[Editor’s Note: Michael J. Baxter teaches Religious Studies and is Director of Catholic Studies at Regis University in Denver. He is currently completing a book titled Blowing the Dynamite of the Church: Radicalism Against Americanism in Catholic Social Ethics coming out from Cascade Press. He spoke to Charles Camosy about apocalyptic scenarios and the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.]
Camosy: You half-joked with me recently that talking about apocalyptic scenarios, which is your natural leaning, is much more rational now. Can you say more about this?
Baxter: Apocalyptic means “unveiling.” What we suppose to be real is shown to be illusory, and the reality is shocking and disturbing. In the Book of Revelation, Rome seems to control the world, but as the nightmarish events unfold, the Empire and its gods turn out to be false, while true power and authority of the universe are revealed to be with the Lamb who was slain. In recent days, with so many certainties suddenly rendered unreal, the rational response is not to be too certain about our assumptions, and to ask ourselves, repeatedly and reflectively, what is really going on?
After reading the first newspaper accounts of the coronavirus, I thought “that’s terrible” and asked myself “where exactly is Wuhan?” I felt removed. Not true, as it turns out. I wasn’t removed. None of us were. Now, four months later, we’ve become all too familiar with the reality of COVID-19: Face masks, social distancing, flattening curves, furloughs, job losses, school closings, zoom conferencing, increasing numbers of people infected and dead. It makes sense to ask, what else aren’t we seeing? Because these sudden revelations, these apocalyptic scenarios, occur regularly.
Give some other examples of apocalyptic scenarios?
November 6, 2016. Who can forget coming to the realization that Donald Trump would actually become the president of the United States? For operatives and pundits in both parties, it was an earthquake on the political landscape. For progressives, it was totally unexpected. There’s an hysterical Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at white liberals who were shocked on election night to learn that so many people in the United States are racist.
Another example: The financial crisis of 2008. No one saw it coming. Economists on Wall Street, in government, in the academy assumed the housing market would never collapse. Even with signs of a coming crisis, people didn’t heed them — except for a handful of weirdos and outsiders whose story is portrayed in the film “The Big Short.” At one point, a main character exclaims, “Will you listen to me: This is, like, the end of capitalism! This is like the dark ages all over again!” He gets scorned by a Wall Street Journal reporter thinking it’s the apocalypse. But it was the apocalypse for millions who lost their homes, their jobs, their life’s savings.
The lesson is that we cannot be too sure of what’s real. In December 2019, economists for Goldman Sachs said that the economy is “nearly recession proof.” This, in spite of a trade war with China, inverted yield curves for bonds, a stock market rise of 40 percent in just three years? I don’t believe it when economists and financial advisors say that another Great Depression can’t happen. What they mean is that historically it has not happened since — which is a very different claim.
So do you draw analogies to the way things are now with how they were in the 1930’s?
For sure. As many have pointed out, we’re seeing the worse numbers in unemployment since the 1930s. Forty percent of households that earn $40,000 or less a year have lost jobs. In April, retail sales dropped sixteen percent. Mortgage delinquencies and defaults for homes and businesses will rise. This will put liquidity pressure on banks. All of which may lead to another Great Depression — except that now the government has used up so many options already. On state and local levels, tax revenues will drop drastically, leading to more unemployment, more defaults, and on and on.
Along with this economic downturn will come an increase in the kind of nationalism and populism that we have seen now for several years in the United States and in Europe: Trump of course along with and Brexit and Boris Johnson in the UK, Salvini and the League party in Italy, the AfD party in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria. These political trends were underway before the COVID-19 pandemic but will worsen as economic conditions worsen.
So what should the Church do to address this situation? Or is the Church even in a place to make this kind of difference at this point in history?
The pre-pandemic Church has undercut its own ability to make a difference. For one thing, there’s the sex abuse crisis. For another, there’s the obsessive opposition to gay marriage which is weird and irrelevant in the eyes of most younger Catholics. And then there’s the culture war between liberal and conservative Catholics, which rages on and shows no sign of abating.
And now there’s the pandemic itself, which has brought church life to a standstill in so many respects. Sunday Mass, baptisms and other sacraments, church meetings are suspended or carried out under serious constraints. The economic toll on parishes, dioceses, and the USCCB promises to be devastating: people laid off, programs cancelled, services attenuated. But perhaps the greatest threat is the erosion of the sense of the irreducibly social nature of Catholicism. Catholics pray as members of a body. Having to pray alone or in the narrow context of a family can turn people reshape one’s sensibilities in an individualistic direction.
Think of the photo of the pope presiding over Good Friday liturgy at St. Peter’s standing alone in a darkened, empty church. A haunting image. So contrary to the crowds standing for the lengthy Passion Narrative, lining up to venerate the cross, kneeling for the bidding prayers, standing in line again for Holy Communion. We can only hope that Catholics in the post-pandemic era will appreciate more deeply the communal character of Catholic belief and practice.
