Bishop Paprocki: We must weigh cost of ‘extraordinary’ shutdowns

By Carl Bunderson for CNA

Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Diocese of Springfield, Illinois

Denver Newsroom, Sep 24, 2020 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- In an essay published this month, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois argued that months-long lockdowns in response to the coronavirus are an extraordinary means of saving life, and are therefore not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by the state.

We have “taken the extraordinary and unprecedented step of shutting down a major portion of our economy for the past several months, telling people to stay home, not to go to work, and not to go to school,” Bishop Paprocki wrote in “Social Shutdowns as an Extraordinary Means of Saving Human Lives”, an essay in the September edition of Ethics & Medics, a commentary published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life is important, for if a means is extraordinary—that is, if the burdens outweigh the benefits—then it is not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by state power,” he wrote.

“[I]n the face of a pandemic, do we have a moral obligation to shut down our society, require people to stay at home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain, and prevent worshippers from going to church? I would say no,” the bishop concluded, saying that such actions “would be imposing unduly burdensome and extraordinary means.”

Speaking to CNA, Bishop Paprocki drew an analogy with the distinction between ordinary means of preserving the life of a patient in medical care, which are obligatory, and extraordinary means, which are so burdensome that they are not obligatory, in the response to a pandemic.

“It just occurred to me that that very word extraordinary is a word that we use in Catholic medical ethics when we talk about treatments to save life, when you’re talking about an individual patient,” he said.

“Looking back, at emails and decisions we were making at that time, we were very much thinking in the middle of March, that this was going to be for a couple of weeks – we’ll close our schools until the end of March, and then things will reopen.”

“Obviously that didn’t happen that way,” he said, “so the lockdowns got extended another month, and so here we are several months later and this is ongoing.”

“The impact that it’s been having on people being able to go to church, receive Communion, go to their jobs, go to school, with all that being basically shut down for a period of time, again, it just struck me as extraordinary, that this had never happened in my lifetime, and probably in the lifetime of most people who are alive today, and so the word extraordinary kept coming back to me,” he explained.

This distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means was first made by Venerable Pius XII in a 1957 address to medical workers, during which he said that “Normally one is held to use only ordinary means … that is to say, means that do not involve any grave burden for oneself or another. A stricter obligation would be too burdensome for most men and would render the attainment of the higher, more important good too difficult. Life, health, all temporal activities are in fact subordinated to spiritual ends.”

Bishop Paprocki asked, “What are the spiritual ends? The spiritual end is eternal life, and so everything else is subordinated to that.”

“Let’s take one issue, in terms of being able to go to church and receive the sacraments, Holy Communion; or a person who’s dying to receive Anointing of the Sick. All of that is more important than our temporal activities, or even our physical life here on earth. So I thought, ‘well, if that applies to … individual people, why can’t that same principle apply to society as a whole? Do we have to do everything possible to save every human life? Well not if it’s extraordinary.”

He noted that more than 35,000 people die annually in the US in auto accidents.

“How do we save those every year? Let’s not drive. Let’s close down our highways, don’t get in your car,” Bishop Paprocki said.

“We wouldn’t do that, because people need to get to work, to school, and other obligations. So what do we do? We don’t throw caution to the wind. We take precautions, like seat belts and air bags, and you follow the rules of the road; and if you do that, there’s much greater likelihood you won’t die in an auto accident, but that’s not an absolute guarantee. There are no absolute guarantees in life.”

If this principle of the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary means “applies to individuals, why doesn’t it apply to our society as well?” he asked. “And I would argue that it should.”

“When you’ve got politicians, for example governors and other government leaders, making decisions about shutting things down, I’m not questioning their motivation – it’s a good motivation, they’re trying to save life, and that’s a good thing – but I’m trying to add a little bit more of a moral analysis to that conversation.”

“It’s not that simple to say we have to do everything to save every life possible, because we just don’t do that, that’s not possible. Instead we take ordinary means, and that’s what I’m hoping to contribute to the conversation here.”

