“While modern society places more importance on one’s own interests regardless of or even to the detriment of others … [true Christians] ban individualism in order to encourage sharing and solidarity.” - Pope Francis, General Audience, June 26, 2019
In the preface of a 30-page study on the pastoral care of people displaced by climate change events drafted by the Vatican development office, Pope Francis urged the global commons to work in solidarity to protect “creation, our common home” and not “hunker down” in individualism.
He stressed: “I suggest we adapt Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ and affirm: ‘To see or not to see, that is the question!’ Where it starts is with each one’s seeing, yes, mine and yours.
“We are not going to get out of crises like climate or COVID-19 by hunkering down in individualism but only by ‘being many together’, by encounter and dialogue and cooperation.”
Pope Francis called for a broader moral imagination that goes beyond personal autonomy and a corrosive and self-absorbed individualism, blind, deaf and insensitive to the needs of others.
Much of the debate on COVID-19 vaccines has been mired in an overemphasis and at times fixation prioritizing the desires and needs of an individual over the common good.
While many people, in a spirit of community and the common good worked in unison during the pandemic, one of the reasons that COVID-19 has become so virulent is because of the self-absorbed and often selfishness of those who refused to or were cavalier in following public health guidelines.
One young lady on spring break in South Florida was incensed that there was a curfew in place. Her need to party, her rugged individualist needs, were more important to her than the compelling need to slow the spread of the SARS-COV-2 virus.
The US will likely have another serious wave because of opening too soon, vaccination hesitancy and the laxness and opposition of many to public health guidelines. Many individual choices have led to mass death and illness globally.
Though the US is vaccinating at a high clip, vaccines alone won’t stop the coming wave. People must be willing to take the vaccines to protect the general health.
A good image for the self-absorption by some during the pandemic is like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. The truth is that ostriches do not bury their heads because they would be unable to breathe. They do dig holes in the sand but only put their heads in the hole to turn their eggs, a lesson for humans.
A friend noted that he would advise some students in medical school to make COVID management their specialty as the disease and its long-term effects will be around for quite some time. There may be tens of millions globally who will suffer the long-term physical and mental effects of the COVID-19 disease.
While personal autonomy and individual choices are a part of a moral dialogue, excluding the greater good, especially during a global pandemic in which we need to act in concert to protect others, is morally limited.
While various religious leaders have issued a clear and compelling clarion call to help to advance the greater good by taking a vaccine, even the Bahamas Christian Council seems to have given priority to individual choice.
Thankfully, the Council did not oppose vaccines. In a recommendation it stated: “Whether or not a citizen chooses to take a COVID-19 vaccine is a matter of personal choice.”
But ethically and morally it can be argued that it is more than a personal choice, especially because not taking the vaccine if one is medically eligible may pose health risks to others.
The council’s stance is morally weak and disappointing. It was not an example of moral leadership. And it was a failure of moral imagination.
The task of the Christian community is “penetrate and to perfect the culture” and not to allow certain materialistic mindsets to adulterate the spirit of Christian witness. Imagine during the Sermon on the Mount if Jesus told those gathered to go fend for themselves as rugged individualists.
At the core of Christianity is communion and the promotion of the common good which issues forth in the spirit of solidarity.
Caritas is the New Zealand Catholic agency for Justice, Peace and Development. Of the principle of solidarity, the agency notes:
“The Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity is about recognising others as our brothers and sisters and actively working for their good. In our connected humanity, we are invited to build relationships … to understand what life is like for others who are different from us.
“Being in solidarity is recognising others as our brothers and sisters and actively working for their good…
“In our connected humanity, we are invited to build relationships … to understand what life is like for others who are different from us; to help us understand what life is like for the poorest, most vulnerable, most overlooked, wherever they are in the world.
“As a human family we commit to work together for the well-being of all to ensure everyone has what they need to live with dignity.”
In Galatians 3:28 we are reminded: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In 1 Corinthians 12:26 we are told: “If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”
Writing on the Spiritual Exercise of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit religious order, Fr Daniel Ruff, S.J., recalls the great act of love of the Trinity and the self-donation of a member of the Trinity.
“The Exercises begin at the beginning of the life of Jesus; the first contemplation is of the moment of Jesus’ conception. … The prayer, as Ignatius envisions it, is a diptych. The first ‘panel’ is God’s decision and offer; the second ‘panel’ is Mary’s human response.
“The first part of the meditation emerges not from the Gospels, but from Ignatius’s imagination. After collecting him or herself, becoming aware of God’s presence, and asking for ‘what he or she desires … the retreatant is invited to enter into God’s viewpoint.’ Allowing the Spirit to guide, the person praying is asked to imagine the triune God, before the moment of Jesus’ conception:
“Looking upon our world: men and women being born and being laid to rest, some getting married and others getting divorced, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, so many people aimless, despairing, hateful, and killing, so many undernourished, sick, and dying, so many struggling with life and blind to any meaning.
“With God, I can hear people laughing and crying, some shouting and screaming, some praying, others cursing.
“Try to pay attention to the Trinity’s affective responses to this complicated, messy mass of humanity. Pay attention to your own feelings as well. If you pretend in your imagination to be back in the time before Jesus’ coming, how do you feel looking down ‘from where God sits’ at the mixed, complicated messiness of the unredeemed human condition?
“Would you respond as the Trinity did? Then, let the miracle of divine love unfold in your mind’s eye.
“The leap of divine joy: God knows that the time has come when the mystery of salvation, hidden from the beginning of the world, will shine into human darkness and confusion. It is as if I can hear the Divine Persons saying, ‘Let us work the redemption of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.’
“The Trinity’s response – O, wonder of wonders! – is to incarnate the Divine Word, the second Person. God the Son will take human flesh as Jesus of Nazareth and become Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.”
St. Ignatius invites us to view the world through the eyes of the Trinity and to respond in kind through a self-donation which embraces the needs and the well-being of others, which may include public health in a time of great suffering and death.
Taking the vaccine may be an act of love, a gift to one’s community and a means to helping the common good, while rising above our limited choices. It is an act of the moral imagination to see how our choices affect others, especially those medically vulnerable.
The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Christians commemorate at Easter, is the self-donation and redemptive sacrifice made by a member of the Trinity.
This sacrificial love is what should animate Christians in the love of others and service to a shared humanity. This love is the basis of a common good and spirit of solidarity. At our second Easter in the pandemic, let us recall the example of Christ who made the greatest sacrifice so that others might have eternal life.
For Christians and others a decision to take the vaccine may in its own way be a source of life, light, healing and recovery for a world groaning during this terrible pandemic.