Are mask mandates reasonable and necessary, or are they dangerous and even immoral? This essay is, in part, a response to comments made to an earlier piece, titled “The Pandemic and the Contraceptive Mentality” (Aug 17, 2021). I suggested that the contraceptive mentality induces the same fear and entitlement behavior patterns we are experiencing in response to the pandemic. Some critics disagree and contend that I’m insensitive to the gravity of the COVID threat.
But people are dominated by and living in fear. Many are behaving as though their hysteria is virtuous. Church leaders feed the frenzy by promoting government mandates without question. The delirium is demonic. Hence, the need for another perspective.
The COVID pandemic has taken many lives. But to keep things in perspective, not as many as the number of annual abortions. With constantly changing medical narratives, it is hard to deny there have been good reasons to question the motives of government authorities and medical professionals. Is the spread of the disease inevitable, and are vaccines effective and safe? Are face masks and so-called social distancing effective, practical, and necessary? What are the risks by population groups? Do toddlers and school children benefit from face masks? Are the motives of the pharmaceutical companies free from crass profiteering? Are government health authorities competent? Are health authorities immune from the massive bureaucratic, leadership, intelligence, and technical errors that led to the Afghanistan debacle?
The classical moral theology of the Catholic Church teaches that the determinants of a moral act are threefold: object, circumstances, and intention. If any of these are judged immoral, the action is rendered illicit. Using face masks is not intrinsically evil. The object of the act (if it works) is to prevent infection. (Unlike contraception that obstructs healthy human fertility, a face mask aims to prevent disease by reducing the aerosol spray of contagion.) The intention of the face mask mandate is presumably good: the health of individuals and society at large.
But face masks also have physical, emotional, and relational effects. We have the right to consider the many circumstances that apply to ourselves and our children. Circumstances — particulars known to individuals — may render the action evil according to the evaluation, in conscience, of an individual Catholic. Seeking advice from reliable and authoritative sources is crucial in these knotty questions. There must be room for passionate debate. But ultimately, prudence is a virtue an individual cannot delegate. Church and civil authorities may disagree as to prudential judgments. But Church and civil authorities should respect the inviolability of a sincere conscience that makes them.
We’re generally happy when a dental hygienist wears a mask and uses latex gloves when polishing teeth. There is no need for a government rule, just common sense (perhaps prodded by medical protocols). But that’s no guarantee we would be safe from a respiratory infection if the hygienist were ill and contagious. Masks may be defective, unreliable, ill-fitting, or counter-productive. When priests visit the sick in the hospital where this a significant danger of infectious diseases, he often wears a gown and dons a mask. He makes sure he disinfects his hand before dipping into the holy oils. Common sense usually works. But a tiny mistake may result in illness.
The reasonableness of mandating masks depends on the circumstances. Do they effectively reduce the spread of infection? What are the infection risks by age groups and medical pathologies within a population? Do face masks harm those with patterns of physical and psychological conditions? Does the long-term use of face masks have physical, emotional, and developmental effects that are dangerous? Is the infection severe enough to warrant widespread mandates?
We all know people sickened and killed by the COVID infection (primarily elderly and “at-risk” resulting from pre-existing conditions). But how many people died from other causes because they canceled routine medical appointments to remain in isolation? How many children and toddlers were/are at risk? How many youngsters (and young adults) committed suicide as a result of COVID mandates? Some pediatric sections in hospitals are overcrowded with psychiatric cases. Why the spike? The pain of isolation is particularly unbearable for the young.
Government officials grant exemptions to their face mask mandates. Doctor Fauci does not insist upon face masks when it comes to sex. In April 2020, Vanity Fair asked him: “If you’re swiping on a dating app like Tinder, or Bumble, or Grindr, and you match with someone that you think is hot, and you’re just kind of like, ‘Maybe it’s fine if this one stranger comes over.’ What do you say to that person?” Fauci responded: “You know, that’s tough.” [Really?] He added, while it’s possible to carefully plan a hookup during the pandemic, people should recognize that the risks they’re opening themselves — and others — up to.
(So it seems we must consult Fauci, the Wizard of Oz of the pandemic, to receive all face mask exemptions.)
But if we are looking for absolute peace and security, why not propose a government program to mandate NASA spacesuits? Countless people could have avoided infection if the government issued them spacesuits manufactured at warp speed. Isn’t one human life worth the cost? Doctor Fauci — the condom advocate during the 1980s AIDS crisis — would probably approve of spacesuit protection. Space wear provides the ultimate in safe sex!
Of course, a person with common sense would argue that while spacesuits would be safer than face masks, there is a trade-off: expense, practicality, and social interaction. Who can jog in a spacesuit? Maybe a spacesuit is desirable for those who have the means and eccentricities. But most would agree the government should not mandate space fashions unless we’re taking a joy ride on Jeff Bezos’ spaceship.
There are also commonsense trade-off factors associated with face masks. For the most part, why not trust us to make our independent calculations? But too many accept the mandates and don’t consider the alternatives because we’re running scared. We have an almost idolatrous trust in the medical-industrial complex.
Those in the medical profession are part of an insular club similar to that of the clergy. Medical professionals and clerics share the same hubris: We easily violate the rights of the people we serve because of our institutional prejudices and smug judgments. It is clericalism when priests, bishops, and popes mandate prudential judgments and muzzle disagreement (e.g., immigration, climate change, vaccination policies). Doctors and government officials commonly suffer from the same elitist mentality. But ordinary people have a right to apply concrete Christian principles to the circumstances of their lives in conscience.
If we surrender our liberties to government and medical authorities with one-size-fits-all mandates, it won’t end well. In our timid and risk-averse culture, we hear the distant sound of jackboots. So widespread pushback on face mask mandates — without prejudice to those who choose to wear face masks — may help guard against further encroachment on our freedom of conscience and civil liberties.
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