The bishop said he is “anticipating that this whole question will come up again,” and he noted that Israel has begun a second lockdown because of coronavirus, which will last three weeks. The country was also locked down from late March to early May.

“In the US if we have another wave of Covid, or even a very severe flu, are we going to lock everything down again?” Bishop Paprocki asked.

“I would be arguing that morally, we don’t have to. If someone voluntarily says, ‘you know what, it’s not safe out there, I’m not going out’, fine, that’s your decision; but in terms of the government ordering everything to be shut down, I just don’t think that’s morally required.”

The bishop said he has heard anecdotally that numerous people “are thinking along these lines, but they don’t know exactly how to articulate it … people are making this analysis in their own minds that there are a lot of different factors that we have to weigh here, and so what I’m trying to do here is add some vocabulary from our Catholic moral tradition that perhaps could help this conversation.”

In his essay, he cited a July broadcast of NBC Nightly News in which five pediatricians “unanimously and emphatically agreed that the benefits of children’s being back at school outweigh the risks.”

Parents, teachers, and students, he said, have told him they’re “very happy to be back in school”; Catholic schools in the diocese, and across Illinois, have reopened. “I’m hearing from people saying it’s more important, even if there is some risk … we’re weighing the burdens and the benefits here. There is some risk there for the spread of Covid. On the other hand, what’s the risk to children if we shut down their education?”

“When I’m saying that shutdowns are extraordinary means, I’m certainly not disregarding the importance of doing what we can to save life, to help people who are sick, to try and deal with the threat of Covid,” Bishop Paprocki emphasized.

“My background in healthcare says to me that these are complicated decisions, but we also have very nuanced ways of trying to look at them and trying to analyse them.”

The bishop comes from a family of pharmacists, with four generations in the business; he is also vice-president of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, and while a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago he served as Liaison for Health and Hospital Affairs.

He also addressed the balance of concerns for the elderly, vulnerable as they are to the coronavirus.

“We’re taking steps to make sure the elderly don’t get sick, and don’t contract Covid, and that’s a very important factor, because they’re a higher risk group, and more vulnerable than young people; on the other hand, their physical well being, as important as it is, is not the only concern.”

The bishop had related in his essay that his aunt, Marian Jacobs, had her 102nd birthday in March. She would normally celebrate with her family, but was barred from doing so. “Indeed with very limited family visits since March, she has declined rapidly and has been moved from her apartment to assisted living,” he wrote.

“The elderly, they need to be with people, with family, they need social interactions, as much as anybody does,” he told CNA. “And so there we have to try to strike a balance between keeping them physically safe, and at the same time allowing them to be happy. As I wrote in my article, I’m more afraid that my aunt’s going to die of a broken heart than she will of Covid.”

Discerning the difference between ordinary and extraordinary means is a “judgement call,” the bishop explained.

“There are no easy benchmarks,” Bishop Paprocki conceded. “If you compare this by analogy to end of life decisions, when a family is talking to a doctor about what to do for a dying person, what kind of treatment, whether to put them on hospice, or palliative care, is there some way to ease their suffering? Those are difficult conversations to have, but they’re important conversations. So I’m not downplaying how difficult that is for our government leaders to make these decisions.”

One important criterion, he affirmed, is the duration of a lockdown.

While temporary measures can be good, even essential, “can we shut down our sacraments indefinitely? I don’t think so,” he said.

“We could do it for a short period of time, [but if] we can’t tell you when you’re going to be able to receive the sacraments again, then I think that’s subordinating our spiritual ends, as Pope Pius XII talked about, to the physical ends.”

“For those of us who do see eternal life as more important than our physical life on earth, the government shouldn’t be interfering with our efforts to practice our faith,” he said, noting that the widespread fear of death remains a call for the church to evangelize.

“Death is part of the natural lifecycle, but if you don’t believe in God, in an afterlife, the only thing you believe in is the physical world here and now, well, death becomes much more ominous,” he said.

“Our culture just has a hard time dealing with it. We don’t like to talk about death, we use euphemisms; instead of saying someone died, we say someone passed.”

