21 March 2020, The Tablet

Covid-19: blow after devastating blow to civil society


Covid-19: blow after devastating blow to civil society

The Church of Santa Maria sella Salute in Naples, the via Crucis celebrated by Father Francesco Gravino from the roof of the church
Napolipress/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

The final Mass before shutdown at my local Catholic Church was like a bereavement, where people muttered consoling words to on another but with a strong sense of fatalism. I detected feelings of vertigo. Is this what Britain in 1940 felt like, after Paris fell? It was as if the world stood on the brink of a precipice and nobody knew whether they were about to be pushed over the edge or could somehow scramble to safety. It was out of our control. Is panic buying in the supermarkets an unconscious effort to regain some sense of self-determination? I have toilet rolls therefore I am?

Thomas Hobbes warned us that the natural state of humanity could be described as Bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all. Is that what happened in a Tesco car park somewhere in the north of England, when someone was mugged for toilet rolls? To counter this fractious fragmentation, the reduction of society to its individual components, Hobbes proposed "a common Power to keep them all in awe," which we would understand as law and order, forcefully enforced. The alternative is a state of dystopia where "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

But we don't need laws to make us good. I don't go and shoot my neighbour and steal his property because I don't want to be arrested. If the police were on strike and anarchy reigned, I still wouldn't. The basic reason is because I possess habits of virtue, imprinted into me since childhood. And justice is one of them; the right to life and the right to property.

Solidarity is another. That moral philosopher St John Paul II declared it to be a virtue in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis of 1987, stupidly dismissed by the Wall Street Journal as "warmed-over Marxism".

It is worth quoting that passage in full:

"It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognised in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a 'virtue', is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all."

Another moral philosopher, former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, made a parallel point in interviews this week connected with the publication of his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, published by Hodder and Stoughton.

He argued that the world’s focus on a common problem may have a positive effect. “I do think this split attention, with everyone looking at something different – that has so disaggregated us as a culture – is going to change. We’re all watching the same news, reacting in pretty much the same way. So although we’re not physically together, mentally and emotionally, we will be. Physical isolation will go hand-in-hand with an emotional and even moral sense of solidarity.”

Contrary to Hobbes, therefore, Sacks believes humanity can be naturally altruistic, at least when there is a unifying factor like the coronavirus epidemic to focus all our minds.

So Pope and Chief Rabbi are both talking about solidarity, which, as a virtue, is something we can learn. It is like muscle memory: constant repetition makes it automatic, so like walking, we don't even think about it when we are doing it.

But this is where, in the complex mystery of coronavirus, we reach a paradox. Solidarity involves coming together to achieve a common aim. That is how and where the habit of solidarity as a virtue is acquired. Yet coming together is at odds with the official guidance to observe strict social distancing. That rules out most human interaction and reduces us precisely to that state of individualism that is the opposite of solidarity.

My parish is a case in point. It is one small element of civil society, whose essential place in sustaining any decent level of civilisation is not fully captured by the rather dismissive expression "voluntary sector". Society as a whole consists of a network of such essential communities, the vital intermediate institutions between the State and the individual person. These are the places where our social capital is banked. So official measures to enforce social distancing, including the ban on parish Masses, are a devastating blow to civil society. And at the heart of civil society is solidarity.

This is not just an economic or health emergency, therefore, but also a moral and spiritual one – and that is no less important. Sadly, I have seen no sign yet that the Government realises how destructive this could be. I hope our religious leaders are at least aware of it, and looking for answers.




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