By Fr James Martin S. J. in ‘America’ (The Jesuit Review), 21 July 2020
I am pro-life. What does that mean? Simply put, it means I believe that all life is sacred, inviolable and a gift from God. That reverence for life includes a desire to care for the unborn child in the womb, the elderly person in danger of euthanasia, the refugee starving on the border, the L.G.B.T. youth tempted to suicide and the inmate being readied for execution on death row.
To that list of sacred lives you can add: the woman standing in line at the grocery store checkout counter, the elderly man seated in a church pew or the office worker who has just stepped aboard public transportation.
Surely everyone would consider all these lives worthy of protection.
So why aren’t all Christians convinced that wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and taking the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are pro-life moves?
Why aren’t all pro-lifers pro-maskers?
This should be a no-brainer.
I am sure you know the statistics. Wearing masks helps to dramatically reduce the spread of airborne droplets that contain the coronavirus. Standing six feet apart greatly lessens the chance that others will become infected. Washing your hands for 20 seconds (two “Happy Birthdays”) helps to kill the virus.
These precautions have been confirmed over and over again by places like the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, in many university studies and by prestigious medical journals like The Lancet. By now these public health guidelines are posted in drugstores, on street corners and at public transportation stops.
In fact, the director of the C.D.C. said recently that if everyone in the United States wore masks, the virus would be under control within weeks.
Is it inconvenient? Of course. I wear a mask every time I step out of my Jesuit community residence in New York City, where these days it is hot and muggy. During the colder months it took some time to figure out how to wear one without getting my glasses fogged up, and today it is uncomfortable wearing one while jogging through Central Park in the 90-degree heat.
Some people think these precautions are not just inconvenient but an infringement on their civil liberties. I could give you all sorts of arguments about all sorts of other public health measures designed to protect people—food-safety rules, turn signals on cars and so on—that people seem fine with. But in these politicized times, even caring for the other person has become political. Wearing a mask is not seen as contributing to the common good but as an affront to personal liberty. (I am not including people who cannot wear a mask because of their own health conditions.)
Think about it this way: Would you allow someone to smoke in a hospital? Would you allow someone to carry a gun into a nursery school? Those are civil liberties we are willing to curtail to allow others to remain healthy and alive. It is, again, part of contributing to the common good. Why is it different with masks?
But instead of those arguments, let’s look at this from a Christian point of view.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers us the story of a man who is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho on a notoriously dangerous road and is beaten by robbers.
After the man is beaten, two people pass him by, a “priest” and a “Levite.” Finally, someone stops—though doing so would have been not only inconvenient but also dangerous—and helps the man. He dresses his wounds and takes him to an inn. Jesus is clearly praising this man’s actions and condemning those of the two who passed him by.
Why didn’t the other two stop to help? Either they were afraid of being robbed or, just as likely, they just couldn’t be bothered. They were too lazy to help save a life.
The Jesuit theologian James Keenan, S.J., once described the way Jesus saw sin in the Gospels as a “failure to bother to love.” This is where Jesus usually locates sin: not where we are weak and continually trying to do better, but where we are strong and cannot be bothered. The two men on the road couldn’t be bothered.
So the question comes down to this: Are you really pro-life? Do you reverence all lives—the checkout clerk as much as the unborn child? The man standing in the grocery store as much as the man in danger of euthanasia? The woman on the subway as much as the terminally ill child?
Do you really want to help save lives? Then start to bother. Wear a mask.
The Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America.