“We don’t even like to talk about funerals,” he continued. “It’s a ‘celebration of life’ and that’s fine – there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a person’s life, but that’s looking back, remembering that person’s life here on earth. But our Catholic funerals look ahead, we pray for the repose of the soul, we’re praying for their eternal life.”

“That’s the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus has come to offer us eternal life in his kingdom, so that’s where we should put our focus.”

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  1. Finally, a bishop is on the right track, but his language is not nearly forceful enough. “I would say…” “I would be arguing…” No. It has to be more along the lines of, “I declare that this is morally wrong and unacceptable.” They need to be willing to go out on a limb and say point blank that the majority is dead wrong.

    • agreed. This statement ” “can we shut down our sacraments indefinitely? I don’t think so,” should have elicited a definite “NO” not a weaselly “I dont think so”

        • You’re absolutely right, Kevin.

          What’s with these people who are trashing Bishop Paprocki? He is, in fact, one of only three “good guys” among the Catholic bishops (head honcho and auxiliary) in the Province of Illinois (the other two being Most Rev. David James Malloy, the Bishop of Rockford, and Most Rev. Daniel Francis Jenky, CSC, the Bishop of Peoria).

          He is a remarkable priest and bishop, having somehow made it through the crocodile-infested waters which were and are the Archdiocese of Chicago (ordained there in 1978), and he is still clearly, intelligently, articulately, unambiguously, and courageously preaching, teaching, and defending ALL of the eternal and unchanging truths of the Catholic faith against all comers, both in season and out of season, whether welcome or unwelcome, whether convenient or inconvenient.

  2. I discontinued reading after NBC news was used as scientific supporting evidence! I am currently under Covid-19 restrictions due to exposure by an unknown person that got it from his workplace. He is 32 and I am 68 years old. Who is more at risk? The risk is highest over 50 years old. Protection of all should be foremost. I believe God understands why I watch the mass on Sunday. I feel sad that I may have brought this virus to others, not because I am in isolation. This is not about me but thinking of others. Industry is changing and families being together more —look at the positives too. The Industrial Revolution May be happening once again in our time!

    • AM Adams,
      I sincerely hope you stay well. My brother caught Covid in the UK & was told he might have been infected twice. I suspect he just carried the virus around for 3 months but who knows?
      The problem with shutting things down, closing churches for months, etc. is the despair it causes for people who’ve lost jobs, lost fellowship, lost connection with their church families & ability to worship together.
      It’s grand in theory for folks who actually have a family to spend more time at home together, but for lonely single people quarantines are an added isolation. Overdose & suicide rates where we live are terrible. One of my children’s classmates succumbed to an overdose last month & a coworker just attended a funeral for young relative who shot himself.
      There has to be a wiser plan going forward now that we know more about Covid & since the death rates-at least at the moment-are not keeping up with new infection rates.
      You stay safe & God bless!

  3. My thought is, ‘they know not what they do.’

    Shutdowns and outdoor mask mandates are now among the left’s new power tools. They’ve done a good job of fear mongering to obtain these ill gotten power gains. Now they are poised to elect someone whose brain is functioning at ‘half-mast.’

  4. Thank you …the comparison with traffic accidents too noteworthy ..

    The irony , of ‘extra ordinary measures ‘ pushed by the same Govt s world over , to make persons live for the kingdom of evil , through promotion of fear and lust and greed , against marriage and family ,by pushing for contraception on down …
    and the same Govts now , under the crown / corona of fear and confusion ….

    The double irony of not using very ordinary measures to help contain even future ones too , such as
    1- use of Magnesium , low levels of same very likely a major , major component of the seriousness of the illness in many ..
    oceans of info about same out there…
    yet, medical fields too , having become unsalty ,from collaborating with the ‘crown’ , such simple truths escaping many who thus suffer too in various illnesses that could be avoided or ameliorated .

    Inexpensive forms such as Mg Chloride readily available , 1-2 tbsp in a little water , used as salt soak on the body few days a week , to help with good sleep , prevent many illnesses as well , no serious risks since excess can be eliminated through the gut ..

