“It just occurred to me that that very word extraordinary is a word that we use in Catholic medical ethics when we talk about treatments to save life, when you're talking about an individual patient,” he said.
“Looking back, at emails and decisions we were making at that time, we were very much thinking in the middle of March, that this was going to be for a couple of weeks – we'll close our schools until the end of March, and then things will reopen.”
“Obviously that didn't happen that way,” he said, “so the lockdowns got extended another month, and so here we are several months later and this is ongoing.”
“The impact that it's been having on people being able to go to church, receive Communion, go to their jobs, go to school, with all that being basically shut down for a period of time, again, it just struck me as extraordinary, that this had never happened in my lifetime, and probably in the lifetime of most people who are alive today, and so the word extraordinary kept coming back to me,” he explained.
This distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means was first made by Venerable Pius XII in a 1957 address to medical workers, during which he said that “Normally one is held to use only ordinary means … that is to say, means that do not involve any grave burden for oneself or another. A stricter obligation would be too burdensome for most men and would render the attainment of the higher, more important good too difficult. Life, health, all temporal activities are in fact subordinated to spiritual ends.”
Bishop Paprocki asked, “What are the spiritual ends? The spiritual end is eternal life, and so everything else is subordinated to that.”
“Let's take one issue, in terms of being able to go to church and receive the sacraments, Holy Communion; or a person who's dying to receive Anointing of the Sick. All of that is more important than our temporal activities, or even our physical life here on earth. So I thought, 'well, if that applies to … individual people, why can't that same principle apply to society as a whole? Do we have to do everything possible to save every human life? Well not if it's extraordinary.”
He noted that more than 35,000 people die annually in the US in auto accidents.
“How do we save those every year? Let's not drive. Let's close down our highways, don't get in your car,” Bishop Paprocki said.
“We wouldn't do that, because people need to get to work, to school, and other obligations. So what do we do? We don't throw caution to the wind. We take precautions, like seat belts and air bags, and you follow the rules of the road; and if you do that, there's much greater likelihood you won't die in an auto accident, but that's not an absolute guarantee. There are no absolute guarantees in life.”
If this principle of the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary means “applies to individuals, why doesn't it apply to our society as well?” he asked. “And I would argue that it should.”
“When you've got politicians, for example governors and other government leaders, making decisions about shutting things down, I'm not questioning their motivation – it's a good motivation, they're trying to save life, and that’s a good thing – but I'm trying to add a little bit more of a moral analysis to that conversation.”
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“It's not that simple to say we have to do everything to save every life possible, because we just don't do that, that's not possible. Instead we take ordinary means, and that's what I'm hoping to contribute to the conversation here.”
The bishop said he is “anticipating that this whole question will come up again,” and he noted that Israel has begun a second lockdown because of coronavirus, which will last three weeks. The country was also locked down from late March to early May.
“In the US if we have another wave of Covid, or even a very severe flu, are we going to lock everything down again?” Bishop Paprocki asked.
“I would be arguing that morally, we don't have to. If someone voluntarily says, 'you know what, it's not safe out there, I'm not going out', fine, that's your decision; but in terms of the government ordering everything to be shut down, I just don't think that's morally required.”
The bishop said he has heard anecdotally that numerous people “are thinking along these lines, but they don't know exactly how to articulate it … people are making this analysis in their own minds that there are a lot of different factors that we have to weigh here, and so what I'm trying to do here is add some vocabulary from our Catholic moral tradition that perhaps could help this conversation.”
In his essay, he cited a July broadcast of NBC Nightly News in which five pediatricians “unanimously and emphatically agreed that the benefits of children’s being back at school outweigh the risks.”