Although the Church has lived alongside disease and plagues for centuries, her social doctrine does not directly address such extraordinary conditions. Nonetheless, it is possible to discover fundamental principles which should guide the thinking and conduct of individuals and nations during such a time.
The course of the coronavirus pandemic is unclear: there are disputes about how virulent it is, about whether it will subside and then return, and so on. My remarks are premised on the idea that within the next few months things will return to some semblance of normality. If this is not the case, or if the virus should return in even greater strength, then we might need to re-evaluate.
Towards the beginning of his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII states the most basic axiom of a Catholic approach to any economic question: that “the earth, though divided among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all; for there is no one who does not live on what the land brings forth”.
Mankind must draw its sustenance from the resources provided by our planet. Normally this is done by work. “Through work,” Pope John Paul II wrote in the prologue to Laborem Exercens, “man must earn his daily bread.” But it is our opportunity for work that, for many, has been put in jeopardy by the restrictions. How, then, are we to earn our daily bread?
Since this is a temporary situation, there is no reason that everyone, at every time and place, must work. That is not what John Paul II or any other pontiff meant.
“Wealth,” wrote Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), “must be so distributed amongst the various individuals and classes of society that the common good of all . . . be thereby promoted”.
At this time the common good makes extraordinary demands upon the public authorities. Some kind of provision must be made for the economic needs of those unable to work, either because they have lost their jobs or because they are unable to go to their worksites. In the UK the Universal Credit and furlough schemes are a modest step in this direction, with other countries enacting similar measures.
Where people have become overburdened with debt payments because of the lockdown, there is an opportunity for debt forgiveness. This idea has a long history: many are aware of the Old Testament institution of debt forgiveness, in which debts were cancelled every seven years (Deuteronomy 15).
A justification for debt forgiveness is founded upon three points. 1. Private property is “not an absolute value” (John Paul II, Centesimus Annus). Holders of private property have duties to the common good. 2. Although borrowers cannot be absolved of all blame in taking on debt beyond their means, much debt is the result either of a lack of a living wage or illicit persuasion to spend and borrow. 3. Usury. Compound interest, which is often unjust or excessive in the first place, leads to outrageous levels of debt. The authorities therefore have the right to adjust it according to distributive justice.
Further, many of those who are continuing to work, for example, in grocery stores or selling take-away food, face danger by coming into contact with people. It is imperative that they be provided with PPE, but it is also fitting that they receive extra remuneration to reflect those dangers.
It is likewise imperative that we do not “open up the economy” simply to gratify the desires of the rich. They have no compunction about requiring workers to endure unsafe conditions, on the grounds that they want to save people from economic misfortune. Such rhetoric is often hypocrisy. The solidarity and unity of the human race demands that we be prepared to undertake sacrifices for the common good. There is no economic reason why those unable to work cannot be supported for the time being, on the principle that the earth must supply the needs of the entire human fraternity.