The Covid 19 Pandemic: Putting Mankind to a Test – Reflections about Pope Francis’ recent book

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Elisabeth Hellenbroich
The new papal book: Dare to dream. How to get out of the crisis with confidence (Kösel publishing house, 2020) was written in midst of the lockdown, which also hit hard the Holy Sea. It was compiled on the basis of various discussions that were conducted during the lockdown period between Pope Francis and the British journalist and author, Austen Ivereigh (Fellow of Campion Hall University Oxford, for contemporary Church History). The underlying message which the Pontiff gives is that even if the danger which mankind faces is big, we should have the confidence to get out of the crisis by showing applying Romano Guardini’s method of “discernment of the spirits”.
The book expresses deep concern and is a very personal account which the Pontiff gives to the reader, by engaging him to reflect about the Covid- 19 pandemic and the physical and moral consequences this will have on mankind.  The Pontiff considers the present crisis as “an hour of truth”, an “epochal change”, where our life habits and categories of thinking are challenged and put into question. “Mankind is put to a test,” he states and after the crisis it will not return to where it was before the crisis.  This “test” which mankind is living through is like going through “a wall of fire” (as the bible and also the Italian poet Dante put it in his Divina Commedia E.H.), as the Pope states.
He refers to three major crises which he faced during his life, which were such an “existential test” and which represented some kind of “catharsis”. One was a lung operation in Buenos Aires which he underwent as a 21year old man, where two nurses saved him, by applying the correct medicine. The other was his research stay for his doctoral dissertation in Germany in 1986- a period during which he felt totally isolated, lonely and homesick. The third his stay in a Jesuit Order Branch in Cordoba (Argentina) where he lived almost under  lockdown conditions for almost two years. As overwhelmed as he himself often was during the present Covid- 19 crisis and the lockdown, the Pope states, that he has the “hope” and is confident that mankind will “grow” and get out stronger from the crisis. The present crisis reveals the “heart” of the individuals – whether it is small or big, merciful or closed, as became obvious at the beginning of the pandemic in different countries, where many men and women bravely fought within in the health system on the side of the patients, often sacrificing their personal lives for the sick.
Hence: Two types of response were shown during the crisis: there are those who want to “profit” and “enrich” themselves, like the credit sharks and speculators who are playing on the need of desperate and poor people and there are those who want to “serve.” Very similar to the parable of the “Samaritan” also governments had to make decisions and decide what is more important: the financial system, the stock markets or the people.
The need for a just economic system
In reference to the German poet Hölderlin who once wrote “Where there is danger, something grows which saves us,” the pope encourages the reader to use the crisis as a “moment to have dreams” and to rethink our “priorities.” He calls for an economic system which gives everybody access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: land, work and housing. “We need a policy which integrates the poor, the excluded and the weak (…)  We must slow down and design better ways of living together in society. We need a movement of people who know that we need each other, who have a sense of responsibility for the other and for the world. Aside strengthening the “family” as core institution of society he pleads for a much closer relation and dialogue between the old and young generation.
 A time to see
A central thesis of the book is the pope’s call to go to the “peripheries” of humanity in order to see clearly how the world is. A periphery which includes places of sin and misery, exclusion, loneliness, yet these all are places in the Pope’s words places “full of potential.” The pontiff demands that the people living at the periphery “should become the protagonists of social change.”  Covid- 19 has unmasked another pandemic, the virus of “indifference,” the result of constantly looking aside and suggesting to oneself that since there are no magic solutions one should not feel anything. He calls this the problem of “che me ne frega” (Italian saying) or as Argentinian proverb “Y a mí qué?”
He warns that we should avoid falling back into the old individual and institutional patterns that led to the outbreak of Covid – 19 and accompany the crisis. He describes this as “the hyperinflation of the individual” in connection with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a few.  “I above all see the need to strengthen institutions that represent an important reserve in terms of ‘moral energy’ and ‘civilian love’.”  Among all the institutions “it is the family that suffered the most and was the worst hit”. Family is the “first society” into which the individual enters. It is here that the human being gets educated, receiving his rights and duties. The “Hyperinflation of the Individual” goes in line with the weakness of the State. As soon as human beings lose the sense for the “Common Good” as history shows, what remains is anarchy and authoritarianism or the two together and an instable society.
The Method of discernment of the spirits
When we are being tested, the Pontiff states, we must be open for reality, moral values and the knowledge that we get loved by God. We need above all the prayer in order to be able to listen to the “voice of the Holy Spirit.” Equipped this way we can recognize the signs of our time and decide and chose a way.  A major problem which the Pope sees is that people tend to become “impatient”, trying to find quick technical solutions for each problem.  The underlying problem is however that many lack the “capacity to discern” and want to reduce everything to “black and white.” This mental quality of “discernment” according to Pope Francis is impossible for “ideologues”, “fundamentalists” and all those who are imprisoned in an “immobile” form of thinking.
