Catholic Social Teaching looks at the policy of lockdowns
The impact of the Covid era on the Common Good is complex, and as the scale of the fallout becomes clear, there will be more scrutiny on the decisions that have been taken by government. Public opinion about lockdown policies has become polarised and this is inhibiting serious deliberation. We are pleased to bring you this essay by Edward Hadas who deploys the tradition of Catholic social teaching to examine the non medical effects of these policies. Whether or not you agree with him, his analysis opens up the debate and prompts a deeper consideration of what it is to be a human being.
Much has been written about the medical aspects of Covid-19. Some attention has been paid to the effectiveness of the lockdowns ordered to combat the disease. Much less interest has been shown in evaluating the gamut of their non-medical effects. “Lockdown” refers to any collection of severe and fairly long-lasting governmental restrictions on the normal activities of human beings. This essay is a critical study of what these lockdowns have done. My conclusions may be controversial, but they are built on a firm foundation, six principles from Catholic Social Teaching.
I should say that while these six principles are Christian, they are all more or less acceptable to most secular humanists. The agreement should not be surprising, because the social teaching, developed and articulated by the leaders of the Catholic Church since the late 19th century, is built around the widely accepted idea that the leaders and members of all societies should promote the common good. Of course, the meaning of “common good” is controversial, but the Catholic understanding can be described as an expanded and elevated version of some secular ones. For Catholics, the common good is the shared fulness of being human, a fulness that is both entirely individual and completely communal, rooted in the past and anticipating the future, resolutely material and unapologetically spiritual. (Comp. 164-167[i])
1) Respect for universal human dignity
The first principle is that each person has an inherent dignity. For Christians, the dignity is a reflection of the special human position in the universe as creatures who bear the image of God (Comp. 108). Secular humanists do not mention any deity, but they also generally believe in something like universal human dignity, for example in universal human rights. All would agree that this dignity is often not respected, for example when people are treated as nothing more than possible vectors of infection from contagious diseases. Such treatment is worse than demeaning. It is totally misguided. The protection of human dignity may sometimes require accepting unwanted infections and the deaths they cause. That will be the case when the available ways of avoiding those deaths are too damaging to our communal dignity to be acceptable. Even in the midst of a pandemic, maximising the ability of people to live the fulfilled lives that are in accord with their dignity can be preferable to minimising the number of deaths caused by the disease.
This moral reality – that the dignity of life can be more important than the absolute length of life – is highly relevant to lockdowns, which restrict activities in ways that insult many aspects or expressions of humans’ unique dignity. In what follows, I hope to show that the insults are so numerous and serious that any argument about whether lockdowns are justified that does not take this moral reality into account is fatally flawed.
The most relevant expression of dignity is probably our love and friendship for each other. Christians describe the life-fulfilling self-gift through love as an image and foretaste of God’s own Trinitarian love. For the less theologically minded, the fulfilment that comes from sharing our lives is simply a fact. Meaningful and necessary interpersonal ties are found in extended and nuclear families, in all sorts of friendship, in the multitude of shared efforts at work and play, and in the many sorts of communities that bind us together.
Physical presence is crucial to this flourishing in affection and mutual care. Of course, there are many dignified long-distance contacts. Zoom calls are not bad in themselves. However, we humans are essentially physical creatures from womb to tomb. We lose some of our humanity’s fulness when our in-person connections are frayed or lost. Social isolation tends to lead to deep sadness and many sorts of psychological disorders. Even when spirits are not depressed, the loss of flourishing is significant. Virtual company is an inadequate substitute for time with other people.
From this perspective, it is distressing to think that the whole point of lockdowns is exactly to limit our time together as much as possible. In other words, at the very heart of all lockdowns is an insult to this central expression of human dignity.
