The events of the past year have posed new and, in certain respects, unprecedented challenges not only for the Church and the body politic, but also for individual man and his relationship to both. In the early days of the pandemic, governments surely had just cause for concern in the face of this highly contagious and largely unknown disease. One year on, however, it seems that a more sober analysis is in order.
Certainly, 2.7 million global deaths is a tragic milestone. And yet, with cases finally on the decline, we are only just beginning to come to terms with the untold socio-cultural cost of lockdown policies, mask mandates, and enforced social distancing. Whatever one thinks of the governmental measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus, one point is clear: the societal fallout of COVID-19 has been such as to rapidly hasten the socio-cultural decline already well underway across the Western world during the past few decades. A direct and dire consequence of this state of affairs is the sustained degradation of man in his social, political, and spiritual nature, a degradation which will only be reversed by recourse to a sound anthropology rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Naturally, there will be those who claim that the health benefits of COVID-19 restrictions have outweighed the side effects, that the mask mandates and other equally invasive policies were ‘necessary evils’ in this time of crisis. Maybe so. But that shouldn’t distract us from the broader point, which is that they are evils, in both their immediate and long-term effects.
Doubtless the damage to physical health caused by the virus has been considerable. But the full social costs of massively increased mental health issues, suicides, alcoholism, obesity, pornography usage, and divorce—all brought about in no small part by state-instituted policies in response to the pandemic—are yet to be fully determined. More troublesome still are the serious threats which these policies have presented to our individual civil liberties and to the social fabric of the nation. Lurking behind it all, a confused and flawed anthropology lies hidden as if in plain view.
In surveying the scale of the problem, it is worth reminding ourselves how far—or how low—COVID-19 has brought us. As Peter Hitchens rightly observes, the state has already thrust itself into every corner of our lives in the name of combating this virus:
It has come between husbands and wives at the ends of their lives. It has forbidden the old to embrace their grandchildren. It has denied us funerals and weddings, locked the churches, silenced the ancient monastic music of cathedral choirs and prevented the free worship of God for the first time in 800 years, and banned us (unless we are Left-wing) from holding or attending public meetings. (Daily Mail, 19 July, 2020)
The crisis must not be understated. Never before in the history of English common law have the masses so willingly gone along with all manner of pervasive and intimate governmental overreach. In an insidious contortion of Christian ethics, “Love your neighbor, and especially the vulnerable” is now replaced with “Surrender your liberties for the sake of the community, or else we’ll turn you into a social pariah.”
The issue of facemasks is especially instructive. We now experience a situation where, by executive edict, the all-powerful state not only requests but actively demands, almost without exception and under penalty of fines or something worse, that every man, woman, and child cover their faces with a soggy cloth. Of course, facemasks may well carry some health benefit in the face of this disease. But we would be foolish to ignore the other, less benign effects that flow from their statewide enforcement. In a culture prone to what Neil Postman has described as “The Great Symbol Drain,” the symbolism of the facemask still retains a remarkable potency. To wear the thing is to submit, and visibly so, to the proposition that the Big Brother arm of the state knows our human needs and priorities better than we do.
Christopher Dawson, in his classic work The Crisis of Western Education, asks how it is that the people of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia were, by and large, willing to tolerate the murderous abuses committed at the hands of their civil leaders. The answer? “[T]he instinct of social conformity is stronger than the instinct of humanitarianism. When the state decides that inhuman measures are required for the good of the party, the individual accepts its decision without criticism and in fact without recognizing what the state is doing.” By nature a social animal, man will always naturally seek to conform to the herd mentality, and it typically takes a significant amount of effort and moral resolve for him to counteract this proclivity.
The cultural elites of our day understand this facet of human nature all too well. Media brainwashing, as well as public shaming of celebrities who dare contravene the established edicts, are just some of their preferred methods for attaining ideological uniformity. Together with Marx, they tacitly deny human nature, positing in its place the Gattungswesen, or “species-essence,” defined solely in terms of social relations. Man is not, in the final analysis, an individual with unique value and worth. Rather, he exists merely as a cog in the social machine working toward an agenda which the higher-ups have already set. Says Oliver Goldsmith:
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn,
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
Perhaps the reason the powers-that-be are so interested in social conformity, so desperate to make their policies appear “normal,” is because they realize that without the illusion of normalcy, ordinary people might wake up and realize the absurdity of what is going on. They are terrified of the little child pointing out the uncomfortable truth that the emperor has no mask.
