In 1964 a young Joseph Ratzinger stated that
a faith that will not account for half of the facts or even more is actually, in essence, a kind of refusal of faith, or at least, a very profound form of scepticism that fears faith will not be big enough to cope with reality. . . . [T]rue believing means looking the whole of reality in the face, unafraid and with an open heart, even if it goes against the picture of faith that, for whatever reason, we make for ourselves.
It is a theme that has marked Joseph Ratzinger’s entire life and teaching. Indeed, Ratzinger has been a trenchant critic of both faith that sets aside reason and a narrowed reason that sets aside faith. In his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger wrote that “in its original nature belief or faith is no blind collection of incomprehensible paradoxes.” This means “that it is nonsense to plead the ‘mystery,’ as people certainly do only too often, by way of an excuse for the failure of reason.” In his famous Regensburg Lecture, Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI took to task both those forms of religion that deny the rationality and intelligibility of God and modern scientific reason because it is closed off to parts of reality including the question of God.
In short, Ratzinger has stood athwart ideological “faith” and ideological “reason” because neither is open and responsive to the whole of reality.
A faith that denies reality is particularly destructive to our duty and efforts to evangelize and bring the Good News to all peoples. This seems especially true in the more secularized West where a narrative—whether fair or not, that faith and reason are incompatible—has taken deep root. Thus, it behooves Catholics to be on guard about the sorts of dangers against which Joseph Ratzinger has spent his life defending.
It is with our missionary mandate in mind that I have returned to Ratzinger’s incisive warnings in these days of pandemic. Like many of you, I have probably spent too much time surfing the internet and social media. I’ve attempted to understand the changing circumstances, dynamics models, and predictions. I’ve read about the awful reality in Italy and Spain and New York City. At the time of this writing, my home state of Michigan has the dubious honor of holding the bronze medal in confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States. I understand and share the anxiety and fear. Millions have lost jobs. Retirement accounts have lost significant value overnight. There is no clear sense of what the exit from this crisis looks like.
And, yet, I have also been dismayed by a not-so-infrequent tendency among certain Catholics to “not account for half of the facts or even more.” Here, I am not talking about legitimate questions being raised about whether or not the costs of shuttering the economy are worth the benefits. Nor am I talking about those who warn of the unintended consequences of stay-at-home orders on mental health and in exacerbating domestic violence. Rather, what I have in mind is a very real tendency to post and spread disinformation—to deny things as they actually are, to take numbers out of context and spread false narratives about the situation we face.
Not only does this have potential deadly physical consequences on those influenced by such disinformation, my greater fear is that it has deadly spiritual effects. In other words, it serves as a counter-witness to the Gospel. When non-believers see Catholics denying facts, contradicting reason, and affirmatively asserting falsehoods, it is only natural to conclude that they will be less likely to accept Christ and his Church. The counter-witness experienced by non-believers is that faith and reason are not compatible, that the Logos really isn’t the Word, the eternal reason, through which and through whom all was made. Painted in articles, tweets, and posts is a portrait of faith as rejecting reality, as a refuge from reality. When this portrait is painted by priests, religious educators, and Catholic theologians, it is all the worse.
Lest I be accused of setting up straw men, let me give a few examples. First, in a much discussed essay, “Say ‘No’ To Death’s Dominion,” First Things editor Rusty Reno chided our country’s response to Covid-19 as an “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” He argued that statesmen and churchmen were giving into a “dangerous sentimentalism.” And he claimed that “Truth is another casualty of this sentimentalism.” While I think some of the criticisms of Reno’s essay have been overblown—Reno is right to direct us to make our choices against a supernatural horizon—the essay suffers from a grievous flaw. Reno contrasted our contemporary actions with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic: “More than one hundred years ago, Americans were struck by a terrible flu pandemic that affected the entire world. Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.” In fact, the truth was a casualty to Reno’s sentimentalism. Even a cursory review of history shows that Reno’s claim was not true. While responses varied—compare and contrast Philadelphia and St. Louis—many cities and states canceled worship services, sometimes against the wishes of religious, and curtailed the very sorts of activities Reno claimed continued unabated. And those cities that took radical measures in 1918 fared much better in terms of loss of life.