Neighbour-love is by no means the only expression of dignity that lockdowns harm. Religious people consider the capacity to show and experience the love of God to be as central as the love of neighbour to the distinctly human fullness of life. In Christianity, as in most religions, the human relationship with the divine is understood to be inherently social – we need to worship God in community. More than that, for the better part of two millennia in the West and its offshoots, places of communal Christian worship have been locations of neighbourly love, where that love is imbued with the divine. Further, churches and other places of worship are sources of hope, succour and wisdom in the face of the mysteries of birth, life and death. They are temples of the uniquely human and transcendentally dignified capacity to wonder at and celebrate the great mysteries of human experience. Nor should it be forgotten that churches have sometimes been places and organisations of resistance to governmental attacks on human dignity. I will come back to the churches’ complicity in their current disempowerment later. For now, I will only say that lockdown restrictions on public worship are an insult to this crucial aspect of human dignity.
Secular people may not care much about worship, but they would join the religious in considering freedom to be an inherent part of human dignity. Freedom is a prerequisite for the full expression of our love of people, and, the religious would add, of God. We cannot flourish as we should whenever we cannot respond as we think best to the needs and desires of others and to action of the grace of God in our lives. When the reduction of freedom is both extreme and enforced by the authority of one person over another, it is called slavery. In lockdowns, governments create a sort of social slavery by sharply restricting freedom – and directly insulting human dignity.
Then there is the dignity and flourishing that is expressed in the uniquely human abilities to strive for knowledge and to appreciate beauty. To close schools or universities, to teach students at a distance, to close theatres and museums – all those are insults to human dignity. The damage to education deserves special notice, because it is an assault on future as well as current flourishing. In most of Europe, the lockdown has led only to relatively brief gaps in schooling, although university education is still restricted. In the United States, as many as half the students at public schools are being kept at home. This insult to their dignity is great.
The ability to travel is not intrinsic to human dignity, but it becomes almost essential when the normal lives of loving, working, and learning rely on long journeys. To cut off customary contacts because they are far away is an insult to human dignity. Something similar can be said about modern leisure activities – they are not inherent to human dignity, but they have become important sources of community and shared experiences. Severe restrictions on spectator and participatory sports, tourism, and popular entertainments are all insults to human dignity.
All these grievous insults to human dignity should be weighed up when contemplating any decision to restrict normal activities. Considering its seriousness, a lockdown can only possibly be justified as some sort of “lesser evil”. It can only be imposed justly if its inevitable grievous insults to human dignity are judged to be less bad than the good, the fewer deaths and less long-term physical suffering, that it is expected to provide.
I think of lockdowns as something like chemotherapy for cancer. Just as chemo almost kills physical bodies in order to protect them from death, lockdowns seriously weaken bodies politic in order to protect them from something worse. Good doctors always order chemotherapy with a certain reluctance, and always try to minimise the dose. The caution should be even greater for lockdowns. The damage they cause to human flourishing and dignity is so severe that they should only be ordered with a heavy heart, indeed with fear and trembling, and only after long and painful deliberation. That seriousness is always appropriate, no matter how many premature deaths the lockdowns are expected to prevent. If lockdowns do not significantly delay many deaths, as many serious scientists are persuaded, then the balance is totally one-sided. In that case, the insults to dignity would be completely gratuitous. They could only be excused if experts had come to the wrong conclusions about effectiveness after steady and diligent research. In any case, starting or continuing a social policy as insulting to dignity as lockdowns on the basis of mere hunches or even careless analysis would itself be an insult to the dignity of human reason.
I have seen only brief flickers of seriousness, diligence, sadness, or reluctance in our public officials’ approach to lockdowns. Most of the time, they seem to neglect almost entirely their responsibility for the flourishing of humanity. Rather, they appear to be driven solely by a desperate and fearful desire to save lives at any cost. Whatever the reasons for their apparently oblivious attitude, it is easy to judge the decisions from the perspective of the first principle of Catholic Social Teaching, the dignity of human nature.
The response to the pandemic fails to meet the standard of the dignity of human nature.
As I said, the decision to impose these massive insults to human dignity may still have been the right one, despite this failure. The evils the lockdowns prevent could be worse than those they cause. Still, loud laments about the inevitable damage would have been appropriate. They have not been heard. Political, cultural, religious and business leaders have rarely and barely expressed grief over the lost dignity, and until very recently most of the so-called mainstream media, from the BBC to the New York Times, seems hardly to have noticed the damage. In my judgement, the near-silence suggests a deeply inadequate appreciation of human dignity.
