I wrote something about First Things editor R. R. Reno’s weird aversion to masks a few days ago. It turned out I didn’t know the half of it. While I was puzzling over one of his tweets, Reno was having a Chernobyl-like meltdown on Twitter, decrying and berating everyone who wore a mask to protect others from COVID as unmanly cowards.
Now, as has been pointed out countless times, the purpose of a cloth mask is not to protect the wearer; it’s to protect the people the wearer comes into contact with. COVID-19 is principally spread through droplets that get exhaled. Those droplets can hover in the air for a long time. If you wear a cloth mask when you cough, sneeze or talk in front of people, that’s far from a perfect defense against spreading the virus. But if you do happen to have COVID germs in your mouth, masks have been demonstrated to do some good in decreasing the chances that you’ll spread them in a crowded place. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a layer of protection, and the layers of protection working together can slow the spread. Like all the other social distancing guidelines, it’s not really about you. It’s about what you might accidentally do to somebody else, if you happen to be an asymptomatic carrier or just not to have developed symptoms yet.
If you don’t believe the science involved, that’s foolish of you in my opinion, but it may not rise to the level of a sin. If you’ve got a very serious reason to violate social distancing or to not wear a mask– such as the people who ran outside to help someone at the Friendship Room the other day, or a person with severe PTSD who has uncontrollable panic attacks every time she covers her mouth– that’s another matter. If, on the other hand, you violate social distancing guidelines and refuse to wear a mask just because you feel that your desire to have an easy time is more important than the life and health of your neighbor, that’s immoral. That’s a sin. That’s saying that others must die so that you can live as you wish.
Reno, however, ranted on Twitter that the masks were a sign of cowardice and a lack of masculinity, not to mention being a “moral monster.” For this, he was reamed out so thoroughly that he deleted his Twitter account, but not before screenshots were taken.
But that wasn’t R. R. Reno’s final missive to the internet. The next day, First Things published an essay in his interminable “Coronavirus Diary” series, yet another editorial where he describes what a boring time he’s having, how outraged he is to have to think about people other than himself, and how he’s breaking the rules during lockdown in his comfortable posh life in New York City. This essay is the most shocking by far.
I notice that someone at First Things has been trying to pretty up the message of Reno’s “Coronavirus Diary” essays by putting on bylines that don’t have much to do with the article. The byline of his diary entry where he describes spitting in front of a baby carriage for no reason, for example, said something along the lines of “The works of mercy are still being carried out in spite of the stay-at-home order in New York.” But that’s not what the essay was about. It was about Reno sulking and spitting in the street. The byline for the most recent entry is similarly pulled out of thin air; it says “a society that condemns the sick to die alone needs to reexamine its basic principles.” But that’s not what the essay is about.
The essay is about how Reno has frittered away his afternoons lately. He’s violated the stay-at-home order in several ways: inviting his wife’s friend over for wine, going on a bicycling jaunt across state lines with another buddy, and even attending clandestine liturgies that were strictly forbidden by his ordinary– a serious offense, as Reno himself seems aware of, and I hope the Archdiocese of New York has something to say about it. He actually had the gall to visit a hospital emergency room in violation of quarantine, not because he was ill but because he wanted to interview a doctor in person and the phone just wouldn’t do. He even claims that, after refusing to wear a mask all day long, he found a dirty used mask in a gutter and actually put it on his face so he could ride the ferry boat. I hope he likes cold sores.
And he did all this, as it happens, while positive for COVID-19.
Reno writes that he tested positive for COVID antibodies at the beginning of May. If the test is correct, he was an asymptomatic carrier for some time. But he didn’t self-isolate before or after the test, nor even after he got the results. He put everyone he came into contact with in danger, not for any noble reason but because he didn’t feel like following rules. He endangered that friend of his wife’s with whom he enjoyed a glass of wine. He endangered the priest and congregation who, and I feel I have to be absolutely clear about this, seem to have deliberately violated a direct order from the bishop and celebrated a clandestine, illicit liturgy in secret multiple times. He breathed COVID germs on the hand that gave him the Holy Eucharist. He endangered his friend on the bicycling trip and the people at the coffee shop they visited. He endangered everyone on the ferryboat he rode while wearing a grubby mask he pulled out of a New Jersey gutter. He further endangered courageous medical professionals working to save lives in a hospital. Any of them could have died an agonizing death because of his recklessness.
And R. R. Reno didn’t do this for some understandable reason. He didn’t do it because he sincerely believed masks and social distancing were unnecessary to keep people safe and the doctors were part of a lying conspiracy, which would have been foolish but perhaps morally defensible. He didn’t do it because he saw some greater good he could accomplish to help someone that was worth the risk. He just felt that his own personal comfort was too important, and he couldn’t be bothered with keeping his fellow human beings safe. As my friend Scott Eric Alt has pointed out, he’s worse than Typhoid Mary.
Has Reno done one measly thing to help anybody else, while his city was the epicenter of the worst crisis this country has known in decades?
If so, I’m not aware that he’s written about it. He’s only written about what he’s done to keep entertained and how unfair it is that he was asked to take precautions to prevent any deaths.
How can a human being be pleased that this whining “diary” of selfish petulance is the legacy he has to present to the world while he lived in interesting times?
This weekend, First Things keeps releasing essay after pedestrian essay as if their editor didn’t have a massive meltdown in public and then confess to breaking the laws of the Church and of secular government while wearing somebody else’s spit-covered mask. They seem to think they can go on pretending to be a serious periodical and we’ll all forget.
They ought to be ashamed.
The mettle of human beings is tested in dangerous and uncertain historic times like these. R. R. Reno has proven himself to have no mettle at all. First Things is no longer a serious journal if it ever was one, but the personal diary of a preening coward. And they certainly ought not to represent themselves as having anything to do with Christianity.
It’s time that Reno and everybody else at First Things gave a good long thought to the Last Things.
At the end of our lives, Christ will separate the sheep from the goats. That’s not an event that can be avoided. It will happen. He’s going to look at what we did for one another, when times were difficult and there was great need. When people were desperate and dying, what did we do? Did we try to help in any way we could? Did we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick in what little ways we could manage? Did we at least try not to make things worse? Or did we focus on ourselves and how we could live as we pleased even if it killed someone?
We weren’t put on this earth just to have a good time at the expense of our neighbor. People claiming to be Christians ought to be the first to remember that.
First Things and R. R. Reno have forgotten.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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