moral norms and promotes the abdication of social responsibility. By foregrounding the “ethics of encounter” with examples of social division and unjust inequalities, I point to the need to break through our homogeneous lifestyle enclaves and social network bubbles in order to draw near to the “other,” listen and learn from them, especially those who have been pushed to the margins, made to feel invisible, or erased from our personal and collective consciousness.

As you say, many of us were suffering from isolation and loneliness well before the arrival of the novel coronavirus caused us to dramatically isolate ourselves. Especially in light of your insights in this book, how should we think about living out a culture of encounter in our current moment?

We were born to bond; our brains are hard-wired for connection. Social distancing — necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus — is exposing more of us to the isolation and loneliness that many American adults have been feeling for years. We need community, which does not mean we should ignore precautions about COVID-19. On the contrary, it underscores the importance of the common good that reaches beyond borders.

The coronavirus highlights the need to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the most vulnerable members of our communities. In a crisis like this one, there are temptations to panic, to blame, and to hoard. Long before the coronavirus reached our communities, we have been operating from a framework that presumes scarcity and feasts on cynicism.

In this cultural moment, the “culture of encounter” calls us away from self-concern and apathy in the face of others’ suffering. We can and should use our digital tools and networks to check in on friends, family, and strangers. We have a special obligation to those who endure social isolation due to age, illness, disability, poverty, and any deprivation that increases insecurity.

Christian discipleship orbits around agapic love that wills the good of the other more than the good of the self (Philippians 2:3). At the same time, self-gift should not necessarily become self-annihilation, which is why I dedicate a chapter to the process of discerning what courage, mercy, generosity, humility, and fidelity look like in our lives. Civilizations are judged by the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. This will be a telling moment for how well we live up to American values like “liberty and justice for all” in addition to Jesus’ command to love each other as we have been loved (John 13:34).

You have an interesting section in the book on “encounter through a screen” which, through also deeply relevant before, is now at the very center of so many people’s lives. Is it possible for us to have a truly human encounter when mediated by a screen?

I don’t want to argue that “encounter through a screen” can fully replicate or should replace physical interactions offline. But I do want to highlight the need for more humane digital encounters, given widespread cold-hearted comments and cruel treatment on so many websites and social media platforms (even #CatholicTwitter is susceptible to vicious ad hominem attacks and a lack of charity across differences.)

People are who socially marginalized can find a haven of affirmation and support in online networks. The internet can be a source of escape, entertainment, and empowerment for many of us. But it can also be a source of mindless distraction if not also dehumanization. Sometimes screens make it easier to be spectators than stakeholders, as the “slacktivism” trend reveals.

We often think of our phones and other digital devices as essential tools to increase efficiency, but we don’t think enough about the impact imprint of spending so much time with a screen, of texting rather than calling, or emailing rather than meeting. Who are the people we fail to engage because we spend so much time with our screens? More time spent with social media actually produces greater anxiety and isolation, showing that these digital connections aren’t a panacea. They are tools, so their moral value is determined by how these tools and connections are used, and for what telos (end).

If we use our phones, tablets, and other digital devices to affirm human dignity, deliver on human rights, foster mutual respect and responsibility, and promote authenticity and accountability, they can be promising pathways to integral human flourishing. But they should supplement and not supplant corporeal human interaction that can be more attentive and responsive to our gifts and needs as embodied persons.

You speak about a “culture of belonging” at several points throughout the book. How should we think about building such a culture? I guess I’m asking especially in light of the debates many Christians have over the role public policy plays vs. the role mediating institutions (like local churches, clubs, sports, etc.) play.

I see a “culture of belonging” as the fruit of what Pope Francis describes when he calls on us to build a “culture of encounter.”

This strikes to the core of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry: he associated with outcasts, restored sinners to right-relationships in the community, and interacted with those his contemporaries considered impure and unworthy. Jesus erased dividing lines between those considered worthy and unworthy, which I find especially relevant today, when so many people question their worth and wonder if or where they belong.

Solidarity is a tricky word and it has been used in the past to reinforce an “us versus them” tribalism. When people invoke the word “solidarity,” they typically appeal to a sense of unity or togetherness that relies on clear boundaries of belonging. Pope Francis has made some appeals to build a “culture of solidarity,” but I’m not sure this clearly communicates the kind of inclusion and interdependence required by envisioning a future that excludes no one.

My hope with this book is that people see the Great Commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself as a call to move beyond episodes of tolerance, kindness, or generosity and instead adopt the practice of cultivating more inclusive networks of belonging, mutual respect and responsibility, and heal the wounds that produce silence, shame, and separation. To create a “culture of belonging” requires work on the personal, social, and institutional levels.

Although Catholic social teaching is oriented to a top-down, principles-to-practice approach, I am proposing a more integral view of what it means to become people—personally, relationally, and collectively—who celebrate human dignity, promote human rights, and advance the global common good. For this reason, The Ethics of Encounter sets its sights on solidarity and sustainability as the byproduct of communion with God, self, and one another. I see the ethics of encounter as a practice of hope, a commitment that keeps us from settling for anything less than what God makes possible.


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