Over the past several weeks, protestors have assembled outside state houses across the country asking the government to re-open the economy. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was recently asked about these protests and his reply was dismissive: “If you want to go to work, go take the job as an essential worker. Do it tomorrow.”
When a reporter pressed him on his response, Cuomo shot back: “You can get a job as an essential worker, so now you can go to work and you can be an essential worker and you’re not going to kill anyone.”
Amidst this pandemic, Americans have learned what types of workers the government deems essential. They include hospital employees, pharmacists, medical researchers, food supply chain workers, energy and water suppliers, those involved in defense, national security and trash collection services.
In some cases, the government’s designation has been a bit less obvious. For example, liquor stores have generally been deemed “essential”. In California, employees in the cannabis industry are considered essential.
Though some states designate abortion services as nonessential, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared them essential. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other professional medical groups have lobbied hard to keep abortion essential.
Early on, some states tried to label entire industries nonessential – like the gun industry – before the federal government overruled them.
One industry that received a bit of a split decision: education. The pandemic closed school buildings from Maine to California. Teachers and kids were sent home. The traditional delivery system used to provide education effectively was deemed nonessential. Learning itself, however, was still declared essential. In March, it was beamed into our living rooms, with kids tethered to screens and moms and dads enlisted as tutors. Homeschooling was ruled the essential mode of delivering education, which is interesting given that government-run public school systems and the teacher’s unions associated with them typically look askance at such arrangements, deeming them not suitable for providing essential learning.
Another area of life that our government decided is nonessential: religion. At least public services. The Catholic Church was told to keep parishioners away from any in-person Mass and to lock the doors and seal off pews, effectively eliminating the Sacrament of Holy Communion for our country’s 51 million Catholics.
Given the First Amendment’s explication that government shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, this has raised some rather foreseeable problems. Police fined and dispersed parishioners participating in a drive-through service at a Baptist church in Mississippi. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio – Governor Cuomo’s Democratic colleague – personally traveled to the site of a funeral service in Brooklyn for a popular Jewish rabbi to monitor the situation. Confronting a crowd of mourners, he instructed police to make arrests.
This struck some as especially odd, considering that just weeks earlier this same mayor quietly got in an apparently essential workout at the YMCA just as New York City was closing gyms and other “nonessential” businesses.
Which begs the question: when we say “nonessential” – nonessential to whom, exactly?
For thee but not for me?
With regard to employment, as millions of Americans have been forced out of work not by the pandemic itself but by the government’s response to the pandemic, who determines and how we determine what is essential deserves some critical thought.
After all, this determination has consequences – not just, of course, for the workers themselves but for their families.
“Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe argues that there are no nonessential workers. He makes the point that telling the unemployed who want to work that they can’t because the government doesn’t think their work is essential adds insult to injury. “Language matters,” Rowe says, adding that the impact of “removing those workers from our economy” is devastating – both to our macroeconomy and to the workers themselves.
CNN, however, disagrees.
A recent online article titled “The dangerous morality behind the ‘Open it Up’ movement”, by CNN’s Religion Editor Daniel Burke, even argues that those who express dissent in the face of the shutdowns are being “utilitarian” and engaging in “moral inconsistency”. His claim apparently assumes that those who question the mass closing of the economy are conservatives, many of whom are prolife. This, he contends, is unconscionable because pro-lifers are supposed to believe all human life is sacred and closing the economy to nonessential workers is necessary in order to protect innocent human life. In effect, it is essential for the nonessential to shut up; any counterargument is immoral.
But does Burke really make a good argument? Is it even an argument at all?
It’s a cute take but it misses entirely the important question being asked: is shutting down the economy in perpetuity the only way to protect life during this crisis? Is it even the most effective way to do it?
CNN doesn’t think these are worthy questions. Dissent is dismissed out of hand. Inquiry declared out of bounds by the free press.
But asking these questions is…well…essential. Essential for pursuing truth.
In that spirit, how about this question: is CNN’s newfound enthusiasm for defending human life genuine? Does the network believe that protecting innocent life is vital even when the mom didn’t intend the pregnancy? Is it suggesting that it believes human life is more important than a “woman’s choice” or “control over her own body”?
Clearly, no. Apparently, it’s more fun for CNN to pretend otherwise and try to discredit pro-lifers in the process. Win-win.
Again: distinguishing the essential from the nonessential has consequences. Questioning this distinction is healthy and part of living in a functioning democracy; we should be able to do it without fear of what folks at CNN or anyone else might say.
As we do, we should remember what Catholic social teaching says about the role work plays in human life. In the encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls work “a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth; a path to growth, human development and fulfillment” (128). The Pope adds (quoting in part from Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate), “It is essential that ‘we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone’” and that the “broader objective should always be to allow (human beings) a dignified life through work.”
Pope John Paul II explains that work is necessary for understanding one’s connection to God.
Man must work, both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society he belongs to, the country of which he is a child, and the whole human family of which he is a member, since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history. (Laborem Exercens, 16)
He adds: “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being” (Laborem Exercens, 9).
So when someone at CNN or elsewhere declares that we shrug and nod as our government asserts that our neighbor’s work and the dignity he derives from it is ‘nonessential’, we might remember Pope John Paul II’s words in Centesimus Annus:
The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace. (43)
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