Assuming that the decisions to impose lockdowns were in fact justified, have the restrictions and the measures to mitigate them been organised efficiently and justly? Five other principles of Catholic Social Teaching can help answer that question.
2) The universal destination of goods
Since all that we have comes from the God who calls us to love all people, justice requires that all our goods – our resources and skills and all that they produce – be used and shared for the benefit of everyone. Non-believers can leave God out of that statement, and just know that humanity is ultimately a single community that lives together in a single physical space. In practice, we split humanity and the land people live on into nations, so the call for a universal destination of goods is often interpreted in national terms. (Comp. 171-175)
Within rich countries, the techniques that spread the economic pain of the anti-Covid-19 restrictions have largely respected this universal obligation to share. These countries were helped by effective government benefit systems, which could be used to provide money to people whose jobs had been lost or suspended by lockdown. The systems worked well enough that most residents were able to continue consuming almost as much of the goods and services that remained available during the lockdown as they had before the restrictions were imposed. In the United States, some Covid-related government benefits were so generous that for a while the lesser output may have been shared more universally than was normal in the larger pre-pandemic economy.
This accomplishment should not be underestimated, especially as it required a rethinking of the once conventional economic wisdom that large government deficits are dangerous. In effect, governments have simply created the money that the forcibly closed employers no longer had to pay their employees. That process creates large fiscal deficits, and the willingness to accept them shows worthy respect for the common good (as well as respect for more advanced economic theory).
Inevitably, the hastily constructed programmes have not reached everyone in need. There are alarming reports of large groups of Covid left-behinds, people who are not getting a fair share of their nation’s available bounty. You may have seen a video of an Italian woman firmly expressing her discontent over her inability to feed her son, or you may be painfully aware of increasing food-insecurity in your own locality. The universal destination of goods has been the aspiration, but reality has fallen short.
Also, the monetary strategy that I just praised, creating enough money to keep goods distributed universally, has had an unfortunate side effect. In the rush to spread the money around, a lot of it has gone to people who were already rich enough to pay for their desired goods and services. They have saved much of their surplus money, or invested it in financial assets. The result is that the already privileged residents of rich countries have got richer, while the poor are struggling even more than they were before.
In many less economically developed countries, the situation is quite different – and much worse. The production and distribution systems for food and other basic goods have often not been resilient enough to overcome harsh anti-pandemic restrictions on activity. Limits imposed on migration, travel and trade have also disrupted these not very robust economic systems. These impediments have led to sharp falls in total consumption, with the burden falling especially heavily on poorer residents. The pain is amplified by weak benefit systems, which can frequently reach only a small portion of people who have suffered from the anti-Covid-19 policies.
In sum, the results of imposing rich-world solutions on poor and poorly organised countries have been dire: the economic situation of billions of people around the world has deteriorated sharply. Economists’ talk of reversing a decade of progress in development may be exaggerated, but almost all observers say that in India, much of Africa, and many other parts of the world, the response to Covid-19 has done far more harm to the common good than the disease itself.
By the standard of the universal destination of goods, the response to the pandemic has been adequate in developed economies, but has failed badly in many poorer lands.
3) The universal dignity of labour
Catholic Social Teaching has long emphasised the dignity of all labour (Comp. 270-275), but that teaching is not specifically religious. Most secularists also think everyone should have work to do, and that the work should be respected as well as appropriately rewarded. The anti-pandemic restrictions automatically took away many people’s paid labour, at least temporarily. They also constricted some people’s unpaid labour, for example that of grandparents who could not help with their grandchildren’s childcare. Such restrictions inevitably injure the dignity of labour. However, the injuries can be allocated equitably or unjustly . The actual division of pain has been substantially more unjust than necessary.
