A century ago the Spanish Flu tore through the United States and the world for three years, an influenza that infected one of every four people on earth and killed at least 17 million human beings, but probably millions more.
As we debate the right prudential balance between the harms posed by the health crisis on the one hand and the economic crisis on another, it’s helpful to look back and get a sense of how things were done in the past. An aspect of the debate has been what we should classify as “essential” versus “non-essential” businesses, associations, and purposes. Basically, what must we keep open out of necessity and what should be closed in order to diminish the spread of the virus.
It’s been a legitimate frustration for many that some states are classifying abortion and Planned Parenthood as “essential” on the one hand, and that the Catholic bishops across the country have stopped public Masses—and that some governors are not only labeling churches as “non-essential”, but that Bill de Blasio recently threatened “permanent” closure of any religious institutions in New York that decide to convene for worship. We have to be careful to avoid using a bureaucratic vocabulary and avoid the false “essential” versus “non-essential” binary which obscures more than it reveals.
When it comes to the closures of churches, Bishop Regis Canevin shows that even a century ago it was understood as prudent to close churches for a limited time:
The Department of Public Health throughout the country are taking unusual precautions to prevent the further spread of influenza which is already epidemic in a number of places. In some districts of Western Pennsylvania churches and schools are closed and all public meetings are forbidden. It is indeed a great hardship for Catholics to be deprived of the opportunity to assemble for Mass and other divine services in their churches; but when, in the judgment of the civil authorities, whose duty it is to safeguard public health, it becomes necessary to close churches and schools and take other strong precautions against epidemics of virulent disease, the only rule for pastors and people is to co-operate with the civil authorities of their district, obey the laws, and comply with regulations that are enacted for the common good.
In the city of Pittsburgh, churches are not to be open for public services; no congregation or group of persons is allowed to assemble in them. Public meetings are prohibited.
Regis Canevin, Bishop of Pittsburgh
What is essential in a time like this is sacrifice, humility, and a willingness to suffer in any number of ways—even if that simply means suffering alongside those who are physically ill from the virus, or economically devastated from the economic crisis that this virus is causing, or who are suffering in other ways at this time.
This is what solidarity is about: standing alongside one another, asking God for the graces necessary to live well through this time, and persevering in a spirit of hope and service to those in our lives who may be vulnerable in all sorts of ways.