Where Are the Better Angels?
There once was a poor, elderly man who lost his only horse shortly before harvest. His friends commiserated with him about his misfortune, but the old man quietly countered, “How do you know this is misfortune?”
Later, the old man’s steed came home, accompanied by a pack of wild horses, which the old man could tame for a profit. His friends returned to congratulate him on his good fortune, but the old man quietly countered, “How do you know this is good fortune?”
A few days later, the old man’s son badly severed his leg when he was thrown off one of the wild horses while trying to tame it. The doctor said he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. The old man’s friends arrived to commiserate with him about this latest misfortune, but he quietly countered, “How do you know this is misfortune?”
A year later, war was declared throughout the land and all able-bodied men were drafted into military service. Because of his impairment, the old man’s son was not required to serve.
The eponymous protagonist in the Book of Job is an upright man who suffers a dramatic reversal of fortune, including the devastating loss of his property, the sudden death of his children, and a dreadful affliction to his body. When three of Job’s friends commiserate with him, they suggest reasons for his plight, such as personal wrongdoing or divine retribution. One of the friends also reminds Job that the foundation of mortals “is in the dust” (Job 4:19). This prompts Job to acknowledge his fate directly to God, saying, “I waste away; I will not live forever; …for my days are but a breath” (Job 7:16). Job dismisses his friends’ unsatisfactory reasoning for his misfortune and, instead, seeks a response directly from God. In the end, God asserts his almighty power and wisdom in all things, and Job’s awareness of God’s omnipotence helps him find meaning in his profound suffering.
Today, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, countless good and upright people have suffered devastating losses of financial security, experienced the traumatic death of loved ones, and been afflicted with an agonizing disease to their body. At the same time, some politicians have taken a seemingly cavalier attitude toward life and death regarding our plight in a pandemic: “We’re human, we can’t live forever,” pronounced US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also has said: “I’m not anti-vax. I’m completely for people being allowed to make choices.”
In April 2020, early in the pandemic, responding to how stay-at-home orders and nationwide shutdowns were affecting the economy, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said, “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.”
Yet while politicians wax existentially about human mortality, doctors, and nurses deal with mounting fatalities in the current COVID-19 delta variant surge.
Not all Americans are called to be martyrs in this crisis. Rather, we’re asked to wear a mask over our nose and mouth in public and roll up our sleeve for a Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine to benefit the common good. That common good is what built this abundantly blessed country. It’s also what will save it.
Sinclair Lewis, the American novelist who authored The Jungle, was reported to have said this in a 1930 radio interview in Berlin: “Intellectually, I know that America is no better than any other country; emotionally, I know she is better than every other country.” In considering this opinion, I pose the question: How, then, can America prevail during this collective misfortune?
COVID-19 vaccine-resistant Americans: Does your trust in God automatically imply a distrust in science? If so, don’t underestimate the omnipotence of our almighty God—a valuable lesson from the Book of Job and throughout Scripture! Do we wonder why God allows us to suffer the misfortune of COVID-19, but fail to see God’s hand in the good fortune of developing a speedy, effective antidote to that disease?
God’s power and wisdom are also evident in scientific advancements! Religion and science are not diametrically opposed. In a 1988 letter to Reverend George V. Coyne, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory, Pope John Paul II constructively said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
American politicians and media talking heads (certain ones, anyway): Did you quietly get vaccinated or follow mask mandates in your workplace but spread doubt and misinformation about the efficacy of both protocols to your followers? Do you speak flippantly about COVID-19 suffering and death that will adversely impact several generations of Americans to come? If so, recall the advice, “Even fools, keeping silent, are considered wise; if they keep their lips closed, intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28).
Americans who follow the recommendations of some talking heads (see above): Do you take ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19? The version of this drug produced for humans is different than the highly concentrated dosages only intended for livestock. The FDA responded to multiple patients self-medicating with the drug via a tweet: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it” (August 20, 2021).
COVID-19 vaccine-hesitant Americans who intend to get inoculated but have put it off: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the unvaccinated are twenty-nine times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people—that is, if a hospital bed is available in an overwhelmed health-care system administered by overtaxed health-care professionals. Furthermore, please know there are discussions taking place about the possibility of unvaccinated individuals paying higher health-insurance premiums.
Americans—like myself—who lost unvaccinated friends and family members to COVID-19: Take comfort! God still works miracles, even after people die from exerting their free will and choosing not to get vaccinated. How so? The resiliency of the human soul is a miracle from God. To those who mourn, take consolation in your friends and loved ones who commiserate with you during your loss. May God’s miraculous gift of resilience in your soul strengthen you at this time.
Finally, American Catholics whose conscience prevents you from getting vaccinated: The Church supports you in making a well-informed decision through prayer and guidance. To that end, Catholics generally look for guidance from the Holy Father and bishops to help inform our conscience. Take note: Pope Francis assures the faithful that we may receive the vaccine for our safety and well-being and for society as a whole. In a public-service announcement, the Pope said, “getting the vaccines…is an act of love: love for oneself, for our families and friends, and love for all peoples.” Moreover the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has stated that Catholics may in good conscience avail themselves of the vaccines—even those derived in an unethical manner when no ethical option is available—to protect themselves, vulnerable persons, and society as a whole. Fundamentally, then, concern for the common good is an essential guiding principle that defines us as Catholics and helps form our conscience.
Simply stated, nothing is more Catholic than the common good! At its heart, it’s what Christ built his Church upon.
Likewise, nothing is more American than the common good! At its heart, it’s what America is built upon. Thomas Jefferson’s use of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was inspired by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which speaks to “pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” I interpret those words to mean that many of our choices have social consequences. Personal decisions not only take our private welfare and self-interests into account, but the public good as well.
Thus, the ultimate way Americans and Catholics can turn this COVID-19 misfortune into good fortune is to heed the call of President Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address. He urged us to rely on “the better angels of our nature” so that the life we save in a pandemic may be unselfishly more than our own.