Faith and Reason in a Time of Pandemic

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.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori blesses the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore April 8, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

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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About Conor Dugan 8 Articles
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t have a problem with healthy debate about the death rate/s, infection rate/s and hospitalization rate/s. They’re all fluid right now, and we’re working in with unknown quantities, literally. There’s really only data modelling, and it’s going to change over time as we get more information. There are also discrepancies in record-keeping between different jurisdictions about classifying deaths as COVID-19 related when they aren’t necessarily.

    All these things are good to know about, and they help to inform the debate. There’s been an excellent couple of articles in The Spectator UK by Dr John Lee on how to read the data on COVID-19 and questions that we can and should be asking. This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff; it’s trying to educate people about the wobbliness of any data modelling, especially when we’re working with potentially very suspect figures from China, very broadly classified deaths in Italy, and a myriad of other confounding factors.

  2. A relevant saying is that “IF the world operated the way computer modelers construct models, THEN the first woodpecker that came along would destroy all of civilization.” So, as for any computer models: “GIGO, garbage in, garbage out.”

    Predictions of fatalities in the United States have plummeted from 1 to 2.2 million,” then to 100 to 240 thousand,” to now something like 60,000—still far too big a number, but only four percent of the banner outlier from only a few weeks ago.

    The last two forecasts came with “social distancing” (etc.) well in place, so a 40 to 75% reduction (and 97% lower than the earlier headlines). No mention of statistical “confidence intervals” based on all pivotal model input ASSUMPTIONS as distinct from “the model” itself.

    For example, an elementary “fact” is that while we know the numerator (cumulative tracked cases and fatalities), we/modelers (!) still do not know the DENOMINATOR—-the total number of those exposed. The denominator shapes the predicted percent that are fatalities (is it 3% or 1% or?), currently reflected the collapsing range of predicted hospitalized and fatalities. (AND which includes the invisible/beneficial, and rarely mentioned factor of acquired herd immunity against future episodes.)

    So, these are some notions, or more myopic distortions!

    But, the generic FALLACY seems fourfold: (1) the mystique of “models” AND its unstated assumption-inputs, (2) raw outputs fed directly into the market-share media arena, (3) political talking heads mouthing ghost-writer/cherry-picked “facts”, and (4) selective omissions from limited air time. The fit between science and policy deserves a better intellectual/institutional space for reflection (no surprise!)—the missing link in modernday TECHNOCRACY.

    And a major point—As a discipline of inquiry, the CONGRUENCE BETWEEN FAITH and REASON remains mostly distinct from any domain of empirical foibles or “beliefs,” as with the coronavirus narrative(s).

  3. The situation Mr. Dugan describes is really nothing new under the sun. As Msgr. Ronald Knox explained in his magnum opus, “Enthusiasm” (1950), it has been around from the earliest days of the Church. Its modern phase, centered on the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age, began in the late 18th century, by coincidence a period following that which Knox emphasized, but it’s still the same phenomenon.

    Essentially, the “new things” are based on a reorientation of faith away from reason, “man’s miserable intellect.” As a result, the end (whether it be the deification of humanity or the material uplift of the world) justifies the means, even if the means contradict reason, faith, or even the stated goal. What matters is the belief of the one who has power or influence, not objective truth (which ceases to exist).

    This is why Ralph McInerny said that fideism is the single greatest danger facing the Church today. It is a rejection of the primacy of reason, explained by Saint Thomas Aquinas, infallibly declared in the First Vatican Council, and reiterated in the Oath Against Modernism and Humani Generis: “Strictly speaking, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law written in the hearts of all men may be known by the force and light of human reason alone.”

    This, as Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, Mortimer Adler, and Fulton Sheen noted, is Platonism with a vengeance. Abstractions and ideas become more important than reason and faith grounded on reason. This (as Knox explained) is the root of virtually all heresy, and why Pope St. Pius X declared that modernism (the “theology” of the new things) is the synthesis of all heresies. It is also why Pope Pius XI declared that while socialism (the philosophy of the new things) may have some truth, it is contrary to Christian truth in its fundamental principle.

    The essence of the new things is the shift away from the human person made by God, to the abstraction of humanity made by man. This is what Fulton Sheen called “religion without God,” or, rather, the new god of collective man, Émile Durkheim’s “divinized society.”

    As a result, the clear teachings of the Church are declared vague and obscure, and are subjected to “reinterpretation” to force them into whatever framework adherents of the new things find useful or expedient. Thus, the unequivocal condemnation of modernism is reinterpreted as an unfortunate and mistaken rejection of everything modern, while the condemnation of socialism is framed as an uninformed (and equally unfortunate) rejection of Jesus Himself. As a case in point, take the alleged “endorsement” of socialism created out of whole cloth by adherents of the new things:

    http://just3rdway.blogspot.com/2020/03/what-then-does-cardinal-ratzinger-mean.html

    It is, as Chesterton hinted, not merely a rejection of reason and faith. It is the invention of an entirely new religion under the name of Christianity.

