Church must be ready to deal with post-COVID ‘apocalyptic’ scenarios, author claims

Posted on May 26, 2020



Charles C. Camosy

May 26, 2020

[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.


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.





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