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April 6, 2020 (First Things) — A stick known as coronavirus has suddenly been shoved through the spokes of the world’s whirling wheel of hyperactivity and brought public life to a halt. Traffic, commerce, sports, schools, universities, day cares, public events, and even worship are now prohibited by the state. The Open Society is on lockdown, and one country after another is putting its population under house arrest.
The government’s remarkable interventions in citizens’ lives are accepted without resistance. What’s more, the more severe the measures, the more responsible these governments’ behaviors appear to be. In Shanghai, public life works only with a barcode that each citizen must wear on his wrist. He can be scanned at any time and receives instructions on how and where he can go, whether to work or to quarantine. In Germany, the telecom system is providing the Robert Koch Institute with data on cellphone users’ movements.
Up to now we’ve been doing everything they say — staying home and washing our hands after each potential contact with the invisible enemy. We communicate almost entirely online — never in the flesh, and always disembodied — a direction we were already headed in anyway.
How long will this mandatory break last? Nobody knows. Experts don’t know if the immune system will be resistant once someone has recovered from a virus attack. The immediate aim is to prevent the healthcare system from collapsing. For this the probable collapse of the globalized economy is accepted.
Angst and watchful attention hang in the still air. Everyone feels it. Is the global house built on sand? Will it hold up when the storm comes? The global economic chains strain under a shutdown. Shutdown means a crash, a crash means job losses, home evictions, and a shortage of the essentials for living. Or so we fear. Governments are conjuring billions out of a hat — to prevent the crash or just to kick it down the road?
Suddenly no one is interested in global warming. Now it’s only about “the economic reconstruction.” Will E.U. countries — especially Germany — still be able to (and want to) bring in millions of migrants when their own existence is threatened? Even the Greens and other leftists may decide blood is thicker than water.
The whole world is like someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis. The cards have been reshuffled. One of these cards is black, and the Grim Reaper grins from it. Everything is uncertain. Yes, we all knew we had to die sometime, preferably a time we would choose for ourselves. On Ash Wednesday 2020, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany cleared all the legal hurdles for a new line of business — suicide assistance. But having to die even if we haven’t decided to? For many, this is like looking into the abyss.
What does someone do when he has been diagnosed with cancer? Away with job stress! Suddenly there is time for deeper questions to arise: How have I been living? What of my relationships where love should flow, but doesn’t? To those close to me? To God? What if I really have to die? What then?
The shutdown to halt the coronavirus’s victory march is giving us time — precious time. And threatened time, too — because our foresight reaches only as far as our nose. All of a sudden we have family time. Small children are suddenly where they belong — with their mothers. Dads are home. Married couples have time to talk to each other. People are finding themselves at the family dinner table, and the kids even get a real breakfast. With one fell swoop, all families are homeschool families. Instead of all-day school, it’s family round the clock — just like that, overnight! But do parents still know what to do? For more than ten years they’ve been brainwashed into believing that only trained external caregivers can properly rear small kids. In many families, screens will likely replace parental day care. But this moment is also a great chance to reunite as a family.
When we’re suddenly dealt that black card of the Grim Reaper, questions invariably go beyond the realm of the visible. The conscience wakes up. The question of God has been muffled by prosperity, but suddenly it’s not so easy to ignore. There’s an inner urge to make relationships right — including and especially the relationship with God. And not just as an individual, but as an entire society. The Bible tells us of the ever recurring cycle: The call of God, the people’s joyful acceptance, flourishing of the community, victory over enemies, prosperity, temptation, decay, catastrophe, dissipation, and again the prophetic call, conversion, flourishing, victory, prosperity, decay … Read the penitential prayer of Nehemiah (9:26–29).
This cycle repeats generation after generation, from culture to culture. In our historic moment, we find ourselves in the decay phase, taken by surprise when we are suddenly attacked by an enemy.
The coronavirus is giving us a time for reflection. What is new about our situation is that for the first time in world history, the economy is globalized — and the coronavirus is global. There is no emergency exit, and no New World we can set out for. But there is the opportunity to return to a relationship with God and follow his lead through the wilderness of the current crisis.
This is the Church’s hour. What we need now are people of God — holy priests, religious, and laity — who can set an example of belief, hope, and love, and instruct us in using the rich spiritual treasure that is ours as Catholics: The sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, Extreme Unction, the Word of God, holy water and incense, invocation of Our Lady and St. Joseph, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the abundance of prayers, the connection with the angels, with our guardian angel, with the saints and martyrs and poor souls, veneration of the relics of saints, which are in every church, the witness of saints who have lived heroic virtue, and — nearly forgotten — the power of exorcism.
But through accommodation to the spirit of the time, and the grave sins of priests and bishops, the Church has forfeited her authority. Only through repentance can this authority be recovered. For decades, we have been taught a wishy-washy gospel that attracts ever fewer believers out of the cozy drowsiness of prosperity. Catechesis on the controversial topics of the day, about God’s plan for men and women, sexuality, the family, the sacredness of life from conception until natural death — they’re dead in the water. The mea culpa at Holy Mass — it’s out. Now we’ve got only the merciful, “accepting” God, and not the just and holy one.