    • At two retirement homes in Dubuque, Iowa, where rising for the Sign of Peace is too difficult, there has been instituted the practice of throwing a Kiss of Peace to others, without contact. That action spread to regular parishes in East Dubuque, Scales Mound, and Galena, in Illinois, as first the flu season and then the virus came along. Now, even if and when the virus subsides, the throwing of Christ’s Kiss of Peace can be continued there and initiated elsewhere. HAPPY EASTER AND MAY THE PEACE OF CHRIST BE WITH YOU.

  4. This article is a masterpiece in the manipulation of facts to suit the author’s preconceived notions. The Spanish flu of 1918-19 took up to 100-million lives worldwide, 675-thousand of them in the United States. Proportionately, that would equal more than two-million American deaths today. Thirty-thousand people died in New York City alone. Secondly, the federal government was never involved in any of the measures taken. President Wilson uttered not one word, not one syllable on the subject. All measures were local, and they were applied wherever and whenever the epidemic was hitting at the worst–not all over the country at once. Now let’s look at epidemics since: 1957 Asian flu, 110-thousand Americans died; 1968-69 Hong Kong flu, 100-thousand; not to mention the fact that the COVID U.S. death toll has still not equaled either this winter’s flu toll or that of nearly every flu epidemic of this decade, according to the CDC. And we did not turn our formerly-great republic into a fascist police state as we have now in most of the country. Those are the facts. That is the truth. The numbers show it. The author has been taken in by the hysteria, induced by aggressive, persistent, uncontested suggestion when he should have been looking at the numbers themselves. Meanwhile, we have set ourselves on a course which will surely, if prolonged sufficiently, lead to the failure of government and the breakdown in society. Neither can exist without economic activity.

  5. People who divorce themselves from reality have a very bad effect on faith. I was talking over the back fence with my neighbor, who is Catholic. Earlier in they year, he told me he was carefully following Taylor Marshall. I had warned him that Marshall was getting very near to breaking away from the church. He did not believe me. But recently Marshall has been trumpeting the SSPX, making excuses for “The Great Lefebvre” and various other schisms. My neighbor was a bit shocked, because Marshall seemed to be leading him into authentic Catholicism, but suddenly he found out that Marshall was actually leading him away from the church. Now my neighbor admits to a fear of praying the rosary, because Marshall stressed that so much, and now Marshall is exiting the church, essentially, or at least flirting with rebellion against the church. My neighbor fears “If Marshall can pray the rosary so much, and it did not help him stay on the right track, does it actually do harm?” is what he wonders now. This is the sort of “fruit” that those who are telling half truths produce.

    “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.

      • “The remission of the excommunication [of four SSPX bishops] was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the Society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers – even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty – do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.” Benedict XVI, LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS POPE BENEDICT XVI TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH CONCERNING THE REMISSION OF THE EXCOMMUNICATION OF THE FOUR BISHOPS CONSECRATED BY ARCHBISHOP LEFEBVRE, March 10, 2019

  6. Balance in human affairs is reducible to the virtuous mean between excess and defect. A naked response to the world’s most virulent virus is as defective as an absolutely controlled no quarter given mitigation – is excessive. Surprisingly for some Pres Trump’s determination to strike a balance based on med science and economics is both reasonable and spiritually sound. We risk irreparable damage to mental and spiritual health by excessive mandated isolation likely moreso than if we were lax and assumed an expected number of deaths. Economic collapse spells mass depression, suicides the two already on the increase. Neither option is viable. A balance of protective measures and rationally assumed risk is far more promising economically and spiritually. Faith is always reasonable when reason assesses the virtuous mean.

  7. This is a welcome and sound presentation.

    Perhaps what we need are homilies and parish missions focused on the 8th Commandment.

  8. My argument is that there are no numbers, true or not, that justify the government’s outlandish abuse of its authority right down to New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio’s threat to close down permanently any church he found open. The irony today is that the Soviet Union fell but communism won.

  9. I have been most shocked by the ubiquitous posts on social media asserting that “God would never allow anyone to get sick as a result of receiving Communion.” Some posts have asserted explicitly that pathogens simply die on contact with the Sacred Species, or the Holy Oils, or a priest. This is a level of superstition that surpasses even the widespread belief that “the Holy Spirit chooses the pope.”

  10. I’ve been told by someone who lives in New York that the Comfort is being used for non-COVID patients to protect them from picking up the virus from the main hospitals. It actually seems like a good thing to me. After all, I once worked in a 1,000-bed hospital, and it was almost always full – and this was in a small town. If anything, I suspect the “under-utilization” of the Comfort may be due to the different triage standards being used right now, that is, things for which doctors would once had admitted patients to a hospital are now being deemed not serious enough to require hospitalization. This, too, I see as a good thing, because I often saw people in the hospital who could just as easily have been treated at home. Basically, people are having to learn to be more self-reliant, something which they have systematically stopped doing for some years now.

  11. In the middle east churches stayed open even during the worst civil disorder and terrorism often at risk to clergy and people.
    In the west churches have locked down by state fiat over hypothetical projections concerning a novel flu like virus.
    As with civil society a return to normal service cannot now be expected.
    In the hour of need the Church did the secular states bidding and effectively abandoned its higher duties and responsibilities.
    That abandonment could end up being reciprocal.
    A rejection of a milk and water church that cowardly skulks in the corner, its back to the Cross.

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