Behind much of the foregoing lies a metaphysical reality succinctly captured in Gaudium et spes, one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council: “When God is forgotten…the creature itself grows unintelligible” (36). Richard John Neuhaus made the same observation at a societal level: without religion, politics cannot hope to flourish. The events of the past year have clearly crystallized this reality, highlighting the manner in which, for modern man who is no longer sure as to what his highest good is, the state has become his idol to which he turns for wealth and security. In this pitiful condition, the mighty arm of the federal government has even morphed into the source and guarantor of his rights and liberties. In return, he simply needs to extend his unfailing and unquestioning allegiance.
Historically, of course, it was the purview of the Church to temper the worst excesses of governmental overreach. Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, has always been a defender of man as man. In the second century, St. Irenaeus stood heroically against the Gnostics who sought, in the Platonic tradition, to undermine man’s bodily nature and elevate the spiritual at the expense of the physical. In the post-Enlightenment era, by contrast, hedonism has proven the greater challenge, with the Church standing firmly against the pleasure-seeking excesses of the materialist-individualist Zeitgeist.
Today, however, it appears that the Western world has largely descended into that anthropological nihilism so contrary to the Church’s mission, yet so delighted in by “the principalities and the powers” (see Ephesians 6:12). COVID-19 did not cause this state of affairs, but it certainly aided and exacerbated it. More regrettable still has been the systematic failure of the Church to properly respond to the current crisis. Though at first an unknown quantity, it quickly became clear in late spring of last year that the threat posed by COVID-19 was not as grave as we first feared.
Nevertheless, in spite of this newfound information, the vast majority of Church leaders were content to go along with the mainstream media narrative. With a few notable exceptions, many dioceses backed down—worse, bowed down—before the great Hobbesian Leviathan with its requests (in some cases, demands) that the churches be closed. The result, at least in the Catholic world, has been the de facto end of the Sunday obligation, lending credence to the notion that hand sanitizer and facemasks would be more effective than prayer and worship in combating the invisible foe.
In the midst of this rapid and pervasive cultural decline—a decline severely hastened and exacerbated by the pandemic—the Western world stands at a crossroads. No longer certain as to what it means to be an imago Dei, our vision of the human person stands confused and distorted and in desperate need of renewal. Yet we must not lose heart, for it has always been in the darkness that that distinctly Christian virtue of hope shines most luminously. It is hope which will carry us through the present crisis and help us rediscover man’s identity and design.
Empowered by this hope, we must seek nothing less than to foster a new Christian humanism. Better still, we must advance a theocentric humanism, one which recognizes man’s proper place in the cosmos, as well as his dependence on his Creator. The cultural Marxists have done their utmost to disfigure this truth, but theirs will be the defeat in the end because their worldview rests on sand. Nevertheless, the battle will be intense, with losses on both sides. Like the humanists of old, we will do well to look ad fontes—to the sources—for our inspiration and encouragement, knowing as we do that our faith lies not in princes, but rather in Jerusalem and Rome, and in the God whom they worshipped. The princes may claim that everything is fine. They may wish that this were the new normal. But we understand it is not so. No matter how hard they try to deter or silence us, we must still voice what we know to be true.
A well-situated Populace, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bare Faces, shall not be infringed. So might read an amendment to some futuristic constitution intent on avoiding the mistakes of the past. One year on from the outbreak of the pandemic, we would do well to recognize the tragedy of the 2.7 million lives lost and the many families grieving the loss of a loved one. At the same time, we should maintain some sense of perspective. We live in a world where 3.1 million children die of undernutrition every year, yet in our minds this doesn’t merit the same urgency as a virus for which the median age of death is 82 years old. In any case, whatever one thinks of the virus itself, its effects are no longer in doubt: the elevation of the secular over the religious, the physical over the spiritual, and the communal over the individual. This is none other than a rage against man, and it is high time we stand up and speak out against this degradation—before we, too, are silenced.