The lockdowns have left jobless a higher proportion of relatively poor than of relatively rich people, because the people at the bottom of society tend to have the sort of precarious, intermittent or semi-legal employment that is easy to cancel. Those labour-losers are more likely than better paid people to fall through the nets put out by government benefit programmes. Also, the low paid are far more likely to catch Covid at work, because fewer of them have jobs that allow working from home. Where that labour isolation is possible for them, they are far more likely to be confined to unhealthily cramped quarters. Finally, the scholastic labour of poorer children and the paid labour of their parents are disproportionately harmed by school closures, as these households are far less likely than those of their richer neighbours to be able to compensate for the loss of both professional teaching and the hours of supervision away from home.
The labour inequality might have been hard to avoid in the first panicky rush to flatten the curve of infections. However, as the months have worn on, the uneven allocation of lockdown-caused pain has become harder to excuse.
The disproportionate suffering at the bottom of the labour pyramid was often noted in the media, but neither governments nor employers have done much to respect the universality of labour’s dignity. In affluent countries, wage increases for the people most exposed to danger were- almost non-existent, as were efforts to maintain the communities that are vital to working life and to create programmes to provide more space for the home-working people who most need it. The lack of universal respect was even more evident in poor countries, where even less was done to correct it.
In sum, by the standard of the universal dignity of labour, the response to the pandemic has been careless and often callous.
People should care for each other. For all Christians, that is a divine command that reflects God’s care for all people (Comp. 192-196). Secularists would leave God out of the obligation, but they would generally accept that some sort of social cohesion is obviously good for people. This solidarity is undoubtedly personal: I should help my neighbour in need. It is also often social and institutional. Governments and the organisations of civil society, for example companies, charities and churches, typically take charge of expressions of communal unity.
Despite the enforced social isolation created by anti-Covid-19 lockdowns, communal support for those under the most stress has often been shown when and where such displays were possible. Here are few examples:
- In the medical system, workers at all levels almost always put the needs of the community before their own safety and comfort, often isolating themselves from their families to do so.
- In other sectors, some employers have sometimes made some allowances for the additional stresses of workers with suddenly de-schooled young children.
- After some initial self-fulfilling panic-buying, most customers accepted that supporting the common good requires them to accept the lesser availability of some goods and reduced levels of service.
- There have also been numerous bursts of small-scale mutual support: people delivering food to elderly neighbours or helping out stressed parents, to the extent that lockdowns allowed.
All these and the many other displays of solidarity in a period of compulsory social distancing merit praise, but the overall situation is not terribly encouraging, simply because enforced isolation so sharply reduces the ability to show solidarity. Aided by media enthusiasm, many people have felt that lockdowns have brought a spirit of mutual support to communities. Objectively however, any additional gestures of generosity are far outweighed by the acts that did not take place because the rules of lockdowns prohibited them. Any martial rhetoric of shared communal effort – “We’re all in this together” – is exaggerated. In a culture marked by individualism, and in a pandemic marked by the crippling fear of catching the disease, it has been all too easy to treat solidarity as optional or heroic.
One glaring shortfall in the shows of solidarity is of unifying efforts that cross class lines. Very few people with large houses, or communities with large parks, have tried to share their spaces with people caught in more constrained, less pleasant physical environments, even when such interactions were allowed. Globally, there has been virtually no solidarity between nations. On the contrary, many countries have expelled migrants, many non-governmental organisations have withdrawn workers stationed in the most deprived countries, and almost no affluent countries have shown any interest in paying more for imports from countries that face rising poverty.
By the standard of solidarity, the response to Covid is at best mixed.
The principle of subsidiarity is not well known, but it is one of the gems of Catholic Social Teaching (Comp. 185-187). It holds that, ideally, the decisions regarding policies and practices should be made by the people and organisations most closely affected by them. Ideally, distant governments should provide only support and guidance. The ideals must often be compromised, because decisions often have implications that reach far afield and because people who can see the forest as well as the trees can often make better decisions. Subsidiarity calls for as few of these compromises as possible. It also calls for as much humility as possible from the people at the centre, the experts who might assume that they know better and can do better than the people and communities with direct experience.