On the other hand, in certain respects, family life is more communal than ever. Recently I read an article noting that “We Are All Monks Now.” I get the main point: Monks have something to teach us about flourishing in solitude. But living quarantined with kids feels like anything “monastic.” (Just now, as I write, Annie, my four-year old, came to me crying because, Jack, my six-year old, won’t let her play Star Wars with him, so she wants me to read a book to her.)
In this respect, family life is more communal than ever. Plus, of course, the fact that taking precautions due to COVID-19 is itself a consummate communal act of solidarity and social responsibility.
But practicing solidarity through as direct service to others can facilitate the spread of COVID-19. Where do you fall in the debate over what the Gospel demands of Christians at this time?
I fall directly behind Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I believe in evidenced-based medicine and public health as the best way in and through the COVID-19 crisis. Churches should take the recommended precautions in doing their work. At my church in Denver, for example, a group of us shifted from the usual serving of soup in a long line of homeless folks to handing out meals prepared by folks in their homes and then distributing them in paper bags. It’s risky, but less risky than the business-as-usual approach. It’s all probabilities anyway. So you reduce the likelihood of contamination and then put your faith in God. This is rational, reasonable faith in action.
Catholic teaching is particularly helpful on this score. According to Vatican I, faith and reason are two avenues to truth. They do not contradict each other. What we know by faith does not conflict with reason. The pope’s words and actions have been exemplary in this regard. The same is true of most bishops, priests, and lay leaders.
By contrast, when preachers pompously announce that they’re not afraid of holding Sunday services because they believe in Jesus, they’re notion of faith contradicts reason. They talk like snake handlers. The key is to exercise practical reasoning (for Aristotle, phronesis; fof Aquinas, prudentia) in discerning whether or not, or to what extent, and in what ways, to interact with people in need. By the way, Dr. Fauci graduated from Regis High School in Manhattan in the fifties, so he probably learned all this as a teenager.
You talked about your parish feeding homeless folks. Are there any other examples of Catholics figuring out how to adjust to the pandemic conditions?
One of the best examples I’ve read about is Catholic Worker houses approaching “the work,” as they call it, in courageous and imaginative ways. The circumstances call for a reversal of the usual practices: telling volunteers to refrain from coming to help, asking people to remain in their rooms rather than join in common activities, including supper. But, as everyone is saying, these are strange and urgent times, and they are likely to remain so for months. But the Catholic Worker was born amidst the Great Depression, so it should feel right at home.
If it is out of this context of the Great Depression that the Catholic Worker was born, should we be looking for the Worker to rise again to meet the need?
The Catholic Worker is already rising to meet the need. Scores of houses, dozens of farms, are meeting needs in one way or another. We just need more of them. Frank Cordaro of Des Moines Catholic Worker put it best when he said we don’t want every Catholic to join the Catholic Worker; we just want 1 percent of Catholics in the United States. By today’s reckoning, that would be about 700,000 people.
The point is that have the resources to meet needs even now, if we readjust our lives to do it. And one thing we’ve learned is that we have the wherewithal to readjust our lives. We are doing it, driving less, consuming less, live more simply—things we would have thought not possible or only for fringe groups and wacked out extremists. Like homeschooling. We are drawing on capacities that we did not know we had, and this can expand our vision of what is possible.
Might new groups be born in the midst of this crisis?
I suppose there will be. But more likely, I think, is that groups already formed will find a renewed purpose, as happened with the Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, the Christian Brothers, and other religious orders during the influenza epidemic of 1918. We can expect to see a surge of interest and commitment in medical professions as their commitment to serve others emerges more clearly. Doctors, nurses, and assistants who risk getting sick for the sake of their sick patients: This is heroic work that will draw in young people. Goodness is like that: It has an intrinsic attractiveness. At Regis University, where I teach, the schools of nursing and pharmacy are showing a marked increase in applications and admissions.
Speaking of higher education, the pandemic has created major challenges for Catholic colleges and universities. How should those of us called to Catholic education should think about the future of our vocations?
The biggest challenges facing Catholic colleges and universities existed long before the pandemic: the low numbers of Catholic faculty, the breakdown of core curricula, the marginalization of theology and philosophy, and so on. But these challenges will be even more daunting with the economic collapse. The top tier of Catholic schools will survive, but others may well go under.
The temptation will be to focus increasingly on job training at the expense of teaching the Catholic intellectual vision and demonstrating how it speaks to our present crisis. Our vocation is to ask students, how ought we to live? At Regis, this is something of a mantra. However well or poorly, this is the question we pursue. This crisis has brought us sickness and death, yet heroic responses as well.
The dynamics of these realities were well known to Ignatius of Loyola. It was while sick in bed that he first understood the movements of the Spirit. And he urged his followers to consider their vocations by imagining themselves on their death beds: what then will you want to have decided now? This too is an apocalyptic scenario. We know not the day or the hour. Catholic higher education should help students discern their vocations in light of such truths.