Rorate Caeli

Guest op-ed: The Immorality of Indefinite Lockdowns

As states and localities have transitioned from pragmatic social distancing to economic self-destruction, we are pleased to continue the conversation with the following guest op-ed.  Our thanks to Father Naugle, a diocesan priest in Pennsylvania, for this thoughtful essay:

The Ends Never Justify the Means: The Immorality of Indefinite Lockdowns
By the Rev. Fr. John F. Naugle, M.A., S.T.B.

Everyone who has taken even a rudimentary ethics class knows the thought experiment:
What if millions of people are sick with a deadly disease? What if the only possible cure is to harvest the cells from one baby, resulting in the baby’s death? What do we do?

Scenarios like these are useful to flesh out the underlying assumptions of one’s chosen moral framework, especially to show the difference between consequentialism and other forms of moral thinking. Normally debate ensues in the classroom, as undergraduate half-wits try to demonstrate a level of depth of thought that is far beyond them.

Thankfully we are Catholic. The answer is clear.

“A good intention (for example, that of helping one's neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation” (CCC, 1753).

God forbids you from harming that baby, even at the cost of millions of lives. To even think differently is an egregious violation of Divine Law. End of discussion.

The Church’s Social Doctrine
The simple fact the alleged good that flows from an evil action is foundational to the Church’s teachings on social justice, particularly in its blanket condemnation of socialism. While the social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum, contain many considerations about why socialism is ineffective at achieving its stated aims, their primary argument is always against the idea of the “community of goods;” violating the right to private property is contrary to God’s law and no system which begins there may ever be approved. As Leo XIII says:

“Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property” (Rerum Novarum, 15).
These condemnations would be increased under Pius XI, as he condemns even a hypothetical socialism-lite of having a “concept of society itself… utterly foreign to Christian truth” (Quadragesimo Anno, 117).

The Catholic Church during this era was the hero. She defended the world against the evils of socialism. She defended the rights of laborers against those who would exploit them, especially by defending their right to unionize. Because of the strength which flowed from her clarity of thought, she was THE light during the era of industrialization and socialistic revolution.

So why does she fail to defend laborers now during this moment of crisis?

The Inviolable Right of a Man to Provide for His Family by Labor
“The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work” (Rerum Novarum 44).

Under the guise of executive powers reserved for short-term disasters such as hurricanes, leaders across the West have done the previously unthinkable: they have FORBIDDEN entire segments of the population from working. Using a nonsensical distinction between essential and non-essential (as if providing for one’s family is ever non-essential) our entire workforce has been divided into three groups: 1.) The upper class with jobs that can be performed in their pajamas at home, 2.) Laborers lucky enough to still be able to go to work, and 3.) Those intentionally rendered unemployed.

Those who belong to that final group include those for whom the popes of yesteryear wrote with concern. Waitresses, barbers, sales employees, janitors, those who provide child care and others who often live paycheck to paycheck. Also included are those who are small business owners, those who represent best the type of world envisioned by the popes for a fair market, namely those who aren’t rich themselves but through the own labor and risk create jobs so that others can provide for their families.

The now month-long and counting prohibition against labor for these people is intrinsically evil for it is a violation of the rights of these men and women to preserve their lives. Even if they are made whole (they won’t be) by the printing of cash by their respective governments, they are being robbed of the dignity of eating by the labor of their hands. This can NEVER be approved, regardless of the consequences, just as one cannot murder the baby to save millions of people.

Note that none of this discussion depends upon the debates about how potentially fatal a given virus is. (Although we note that the best science places Covid-19 on par with a bad and condensed flu season.) The minute one delves into cost-benefit analysis, one has already departed from moral sanity on this issue. Yes, defend the rights of individuals, particularly the most vulnerable, to protect their own health! But to impose that as an obligation on others so that they may not earn a paycheck is unconscionable.

Where are the Shepherds?
From heroic cold war bishops to the martyrs at the hands of Communism to the lowly priests who stood with laborers on picket line, the Church’s sanctity showed forth in the past century by her willingness to anger those in power or authority while fulfilling her sacred duty to stand up both for the rights of workers and in opposition against the servants of the tyranny that flows principally from the Evil One. She did this because of the clarity of thought enabled by a properly formed moral theology.

In recent decades, it is precisely moral theology that has been ruined from within by consequentialism, even to the point of ignoring the correction issued by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. Would that the Church would show forth her holiness again, disdaining all consequentialism and stand up to those who defraud laborers of their wages. After all, she is commanded to do nothing else: “For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Mt 16:25-26)