Subsidiarity is seen in vibrant and close-knit neighbourhoods, in parental responsibility for raising children, in local control of education, in locally run associations and locally owned businesses, and in the willing popular reliance on churches and other community organisations in times of stress. Subsidiarity is undermined by overly intrusive welfare states, by globalised mass production, the concentration of economic and political power, and by all sorts of impersonal bureaucracies.
Subsidiarity has been in decline for more than a century as governments, big businesses and mass culture have expanded. The anti-pandemic measures amount to another significant step backwards.
Some of the loss was inevitable, since any social response to contagious diseases is necessarily a large-scale affair. However, there was no need for all the employment and business relief programmes to be designed and operated nationally or, in the United States by state, as they almost all have been. This top-down control has brought an increase in centralisation and has often reduced the the ability of people to respond locally in freedom and love to either the pandemic or to the challenges created by the centrally imposed anti-pandemic restrictions.
In the rush to centralise, local support systems have often been crushed. Small local businesses have suffered much more than large national ones. In many places, there has been significant damage to the ecosystems of neighbourhood commerce, which provide opportunities for enterprising individuals and crucial social support to communities. Restrictions have crippled many local charities, leaving people more reliant on governments. Care homes for the old or vulnerable, subjected to centralised regulations, have been unable to provide the quality of care their managers and clients knew was vital. Less community support has been provided to people suffering from mental illnesses, exactly when the insults to so many aspects of human dignity have increased psychological pressures. Businesses have been forced to pay less attention to the desires of their customers and employees, and more to directives from distant and often quite arbitrary government.
The attack on subsidiarity extends to the smallest but most important levels of social interaction. Families and individuals have often been given few choices in how to arrange their own lives. Decisions about what risks are acceptable are made by governments: you cannot legally hug your grandchildren even if you understand the risks and are willing to accept them. At a slightly larger scale, central governments have sharply restricted the encounters that are the necessary foundation of civic friendship, community and enterprise. The spontaneous meetings that provide an openness to grace are closed off.
The assault on our ability to organise our own lives and to live in communities that we form and re-form for ourselves is an obvious attack on the founding principles of liberal democracy. More subtly, in undermines rather than supports the richness of the common good. Indeed, lockdowns are a tool far more aligned with ideologically-driven dictatorships than with societies built from the bottom up.
A dictatorial attack on subsidiarity should not be surprising, since the model for the lockdown-based response to the pandemic was established in the People’s Republic of China. In the ideology of that country’s controlling Communist Party, subsidiarity is not considered a virtue. On the contrary, for Lenin, Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping alike, subsidiarity’s explicit resistance to the domineering State and the vanguard Party is essentially treasonous.
Such political thoughts may be controversial, but there can be little argument about the lockdowns and subsidiarity.
By the standard of subsidiarity, the response to the pandemic has been a disastrous failure.
6) Preferential option for the poor
Whenever there are good things to be distributed in a community, justice demands that more of them be given to those who have less to begin with. Such an allocation serves justice, because these people, the poor, have more need, and because they will gain more from whatever they receive than those who already have in abundance can. Secular socialists and social democrats generally recognise this obligation to favour the disfavoured, which Catholics call the preferential option for the poor (Comp. 182-184).
The option takes many forms, because there are many sorts of poor people. Most obviously, those suffering from what economists call absolute poverty, people who need food, shelter and other basic goods. More subtly but crucially in a world suffering from alienation and fearful desperation, the psychologically and intellectually impoverished need more spiritual succour. The relatively poor in rich countries need better access to both economic and social goods. The very young, the very old, and the very ill are often in need of physical care, time, and affection from their more self-sufficient relatives and neighbours. The powerless and disempowered, the people without elite connections and whose dignity is systematically ignored by the powerful, need protection and aid in their battles against large and small injustices.
In some places and times, some types of poverty do receive some of the generosity that the preferential option for the poor calls for. However, it is far more typical that the poor do poorly. In troubled times, the most helpless members of society tend to be the first to suffer and the last to recover. The effects of the anti-pandemic measures have been sadly typical. In developed economies, there has been disproportionately great material, psychological and spiritual suffering among members of such impoverished groups as insecure contract workers, migrant labourers, subsistence farmers, the chronically ill, and the physically and emotionally vulnerable. Globally, as I have mentioned, the material suffering of the poor has increased significantly, as have their disadvantages relative to the rich in health, education and economic opportunity. It is grimly ironic that the harsh measures against Covid, which were undertaken in the name of public health, have actually led to a significant deterioration of public health in so much of the world.