Second, I recently saw that a Catholic friend had posted an article about the U.S.N.S. Comfort. The Comfort is the Navy medical relief ship sent to New York City to help hospitals with the spike in patients. Last week, it only had 20 patients. It has 1000 beds. The post and responses cited this as evidence that things were not as bad in New York as the media were claiming. But in reality, it seems that the low number of patients was the product of bureaucratic bumbling, difficulties in treating civilian patients, refusal to use the Comfort for Covid-19 patients, and the manner of screening patients. The fact that the Comfort was being used poorly was not proof that New York City hospitals were not in crisis. It was simply evidence that the Comfort was being used poorly. Yet, I witnessed Catholics employing it to support a narrative that Covid-19 is overblown.
Third, many Catholics friends and acquaintances were quick to share stories claiming that Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist, whose Imperial College study was the basis for many of the stringent shutdown orders around the world, had revised his dire predictions. One example was The Federalist’s article, titled, “The Scientist Whose Doomsday Pandemic Model Predicted Armageddon Just Walked Back The Apocalyptic Predictions.” There were others. More than a half-dozen of my Facebook friends shared some variation of this story.
The problem is that it wasn’t true. As National Review explained, Ferguson’s models offered predictions on what might happen depending on the various steps taken to respond to the virus’ threat. “The one resulting in 500,000 deaths was one where Great Britain just carried on life as before. Other scenarios, where the country locked down whenever it was necessary to stop the disease’s spread, put death totals below 20,000.” Ferguson was not revising his estimates downward; rather, he was offering a prediction of the total number of deaths given that many of the measures he recommended had been undertaken. As Reason noted, “Contrary to what you may have read or heard, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson has not suddenly reduced his worst-case projection of COVID-19 deaths in the U.K. by a factor of 28. To the contrary, he says the policies adopted by the British government . . . should keep the number of deaths below 20,000.”
Yet, there it was, repeatedly, in my social media feed being shared by fellow Catholics as “evidence” that politicians had tanked the economy unnecessarily.
Fourth, I’ve seen Catholic friends sharing articles claiming that Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, planned Covid-19 or intimating that this is part of some elaborate conspiracy on his part. I am hardly a fan of Gates and the Gates Foundations’ rabid promotion of contraception. But the leap from the Foundation’s morally problematic efforts to the conclusion that Gates somehow masterminded this virus is made without the least bit of evidence. Not only is such a claim detached from reality, it also violates the Eighth Commandment prohibition against calumny. What it certainly does not do is help the Catholic faith appear rational and intelligible.
I understand the mistrust of the media better than many. I personally have suffered from media malpractice, once waking up to find my name on the front page of The Washington Post in an article that badly mangled the facts. But that the media get things wrong or that many within it have their own ideological blinders is neither an excuse to disregard the service they provide nor a reason to throw discernment away when we read or share news articles. The media’s ideological blindness does not justify ours. Rather, we must strive to have the gaze of true faith which is one open to all of reality.
Near the end of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “faith is an incentive to seek always, never to stop and never to be content in the inexhaustible search for truth and reality.” He averred that the “prejudice of certain modern thinkers, who hold that human reason would be as it were blocked by the dogmas of faith, is false.” My deep fear in watching many of my fellow Catholics—especially priests, parish leaders, and theologians—share falsehoods or half-truths is that they are unwittingly proving true the prejudice of those modern thinkers.
In playing into those prejudices these fellow Catholics are undermining our common mandate of bringing people to know and love Christ and serve him in this world and live with him in the next. They are putting barriers in the path of those who might find the faith attractive and compelling, but for the irrationality they see among her adherents. An irony is that many of those Catholics spreading this disinformation are those most forcefully claiming that our bishops are placing worldly concerns ahead of supernatural concerns in canceling Masses. Yet, in their rush to push a certain narrative about the coronavirus, I fear that these fellow Catholics do far more damage to the spread of the Gospel than the temporary cancellation of public Masses in the face of a pandemic. Indeed, they do no service to Christ and those thirsting for his good news by portraying a vision of the faith that is detached from and contrary to reason and reality.
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