You can tell a lot about a person based on how they understand God.
Whether they see Him as Abba, the loving father of Jesus Christ, or the severe taskmaster that many still believe the God of the Old Testament to be, will shade the spiritual lens that people use to make sense of the world, especially when tragedies come and pandemics hit.
I think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the political-religious culture warrior who saw God’s vengeance in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Falwell believed God was chastising our country because we tolerate the people he hated, namely liberal political activists, feminists, abortion providers and homosexuals.
Gay people are also a convenient scapegoat for natural disasters, as The Rev. John Hagee, the outspoken Texas megachurch pastor, reminded us in 2006 when he declared that the Lord Almighty wanted to wipe out New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina because of a gay pride parade in that city a week earlier.
So it doesn’t surprise me to see fundamentalist Protestants and radicalized Catholics taking to the Internet to post theories that God unleashed the novel coronavirus to punish humanity for a variety of sins – real and imagined – ranging from gay marriage to divorce, abortion, blasphemy, environmentalism, paganism, women working outside the home, and the pope supposedly not consecrating Russia to the Immaculate Heart.
Pope Francis’ critics, and the strident Catholic media outlets that amplify those dissident voices, have seized on the pandemic to posit the absurd idea that God is using a virus to kill people because of a Vatican ceremony last fall that featured a wooden statue of a pregnant South American woman that they believe was a pagan idol. As proof texts, some of those people are quoting medieval European saints who understood pandemics, like the Black Plague, to be God’s chastisement for sin.
Those holy men and women of centuries ago were saints, many of them even mystics, but they didn’t know that the bubonic plague had a scientific explanation: a contagious bacterial infection spread by fleas on animals, mainly rats. But in medieval Europe, lay Catholics and clergy believed plague to be a sure sign of God’s anger. The clergy at papal Avignon and elsewhere would organize great religious processions that attracted thousands of people, many of them wearing hair-shirts, self-flagellating and smearing themselves with ashes.
And just like how fundamentalists today scapegoat liberals and LGBTQ people for natural disasters, plague-weary medieval Europeans often blamed the existence of Jewish people for angering God, which led to entire Jewish communities being terrorized and destroyed by violence.
In the days before antibiotics, popular education, regular hand-washing, social distancing and public sanitation, it was understandable that people would see a divine cause for a pandemic that broke out and killed around 200 million people in Eurasia during the 14th century. The frightened and traumatized souls back then must have really felt they were living during an apocalypse, the End Times.
Facts and Science
Like its medieval counterpart, the virus that causes the potentially-deadly COVID-19 disease today has a natural cause and scientific explanation.
Coronaviruses are common in people and many different species of animals, including cattle, camels, cats and bats. These viruses are zoonotic, which means they spread from animals to people. In recent years, we’ve seen outbreaks of other coronaviruses, MERS in 2012 and SARS in 2003, though those did not sweep the planet like this one has.
Based on its genomic sequence, experts believe the new coronavirus originated late last year in a wet market in Wuhan, China – not in a secret Chinese government lab as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe – and spread from an infected bat to people through an intermediate host. The virus is spread through tiny respiratory droplets that are expelled when someone who has the virus sneezes or coughs, and enters another person’s body through the mucous membranes that line the eyes, nose and mouth.
Knowing the underlying science is why we don’t see Church leaders today organizing large Eucharistic processions and public Masses to petition God to rid the world of coronavirus. Instead, bishops are trying to strike a careful balance in taking necessary precautions, such as suspending public liturgies in churches, while looking for creative ways to minister to people by using modern technology such as livestreamed Masses.
That this virus is highly contagious and deadly to so many – as of this writing, more than 1 million worldwide have been infected and 56,767 have died – is because of its DNA and biology.
Unless they root their explanations in science, don’t look to a moral theologian today, a 15th century saint or a radical Catholic traditionalist with a YouTube show and a Twitter following to tell you why this pandemic happened. The virus doesn’t care about one’s personal morality. Good people are dying from COVID-19 while some bad people are thriving. That’s the reality.
The Eyes of Faith
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we as a people of faith can’t look at our current plight through a religious lens that understands sickness and death to be effects of living in a fallen world, where, yes, sin abounds but God’s grace abounds all the more and makes up for it exponentially. St. Faustina, the great Apostle of Divine Mercy, used the beautiful image of our sins being but a tiny drop in the immense ocean of God’s mercy.
A loving, compassionate and merciful God the Father is who Jesus Christ proclaimed. He is the Father who the Lord said would give us much better gifts and blessings than anything our earthly fathers could ever provide us. He is the same Father who did not abandon His Son as he died on a Roman cross, and who raised Him up on the third day. That same Father is with us now, acting through the mediation of His Son, Jesus the High Priest, making sure we all have the graces and consolations we need to get through this crisis.
The God who sent his only begotten son into the world to redeem fallen humanity does not send a scourge to wipe out that same creation.
Anyone who thinks God would decimate entire communities because of certain sins is really projecting their own personal ideologies and bigotries. You would do well to ignore those people because they have already dehumanized those with whom they disagree, and it’s not a giant leap from dehumanization to calling for outright extermination.
“Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.”