    2 – Very little mention about use of HEPA with UV C air cleaners , again plenty of info and products too , which can be used in all public gathering spaces .

    Use of zinc and Vit D , bit better known .

    3 – Schools and such can use the occasion to help families too ,for healthier life styles , less sugar , more lentils and green etc :

    4 – Inflammation and wounds – the concerns of the Holy Father too , for creation on up ..and the prayers and rounds and all , in the Divine Will , to love God with the love with which each of us has been loved – undiscovered oceans of goodness for all , to help make everything else – the Liturgy , The Word , to come more alive and meaningful , as mentioned in the good talks by Fr. Robert Young – how an 83 y.o. holy nun shared with him how the above made her realize that same was what she had been searching for , having always felt , there was something more to be had in spiritual life –

    The Crown of holiness The Trinity has been preparing for our times , since all eternity ..
    May our welcoming same be the means to also help rid off the crown of lies and pride and greed of self will from amidst us all .
    Thank you ! 🙂

  5. To consider this millennia-old moral theological analysis as breaking news 7 months into the pandemic and collapse of the pre-virus economy is nothing short of absurd for a Catholic News medium. And where was Bishop Paprocki and his 190+ USCCB colleagues then when they blithely suppressed the canonical and spiritual rights of the faithful to the Mass and the sacraments as they crave my bowed to the dictates of the sanitary dictatorship? Perhaps this is best seen as the other bookend of canonical and spiritual malfeasance to the bookend announced today of ex-Cardinal Becciu’s financial crimes and gross ecclesial abuses.

  6. Bishop, tell us something we don’t know.

    In my opinion your are too far over your ski tips.

    The last person I need chiming in on Covid management is a Catholic Biship. Your talent stack is impressive but not when it comes to virology and public health.

    • The Bishop is right to express his opinions on public health measures. It is called community engagement. Most people, take messages from their Priests or religious leaders seriously. I think all public health initiatives should involve religious leaders because in matters of illness and death,the main outcomes in a pandemic, people turn to God. A Bishop should use this opportunity to rely messages that promote cooperation with God’s Commandments to give people hope, time for reflection and confession. I think Bishops should also encourage measures that reduces risks in order to protect others.This should be an obligation. The opposite can happen too.

      My argument is that Churches should remain open. Those who are vulnerable should have the option to stay at home and continue with radio or televised Mass, but we should not be afraid. Read Psalm 91. The source of life is Christ and the Church is where He resides, although He is everywhere. St Paul in Romans 14:9 informs us that if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die , we die for the Lord.

    • Virology and public health experts should not be the decision makers. They can supply data and advice, but the question “what OUGHT we to do” is far beyond the pay grade of such technicians.

  7. I am 80 years old and I agree with the bishop. Lots of measures taken seem strange at best.

    On August 5th of this year, my husband and I boarded a plane for Denver. We kept our distance boarding and we wore our masks. The flight has totally booked. We were allowed to remove our masks for snacks and drinks. I guess Covid is not contagious when one drinks or eats and on a full fight.


    • You also have to remove your mask to inhale cigarette smoke, as well or the increasingly legal marijuana smoke – known killers and immunity suppressors.

      A relative picked it up from friends, she was healthy/lifestyle good and eventually got over it. Probably not enough social d while eating their food at a lunch gathering. in her 60s

      You CANNOT shut down the economy for this virus — we run on money economy – not subsistence farmers anymore like in 1918. Those of you with pensions and social security will not have anything left if the dollar goes to zero and stocks are worthless.

      The mismanagement by the blue governors has caused more people to die than would have and now they have the gall to investigate the president’s response. A bunch of arrogant boobs

  8. In Michigan we were doomed from the start and still are due to a power mad Governor,AG,
    Sec of State,and several Marxist {D} Rep’s in the 8th,& 11th districts.Not to mention 3 more useless Marxists in Peters,Stabenaw and Dingell.All Soros funded….

  9. the only bright sides to blues’ shutdowns:
    1)hospitals have not been overwhelmed;
    2)many deaths prevented(eg dr.fauci in march
    said,in effect, wo blues’ shutdowns 2 millon deaths!—
    so far way under that total!