The Corona Virus has accelerated an “epochal shift” where all our categories of “assumptions” are being overthrown or put into question. The Pope warns that in such moments we must resist fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism” offers protection from destabilizing situations in exchange for some kind of existential “quietism”. In contrast the method of “discernment” allows us to search for truth in a “changing context” and situation.  The Pope emphasizes that he personally learned about this method of thinking from the famous German Catholic Philosopher Romano Guardini (1885-1968) whose style of writing deeply fascinated him. Guardini, according to the Pontiff, “creates a space where you can discover and encounter truth (…) A fertile idea should always be incomplete, in order to give room for further thought.” From Guardini “I learnt to never look for absolute security, since this is only a sign of anxious thinking. His wisdom has allowed me to deal with complex problems that can’t just be solved by applying ‘rules’; instead what should be applied is a thinking method that allows steering conflicts without becoming imprisoned by them. His way of thinking opens our mind and opens for the ‘discernment of the spirits.’ (…) If you don’t open up, you can’t discern. Therefore, my allergy against moralism and all other -isms, that tries to solve all problems with rules, equations and prescriptions. Like Guardini I believe in objective truth and firm principles. I am grateful for the strength of the Church tradition, fruit of centuries of pastoral care for humanity and of ‘fides quaerens intellectum’, of faith, which wants to reflect and investigate.” Yet as “Paul Newman wrote in his Philosophy of faith ‘We are not the owners of truth but we get attracted to truth by beauty and goodness’.”
Principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church as guideline
According to the Gospel and the Principles of the “Catholic Social Doctrine” which Pope Francis considers as guideline for his thinking, the “epochal change” caused by the Corona pandemic gives us the task to protect our earth, regenerate it and chose an “economic model” which does not look at wealth as highest priority.  “We must resist the temptation of the evil spirit which leads us to concentrate and fixate on our own interest, which turns our ego into a besieged one that has contempt for others and believes to be the only one that recognizes the truth.” The Pope reminds that after the Vatican II Council (1962-67) the period of reforms was followed by some restorative tendencies, which showed in the way that many Catholics suffer from also today. The disease is that rather than spreading the gospel, they withdraw to small groups of “purists” who consider themselves as guardians of truth. In reality this is divisive.
He is also quite critical about the tendency for “Manichean thinking” between good and evil, that reminds him the gospel of the “customs officer” and the “Pharisee” (Luke Gospel 18, 9-14) One prays to God to be merciful, the other thanks God not to be like the others.  “As Guardini taught me, creation is full of living contradictions that allow us to be dynamic and vital.” And contradictions demand our decision between right and wrong.
A time to act
The Pontiff complains that there are certain “elites” which exploit the earth by imposing their criteria on the rest of society, by showing contempt for those who do not correspond to their social status, moral attitude and ideology. He argues that we must speak about the significance of “people” or peoples “E pluribus unum.” In order to overcome the pandemic, we should find a way out from the self- destructive isolation of individualism. The Church is called to “always be the people of God”, which is incarnated in one location and the Church’ mission is to remind that there is a “common Good of mankind” which surpasses the one of one single people. The whole is more than the particular. “A Christian will love his country and serve it with patriotism, but he can never just be a “Nationalist”. As the starets Zosima says in the famous Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov “Salvation comes from the people”. Feeling superior to the people “leads to moralism, legalism, clericalism, Pharisee thinking and elitist ideologies”, which can’t enjoy feeling like being part of the God’s people.
In line with the Social Doctrine of the Church the Pope demands that we restore the Ethics of fraternity and solidarity. Such ethics stands in contrast to the ruling world view of “liberalism” which looks at society as interests that exist side by side, showing mistrust against the bonds of community and the cultural values. Aside liberalism there are world views in form of different variants of “populism”, that degenerates the meaning of the term “people”, by linking it to ideologies that concentrating on supposed “internal and external enemies.”
The “Neoliberal” economic model, according to the Pope, bans the debate about the “Common Good” and the “universal meaning of the Goods.”  What is promoted instead is an efficient management of the market on the basis of a “minimum of state control.” The main aim of such economic model is that it concentrates on profit and forgets that resources exist for all and not just for a few.  “A Laissez faire economy”, decouples ethics from economy. Similarly, we have financial institutes without regulation; derivatives and credit default swaps take away capital from the real economy and undermine a healthy market, as well as create an unprecedented “inequality.” The Pope calls this economic model the “root of the social evil in the 21century, the most unjust century in human history.” Only 1 % (!) of the world population owns half of the earth, he warns.
According to an article in the German newspaper FAZ [11.12.2020] the pandemic has made the richest people even richer. According to a recent study by the ATF and the Institute of Policy Studies, the entire wealth of the 650 Billionaires of the USA increased their wealth since the first news about Sars- Cov-2 in March by more than 1 trillion Dollar – or 826 billion Euros! Billionaires like Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and Tesla Chairman Elon Musk have now a wealth of 4 billion Dollars. This sum is double the amount which is in the hands of the poorer half of the American people. Those 165 million Americans have a wealth amounting to 2,1 billion Dollar. During the Corona pandemic the wealth of the 2200 billionaires in the world grew and increased to 10,2 trillion Dollar (!!) Hence the Pope makes the dramatic appeal that we need a healthy vision of politics and administration of the state apparatus. Winning back the dignity of people means that we should look at the periphery and talk to the real “people.”

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