There is an even grimmer irony in the lack of concern shown by many traditional allies of the poor about the damage done to the most basic forms of human flourishing. Certainly, many individuals have found ways to get around the restrictions and have been zealous to the point of exhaustion in their service to the poor, but far too many people have retreated from their principles. I am thinking of the teachers, especially in the United States, who are too afraid to give their students the in-person education they deserve, the charity workers who rush away from the places they are most needed, the politicians who neglect to lobby for more generous benefits for the less well off people they represent, the mental health professionals who refuse to provide in-person treatment, the hospitals and care homes that make little effort to allow loving visits to the ill and the dying, and even the priests who are afraid to visit parishioners.
By the standard of the preferential option for the poor, the response to the pandemic has been a disgrace to humanity.
It could have been worse. The measures against the pandemic could have done more social harm. The insults to dignity could have been even harsher, more goods could have been hoarded rather than shared, welfare states could have failed more completely in more countries, solidarity could have evaporated totally, and the poor and weak could have received even less respect. Still, by the standards of Catholic Social Teaching, the responses to Covid have overall been bad enough that I would describe it overall as a widespread dereliction of the basic duties of humanity. Even if Covid-19’s threat to cut short physical lives was grave enough to justify the massive insults to human dignity that lockdowns necessarily bring – a conclusion that should only be reached with a sense of horror – the actual choices about how to arrange these tragically required lockdowns have unnecessarily damaged the common good.
My judgement may sound harsh, but it is not arbitrary or only valid for Catholics. While the principles that have not been respected were articulated specifically by the Catholic Church, they are all catholic with a small ‘c’, in other words, universal. They are objective and reasonable. Most citizens would probably support all of them in a referendum. And yet, they have mostly been ignored.
Many people and groups should have done better. There are exceptions and more than a few heroes, but overall there has been an absence of principled political leaders inspired by a coherent and dignified vision of the common good. The political near-vacuum is not even the most distressing aspect of the lockdown culture. Most shocking has been the willingness of so much of the population, including all too many social, cultural and religious leaders, to acquiesce unquestionably to restrictions imposed by ultra-technocratic governments, restrictions that show almost no concern for the fulness of life or for the true common good.
And as a student of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, I admit to being especially disappointed with the churches’ leadership. Even bishops and other religious leaders who are happy to describe Catholic Social Teaching as hidden treasure seem to have left it buried in a field. In the face of lockdowns, the ecclesial authorities from Pope Francis down have mostly reminded Christians of their duty to obey the legitimate political authorities. Such obedience is certainly part of the social teaching. However, the teaching does not excuse pastors and teachers from speaking out and acting firmly to resist the assaults on human dignity, starting with the importance of the sacraments. On the contrary, the teaching calls for loud protests on behalf of justice, and for active solidarity with the low paid and the poor. We have seen little of either.
Many people want something good to come out this pandemic. There is talk of a great reset, a greener economy, a new financial settlement, and so forth. I am doubtful about such grand ambitions but I do have my own hope. Perhaps more people, both outside and inside the Catholic Church, will recognise that Catholic Social Teaching is a gift to all people of goodwill, providing a noble but practical framework of standards for testing polices and guiding judgements in order to uphold the common dignity of our shared humanity. These standards can be especially useful in a pandemic, when the fear of death might be a greater threat to the fulness of life than the disease.
© Edward Hadas
Edward Hadas is the author of Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking Through Catholic Social Teaching (The Catholic University of America Press, 2020). He is also a Research Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, a freelance journalist and a trustee of Together for the Common Good.
Parts of this essay are based on a talk given through the Las Casas Institute of Blackfriars Hall on 4 November 2020.
-  All references are to the relevant section of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (Rome, 2004), available here.