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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 2

Anchoring ourselves during impossible times

A crisis is not a time to develop one’s philosophy. Crises catch us off guard, and if we don’t have a firmly grounded worldview prior to their arrival, we will find ourselves desperately grasping for one. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe, many are trying to make sense of this new world in which we find ourselves. We live in the midst of a real crisis, which has sent people grasping for values that can make sense out of the world around them.

It has been the business of the Acton Institute for the last 30 years to promote a set of clearly developed principles and, in so doing, to advance the United States and the broader global community toward a free and virtuous society. These principles only give us a sure footing to meet the challenges of such troubling times, because they are universal and foundational to the common good.

The principle that faith and reason are both compatible and essential allows us to understand the crisis and plan our actions in the middle of its tempest. We cannot dismiss the reality of the virus and must resist any notion that it can merely be “prayed away.” Prayer is real, powerful, and sustaining—but it is no substitute for the rigorous application of science. Practitioners must rely on their expertise to research the virus, craft fitting interventions to minimize its damage, and develop treatments or vaccinations. All of God’s gracious gifts to us, spiritual and temporal, must be brought to bear to address this international problem. Science alone, however, cannot tell us how to live our lives together. The realities of human dignity and our transcendent destiny must come into play if we are to have the hope needed to see ourselves through this present crisis.

On a practical level, the principle of subsidiarity is one which must be brought to the fore as governments act to contain this pandemic and coordinate our response to it. When confronted with such a contagion, the state has an important but limited role in containing the virus until such a time as public health can be restored. 

Champions of liberty since Adam Smith have all seen the wisdom of such modest and temporary government interventions. When the emergency subsides, we must demand forthrightly that the interventions likewise subside. However, as Robert Higgs has detailed in his brilliant book Crisis and Leviathan, interventions applied during times of crisis tend to remain long after their initial justification has subsided. These cascading interventions ratchet up, slowing economic development, and constraining and restricting the resources available for society to meet the next crisis. This is a perennial temptation that faces our political leaders. It also explains some of the difficulties we are experiencing in responding to the present crisis. This, however, is a discussion for another time.

Another danger of government intervention and overreach is that it leads us to downplay the importance of social institutions. The reality that informal communities—families, neighborhoods, churches, and voluntary organizations of all kinds—are essential to the common good is readily seen in moments such as these. This is because these building blocks of civil society meet people where they are in times of crisis, providing invaluable aid and information. They are a vital and normative part of society, both in and out of crisis.

Liberty must be used responsibly. Without conscience, there is no social order. We are now painfully aware that human life and liberty are fragile. Having a transcendent vision helps us to order our lives in the here and now. We are always accountable to God, Who is not only our judge but our great consoler.

It is my hope for you, for your families, and for your communities that you will experience the comfort and sustenance of our benevolent God—the God Who sees our needs better than even we can see them and Who wills for us to have an eternal relationship with Him. 

Be safe, and may God bless you.

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.