Freedom, Virtue and Responsibility: Notes for a Challenging Holiday

Freedom, Virtue and Responsibility: Notes for a Challenging Holiday November 28, 2020

This week we celebrated Thanksgiving, the unofficial start to the secular holiday season. I already told you what my family ended up doing. We also got to have a long facetime call with a dear friend, which was wonderful.

The Friendship Room spent the day throwing a big Thanksgiving dinner for anyone who was hungry, as they always do. But this year, to keep safe in the pandemic, it was all to-go, with the volunteers working from early afternoon until late evening passing out plates. They said they served four times as many people as usual, which was shocking considering how many bags of Thanksgiving groceries they’d given away in the days leading up to the feast. They are still working on creative ways to keep people alive, warm and fed during this emergency, so please support them with your prayers and any donations you can scare up.

On social media, I got to see a lot of examples of people finding creative ways to have fun while respecting ordinances meant to curb coronavirus spread. They ate at home and talked to family on Zoom. They planned for a better party in several months, when vaccination is widespread and there’s much less risk. Some of us got together virtually to watch A Christmas Carol and then livetweet it, and we’re going to be doing it again throughout Advent, if you’d like to join us.

Meanwhile, the usual Conservative Catholic Talking Heads bragged about how they were violating emergency COVID restrictions on purpose, to show off. They boasted that they were having large parties with singing and hugging and no masks, all stuffed into the house. And of course, they said they were doing it in the name of “freedom.”

Doing selfish things in the name of a poorly defined notion of “freedom” is as American as Thanksgiving, I suppose. But it has nothing to do with being Catholic.

When I was catechized, I was told that freedom was  given to us so that we could be good. That was what freedom was: not an end in itself, so that we could do whatever we pleased, but a necessary condition for the real good. In freedom, we could make the moral choice to love God and our neighbor, and that was what the Faith required of us.

Freedom, I was told, is not the same as license. License means you do whatever you please and have a good time, in the short term, never mind the chaos you cause yourself and others by your selfishness later. Freedom is different. Freedom means having the ability to make choices, so that you can make the right choice. God created people with free will so that they would be able to choose, and therefore be able to be good. Society had the duty to safeguard people’s freedom to make choices, so that the members of that society would be able to choose be good– while, at the same time, setting necessary parameters so that people who chose not to be good wouldn’t harm their neighbors and infringe on their freedom to be good.

That’s not some kind of liberal claptrap, that’s the teaching I received from stuffy Dominican priests at the old Irish church with the Communion rail. They didn’t mess around. That’s as traditional as it gets.

Freedom is necessary and good, something to be cherished and safeguarded. But it’s necessary and good as a means toward something else. It’s necessary, so that we can live as we ought.

Sometimes, what we ought to do is easy to discern. Sometimes it’s a hard choice, and one that looks wrong to others around you. Think of the way their families were scandalized when Saint Francis, Saint Catherine and others decided to turn their backs on what they were expected to do and follow God’s call to do what they ought to do instead.

You ought to care about people.

You also ought to be concerned when a state imposes new restrictions on people’s freedoms, because that’s a serious matter. People ought to have as much freedom as can be allowed without chaos. But then you should look at the restrictions and make a well-informed decision about whether they’re necessary to protect people from being badly hurt by somebody else’s misuse of freedom. That’s something that governments are not only allowed to do, they are wrong if they don’t. Catholics need to obey just laws, and we have not only a right but a duty to break unjust laws, not in whatever way they please but by being good in the way that the law sought to restrict. Living in an unjust society calls for heroic civil disobedience: harboring victims of genocide, taking part in public protests, going on feeding the poor and the homeless against city ordinances, things like that. It isn’t an excuse to just do whatever you want.

Holding a party for your extended family and friends all crowded indoors with no masks during a respiratory pandemic that’s surging out of control, not to prevent them from starving but just because you’d like some fun, is not a just form of civil disobedience, because ordinances restricting get-togethers temporarily to prevent a catastrophe aren’t unjust laws. Some laws intended to prevent Coronavirus spread may well be, but those aren’t. Breaking such an ordinance to own the libs and have a good time is wrong. It doesn’t help anyone meet a need you could fulfill in a safer way by putting the party off, or holding it over Zoom or something. It puts your family in danger, it puts everyone you and your family come into contact with for the next month in danger, it may well contribute to a Coronavirus snowball that’s going to kill hundreds of thousands, and it doesn’t do any proportionate good to balance that terrible risk. It’s selfish, decadent, anti-life and against any notion of how Catholics are supposed to use their precious gift of freedom.

I know that this has been a challenging Thanksgiving, but that’s just the beginning of the challenges ahead. We’re facing an extremely grim Advent and Christmas season this year. It’s going to require all of us to act heroically. We’re going to have to look at the potential consequences of all of our actions, and use our God-given freedom to choose to do the right thing again and again and again. We will have to find creative new ways to worship, stay connected with family, and care for the poor around us. What that looks like for each of us will be a little different.

Should you go to Mass in person? It depends. Remember that it’s always been the rule that you should not go to Mass if you’re contagious with something that could hurt somebody else. That hasn’t changed, it’s just that there’s so much greater potential for contagion than usual this year. Is your diocese enforcing masking and social distancing? Or is there an outdoor parking lot Mass you can attend? If not, you probably ought to stay home and pray along with a livestream. Pray without ceasing, and offer your longing for the sacraments in solidarity with the people who are often unable to go to Mass. Immunocompromised people and people in regions where there’s a shortage of priests  go through this suffering whether there’s a pandemic or not, after all. This is our opportunity to practice empathy.

Should you visit family? It depends. What does your local health department say about the risk? What precautions can you take? Is there a proportionate reason why you can’t just have a long phone call and plan your trip for the Spring?

Should you go Christmas shopping? It depends. It’s probably a terrible idea to pack yourself into a crowded mall. But you can go at the uncrowded times, or shop online. This year it’s more important than ever to support small local artists, since small businesses have experienced terrible hardship while the biggest corporations soaked up more and more money. Make a plan and be ready to be flexible about changing it if your shopping day ends up not being as safe as you thought.

Should you take care of the needy in your community? You absolutely must, as always, and this year there’s more need than ever. But you have to find ways to do it that will keep everyone safe. Look at the steps the Friendship Room took to keep everyone fed without putting them at risk.

Should you go to a crowded Advent or Christmas party where you know people will be unmasked just for the fun of it? Almost certainly not. Put that off until it’s much safer.

Freedom is very important, but as Catholics, we’re supposed to use that freedom to make good choices. Thanksgiving week this year has shown us some great examples of how to do that during an emergency– and also some examples of how to be selfish and uncharitable in the name of freedom. Now with an equally challenging Advent and Christmas ahead of us, it’s time to rise to the occasion.

God calls us to practice heroic virtue.  We all have to find ways to be heroic right now. Let’s not give into selfishness and make matters worse in the name of “freedom.” Instead, let’s all use our freedom to care for one another until the danger’s past.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.

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