    • A lot of people exposed that show no signs; people are giving blood and being told after the testing process that they have the antibodies. This virus has been moving around the country since last fall, you would have had to shut it down last October? to have stopped it. China lied about number of deaths instead of warning the world. Yet Bill Gates talks about how great their response was!

      Fauci was wrong because look at the death rate in Sweden that never locked down. Americans don’t live very healthy. that’s not me saying it that’s more than one doctor that says that

    • Not so fast–In NY and especially Michigan, the governors had Covid positive elderly patients put back in the nursing homes, supposedly to free up hospital space. They could have said these folks should be returned to the field hospitals–which were set up at great expense but we mostly unused.
      Covid ripped through the nursing homes like wildfire, killing thousands.
      We have no way to know for certain if these shutdowns did anything good. Looking at Sweden, the indications are they did not. In fact, excess deaths from neglected cardiac, mental health issues and starvation may have resulted.

  10. Bishop Paprocki always seemed to me to be closer to being a Catholic than an average American bishop, so it does not strike me odd that he would be one of the first to start showing signs of reason based cerebral activity in reference to dealing with the coronavirus related issues. It’s a very welcome and refreshing view, and a view that will hopefully prove more contagious than the virus in question. We need to finally develop herd immunity to stupidity. We need to, beginning with Church hierarchy, begin to view spiritual life more important than physical life and act accordingly, act faithfully, act with safety of souls in mind, as that is what ultimately matters from the perspective of eternity. Let’s hope his words infect the minds of his fellow bishops, the priests and religious in his diocese, and, eventually, with God’s help, all of us.

    • Let’s also hope and pray that His Royal Highness, the current Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, doesn’t use his “clout” on the Congregation of Bishops and with the current Pope to engineer the de-facto “exile” of Bishop Paprocki (and Bishop Malloy, of Rockford) to some “Podunk” diocese in the U.S. – or that His Royal Highness is denied if he tries to do so.

      It’s bad enough that His Royal Highness has managed to place heterodox toadies as Bishop of Joliet, Bishop of Belleville, and Co-Adjutor Bishop of Peoria (and, quite possibly, Bishop of Gary as well). Is his megalomania going to be exercised to try to put the whole Province of Illinois under his control – a la Herr Reichschancellor Pritzker in the political realm?

  11. Life is more than not being dead. What is the actual source of life? For the body, food is. How does one obtain food? For most, food is purchased with money. From this perspective, how could actions which would seriously damage the economy be saving lives? At the least, finances are damaged for many.

    • Very true Shawn.

      Society is upside down on priorities – stay alive forever, at high cost to current and future generations, but get rid of the unwanted with lots of potential

  12. Hello! 🙂 This article had a lot of good points. I want to briefly touch upon something stated closer to the end about how sacraments could be shut down for a short period of time. Perhaps if “short” refers to a few hours?
    A good Canon Lawyer that I had been in communication with is of the opinion that it is against canon law to deny sacraments to faithful Catholics and that Covid 19 was not a reason to do so. If one were to ask to receive Holy Communion in the middle of the night for example, this person could be asked to wait a few hours, but should not be denied the Eucharist (or Confession or the Anointing of the Sick). A different Canon Lawyer wrote this article which has good info: Many faithful Catholics suffered tremendously from the Eucharistic deprivation & from being denied sacraments, felt abandoned etc by the Church, and also perhaps shared in Christ’s desire & thirst to be received and that He “wept” with us, sharing in our grief. I appreciate the response of the Catholic president of Tanzania who back in March had apparently actually encouraged people to go to church & to seek refuge in God & healing, and in reference to the Eucharist said these encouraging words, “The coronavirus cannot survive in the Eucharistic Body of Christ. It will soon be burnt away. That is exactly why I did not panic when receiving Holy Communion because I knew that with Jesus in the Eucharist, I am safe. This is the time for building our faith in God.” I also appreciated how in Poland they had MORE Masses so that LESS people could be at each one, and this article by Monsignor Pope in DC is also great & could be beneficial to read again & again:

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