Many Catholics were probably surprised to see Pope Francis’s name appear on the op-ed page of The New York Times. (Then again, maybe not.) The article—which was actually an excerpt from his new book Let Us Dream—confirms what we already knew: the coronavirus pandemic has weighed heavily on the Holy Father’s mind.
Like all crises, says Francis, this one has also had its good and bad actors. Among the good are healthcare workers whose selfless regard for others reminds us that lives should be measured not by their length, but rather by how they are put into service. Not everyone, however, has served selflessly. In contrast to healthcare workers and other “antibodies to the virus of indifference” are those who have protested the lockdowns, refused to distance, and marched against travel restrictions.
These protesters, whom Francis regards as “selfish,” are the pandemic’s bad actors. They judge everything through the prism of personal freedom and oppose government efforts to put the well-being of citizens first. We have heard similar opinions about protestors from state authorities and media personalities, but for the Pope to express them is significant and worthy of consideration.
In Francis’s estimation, the protestors’ actions are shameful because they do not aim at the “common good.” He writes in the Times: “Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.” Unfortunately, in neither the Times nor Fratelli Tutti does he explain what “having a regard for all citizens” means.
Often, Francis identifies war, poverty, hunger, and climate change as impediments to the common good. Likewise, he argues in Fratelli Tutti that meeting people’s basic material needs is critical to ensuring that the common good is achieved and a meaningful sense of freedom preserved. Yet the op-ed says nothing about the spiritual hardships facing those who, due to government restrictions, have been denied the Eucharist. Why does Francis not stress the importance of religious liberty? Why does he treat freedom as a political matter—the relationship between man and the state, and not between man and God? After all, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
The ancient Israelites knew that freedom meant more than political autonomy. For them, freedom was fundamentally religious. It meant worshipping in the proper way. The Israelites begged Pharaoh: “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” These words were not a mere act of political resistance; they reflected the will of God: “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.”
At one point, Pharaoh tried to negotiate with Moses. The Israelites, he said, would be allowed to worship, but only within the confines of Egypt. But the Israelites refused any compromise. Moses insisted that his people be allowed to leave the land of their captivity, in order to serve God as God Himself wanted to be served. It bears repeating: the freedom sought by the Israelites was not self-serving, but rather for the sake of serving another. It is understandable that those who view everything through a political lens would regard the Exodus as an act of political rebellion, but the text makes clear that the freedom sought was the freedom to serve the Lord by giving Him right worship.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict understands what the flight from Egypt meant for the Israelites: it was less an escape from Pharaoh than a journey toward God. As he explains: “The land is given to the people to be a place for the worship of the true God. Mere possession of the land, mere national autonomy, would reduce Israel to the level of other nations.”
This is such an important point and yet one so often overlooked. Human history is replete with revolutions. People throughout the ages have struggled to liberate themselves from tyranny and oppression to secure personal freedoms and civil liberties. But the case of Israel is different. They were not motivated by democratic dreams and libertarian values, but by a love for God and a desire to glorify Him.
As Benedict notes, the Promised Land “only becomes a true good, a real gift, a promise fulfilled, when it is the place where God reigns.” The Israelites were not aspiring to become gods, masters of their own domain. They understood that true freedom can be found only by fulfilling God’s will. As Benedict explains, “The service of God, the freedom to give right worship to God, appears, in the encounter with Pharaoh, to be the sole purpose of the Exodus, indeed, its very essence.”
Pope Francis is entitled to his opinions about how people have responded to the pandemic. He is certainly right about one thing: some have acted irresponsibly. But characterizing all protesters as selfish and narcissistic is reckless and uncharitable.
Francis goes on to say in Let Us Dream, “You’ll never find such people protesting the death of George Floyd or joining a demonstration because there are shantytowns where children lack water or education.” That seems a bit presumptuous. How does he know that?
Later in the text, he reminisces about two nurses who helped him through an illness when he was young. “Cornelia and Micaela,” he says, “are in heaven now.” Are they really? How can he be sure?
The pandemic has indeed brought out the best and worst in many of us. Serving our fellow man during this crisis should be a priority, but serving our Heavenly Father should be our highest priority, always and everywhere. Judging others harshly and imputing to them unchristian motives will be of little comfort to those suffering from the virus and will not draw us any closer to God.
Celebrating Christ’s Passion and receiving the Eucharist will, however. Let’s render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but let us also pray that our religious leaders, like Moses, will have the courage to act as good shepherds to protest against the harmful restrictions imposed on right worship and lead their flocks back to the sacred places where God can again be served by His obedient faithful as He intended.