The instinct to survive
Terence Kennedy CSsR
Terence Kennedy is a Redemptorist priest and moral theologian. He taught at the Alphonsian Academy, Rome.
Since antiquity, epidemics have spread along trade routes and even more swiftly and dramatically in an age of globalisation. Despite the devastation, humanity has learned to overcome. When the Black Death struck in 1349 it wiped out nearly half of Sienna’s population in Italy, leaving the walls of its new cathedral standing. Today, still unfinished, the walls have been absorbed as part of the cathedral’s history.
Since the Spanish flu after World War I, four great influenza epidemics have swept the world. By the 1970s scientists had vaccines for many contagious diseases and predicted that epidemics might be consigned to the past. They were to be disillusioned by the arrival of AIDS, Ebola, Sars and now COVID-19. In fact, medical specialists have long warned that a massive outbreak was highly likely and that we were medically and psychologically unprepared.
A remarkable fact emerged from the Ebola epidemic in North Africa in the 1990s. Cultural anthropologists discovered that a tribe, even though assailed on all sides, had escaped its effects. There was no magic solution. By changing their behavior, the rate of infection remained below the threshold where it could spread to threaten the tribe.
Every human group displays this ancient instinct for self-preservation, for survival and resilience in the face of deadly fear. We get through by depending on each other. Scientific knowledge without the wisdom to work together becomes self-defeating if people react alone.
The first thing to learn is the necessity of changing behaviour, not just one piece of behaviour, but our lifestyle to survive in dependence on others. We do not wait for others to adjust to us: we are called to change our behavioural patterns for the common good.
In many ways, the experience of Covoid-19 might provide a sane balance to the individualism that blights our society. By proving that we do not live alone for ourselves we are brought to help each other, discovering resources we never thought we had. How many children will get to know their fathers better because he had to stay at home during this period? How many marriages will improve because couples will face the crisis together?
Even though physically separated, social relationships are more necessary than ever before. This experience of living by and in, and for the community, teaches us to appreciate the value of direct face to face relationships and contact.
Because ‘there is society’ we as a community are prepared to make great sacrifices to preserve and indeed gain other benefits. That is why we observe the measures introduced by governments and cooperate with them. That is the way to deal with the double crisis in health and in the economy. For instance, we need the shut down and social distancing rules in order to break the virus’s chain of transmission between people.
Governments, for their part, are there to protect the health and welfare of all, without preference. The disease can strike anybody without discriminating between politics, race or religion. We are joined in a common fate. In the distribution of scarce resources, for example, ventilators in ICU units, governments should never favour the wealthy over the poor, the city over the country, or do anything that puts aboriginal or vulnerable sections of society at risk.
From other countries’ experience, particularly Italy and Spain, the medical profession faces the acutest problems regarding personnel and resources. At times there may not be enough hospitals, hospital beds, specialist doctors and nursing staff or ICU ventilators. Anesthetists are usually the ones most put to the test when they must choose which patients to treat and who has a better chance of recovering. Cases of extreme triage are the worst type of moral dilemma and we are grateful that the medical profession has had the courage to bear this burden.
These principles apply equally to the Church. Speaking to priests as ministers of the gospel, Pope Francis charged them to go out and be in the midst of the people at this time. What he said in Italian is important, “Di stare con il popolo”. It may seem finicky. He did not say “gente” as he might have. What is the difference? “Gente” means something like my people, my group, my community, “my mob”. “Popolo”, on the other hand, means the whole society; the people of all classes, conditions and creeds.
The pope is urging priests to think in this wider horizon. As we know from his South American “teologìa del pueblo” (theology of the people), he is thinking of the People of God and how it is threatened by this virus. God is always with his people and accompanies and consoles them in every crisis.
Bishops as chief priests must be at the head of the flock at this time. The virus took society by surprise and church leaders did not have the chance to elaborate policy beforehand and to call parish communities together to prepare for the difficulties ahead. Like society at large, church activities have largely shifted to the Internet. Thus prayer, meditation and educational programs can transfer well to social media. Charity and help for the most vulnerable can be organised efficiently on the net so that no one is abandoned.
For the Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli this crisis is a call for us to commit ourselves more deeply to the Church’s mission to evangelise. For years, the Church had sought ways to reach out to families. Modern communication is a golden opportunity for families to grow in the faith. Wonderful prayer, catechetical and sacramental programs are available that parents can use with their children.
Meanwhile, priests are confronted with immense pastoral challenges. The anointing of the sick cannot be allowed to become an occasion for spreading the disease. It is better for patients to receive the sacraments beforehand, while still conscious and while they can participate actively in the ceremony. No one should die alone.
The virtual media introduce some difficulties in the administration of the sacraments. For St Augustine, a sacrament is grace made visible as in the Incarnation. For us a sacrament must be perceived by the senses, of sight, sound, hearing, taste, touch and so on. Here we encounter the realism of the sacraments which presuppose physical presence or real contact.
Where sacramental communion is impossible, the practice of spiritual communion, communion by desire if you will, might be recommended. It goes without saying, that absolution in the sacrament of penance cannot be given where the priest and penitent are not physically present to each other. This excludes sacramental absolution over the telephone or by other forms of the virtual media.
In this circumstance, God forgives a person’s sins when they truly repent and return to him in their heart. This is usually done by turning to God in a fervent, honest and sincere act of contrition. Social media offers wonderful opportunities for parishioners to remain in contact with each other, with parish activities, and with the clergy for counsel, advice and spiritual direction.