Have those of you who dilute the wine of the gospel with your own water even noticed that your words have lost their resonance in the hearts of believers? Who does the Lord target with his sharp words against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–39)? Isn’t the “synodal path” foolish and superfluous? Get rid of it! Admit that it was misguided — a manipulative organized apostasy against Catholic belief. If “the issue of women” is the greatest challenge to a bishop, then he has nothing to say to people in need. Repentance is the order of the day! If any bishop would confess that before the virus woke us to what really matters he did not have the courage to oppose the spirit of the times and take upon himself the sufferings of Jesus, he would be showered with gratitude and reverence. He would become the leader of a true renewal movement. Hildegard of Bingen wrote of the “power of remorse and repentance to renew the world.”
Perhaps the Church’s “reformers” who preached accommodation over repentance thought the dissolution of the divine order would go on forever: The million-fold murder of unborn children, the rebellion against male and female identity, the shattering of the family, the untethering of sexuality from morals, the legal legitimization of homosexual “marriage,” the global addiction to pornography, the collective neglect of children and youth, the “improvement” of man through transhumanism. The Church’s opposition at every juncture was weak, and believers received no direction from their shepherds for resisting the forceful manipulation of the mass consciousness. The way the “reformers” had it figured, the Church needed to jump on the bandwagon so it wouldn’t lose people. The sheep have run away in droves, but that hasn’t led to any reflection, because there is still cash in the till. Coronavirus has now stopped the march indefinitely. It’s a prelude, an overture. Does anyone think that afterward (and what does afterward mean?) we’ll go back to business as usual?
What a sign: St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of the Church, is now closed! The bishops were the first — in anticipatory obedience — to abolish religious services with nothing to replace them. Why not take sensible precautionary measures to reduce the density of Mass worshippers (as the bishops in Poland have done), asking high-risk groups to stay home? Is this not a time to call people under 60 to receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist? Just imagine if on the third Sunday of Lent the pope had not walked through the streets of Rome all by himself but with an endless line of people (at the requisite distance from each other), making a pilgrimage to the seven churches of Rome, as St. Philip Neri once did. Now the Church in Germany and elsewhere no longer has a choice. Governments have prohibited all gatherings in churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith communities.
Shouldn’t we be imploring Heaven now? But we’re not there yet — not on our knees. We think we can control our destiny if we avoid all human contact. What should we pray for? For coronavirus to disappear and for everything to go back to the old way? Isn’t it much more necessary to pray for conversion, that the scales be removed from our eyes, so that we recognize and confess where we as individuals and as a society have rebelled against God and his creation? Let us not dwell on whether coronavirus is punishment from God. If God loves his creation, then he cannot indefinitely allow us to trample his Ten Commandments and destroy humanity itself. He gave us the Ten Commandments so that we will choose the way of life and not that of death (Deuteronomy 30:19).
The coronavirus broke out during Lent. In the Gospels and daily readings, we are called to repentance every day. God warns of the consequences if the call to repentance is not heeded. Are we hearing the call?
Under the light of adversity, outrageous presumptuousness — of personally determining the beginning and end of life, of wanting to choose one’s own gender, of killing the unwanted child, or of desiring to cross humans with animals or machines — will become recognizable as a crime. We are not the masters of life and death. We’re not even the masters of a tiny virus. Imagine how reassured we would be if the politicians who have to make extremely difficult decisions came together in prayer to seek wisdom. Undoubtedly, the virus’s power can be contained through radical isolation measures. However, it may be that the misery of a global economic collapse will be much greater than any breakdown of the health system. We need the Holy Spirit to help us make the right decisions with our limited perspective. Man, who has fallen away from God and deludes himself into thinking he is autonomous, has lost humility. We need to learn it again.
Flickers of hope and mercy are already appearing. We feel we’re all in the same boat. We have all come down from that high horse from which we declared, “Yes, I can.” People sing from balcony to balcony as they come closer together. We need each other. Doctors and caregivers are performing heroic deeds. Priests are risking and losing their lives to stand by the sick. In Italy, more than fifty priests have died. A thousand lights from believing shepherds, priests, and laypeople blaze on the Internet. Those seeking salt and nourishment can find it. The sound of real church bells ringing for Mass, even though we cannot attend, awakens the dormant yearning for our precious faith and rituals. The pope calls the world to prayer. We connect virtually in prayer and in the holy Mass and receive spiritual communion.
God has not abandoned us. Because we are baptized people, Jesus Christ lives in our hearts and wishes for us to find him there, because “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Gabriele Kuby is a German sociologist and international speaker. She is author of The Global Sexual Revolution: Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom.
Translated from the German by James Patrick Kirchner. The original essay was published in VATICAN magazine. It is published here with permission from First Things.