Fr Joseph Huu is the perfect illustration of the Church in action. Working within an area of Vietnam completely quarantined off due to worries over the coronavirus, he is coordinating health services and pastoral care in the area, taking supplies and advice to villages throughout the area. Just as importantly, he is arranging for Eucharistic Adoration to encourage young people in particular to continue to visit local churches and pray for those affected.
Globally, the coronavirus is having an impact far beyond those actually infected. At the time of writing, numbers of infections and deaths, at least outside China, are still low relative to those affected by seasonal flu each year. However, fear of how the virus may develop means that it is exerting a disproportionate impact on people’s lives. Schools have closed, factories shut down and billions of pounds have been wiped off global stock markets, suggesting a worldwide recession may be imminent.
Catholic worshippers have not been spared the upheaval. Some measures seem obvious and sensible: many parishes in Britain have encouraged people no longer to shake hands at the Sign of Peace and have stopped distributing the Precious Blood in a common chalice. More controversially, dioceses in places including Ireland, Malta and Singapore are discouraging or even banning the reception of Communion on the tongue. Such an approach is not without its critics. Commentators such as the Catholic Herald columnist Fr John Zuhlsdorf have argued that receiving Communion in the hand is, if anything, more likely to spread infection than on the tongue.
A number of dioceses in northern Italy have gone further and cancelled all public Masses. Given that this is at the request of the Italian state, the bishops had little choice. Some parishioners, however, have questioned why authorities have stopped people attending Mass when crowded clubs, bars and shops have continued to operate.
The media have paid somewhat less attention to the many Catholics, like Fr Huu, who have been getting on with the Church’s mission of caring for sufferers through its network of hospitals, health clinics and aid agencies. It is a good time to remember that the Catholic Church is probably the biggest and most effective non-governmental social care organisation in the world. It operates more than 20,000 health facilities and 150,000 schools, to say nothing of the smaller-scale projects and assistance provided by each of the 200,000 Catholic parishes around the world.
The extensive network of Catholic parishes means that the Church is often better equipped than NGOs to help difficult-to-reach and remote areas. For example, Caritas is working with local churches in Bangladesh to spread vital healthcare advice to remote areas, raising awareness of the virus and helping to avoid undue panic.
Despite the hostility shown towards the Church in mainland China, it was revealed last month that the Vatican had provided up to 700,000 masks to China to help slow down the spread of coronavirus, while the local Catholic-affiliated Jinde charity is doing what it can to provide care and medical supplies for victims.
Nevertheless, there are severe limits on churches’ activities, and the Asia-based reporter Michael Sainsbury has speculated that President’s Xi Jinping’s campaign against religion may have made the situation worse. In contrast to his predecessors, President Xi has refused to engage with religious organisations – despite their skills, knowledge and experience in dealing with health emergencies. In his article for ucanews.com, Sainsbury contrasts the way in which Catholic hospitals and Caritas are integrated into the Hong Kong health system and have been able to support authorities in the territory’s attempts – thus far successful – to limit the spread of the virus.
The Church played a similar role in other recent health scares. The work of Cafod and other Catholic agencies is well known in the ongoing fight against Ebola in West Africa. The death from Ebola of Fr Miguel Pajares, a missionary working in Liberia, was a striking reminder of the risks that so many priests, religious and health workers are willing to take to provide care whatever the circumstances.
The 2016 crisis over the Zika virus similarly saw Catholic charities at the forefront of providing emergency care and helping with longer-term preventative measures. A disappointing feature of that crisis was the opportunity that opponents of Church teaching took to campaign for the Church to relax its ban on contraception and abortion. The idea that one vulnerable group such as the unborn should be sacrificed for the benefit of another is anathema to the Church. The Catholic view that actions which are inherently wrong can never be justified as a means of achieving a good outcome is sometimes hard for the modern mind to comprehend. But at heart is the determination that every human being, however young, disabled or poor, is loved infinitely by God and, therefore, worthy of infinite love, care and respect by others.
The Church’s approach has been working effectively for 2,000 years, and of course the overriding objective for Catholics is to save souls rather than bodies. But the Church can’t achieve the former without following our Lord’s direct instructions to look after the practical needs of people, especially the vulnerable, the poor and the needy.
We can look to the lives of heroic saints throughout the ages who have done precisely this, from St Teresa of Calcutta to St Damien of Molokai. The latter taught the Catholic faith to leprosy sufferers in Hawaii while providing medical, emotional and personal care for his patients. Famously, after many years of care, St Damien himself contracted and succumbed to leprosy.
Saints Teresa and Damien, and priests like Fr Huu in Vietnam, can help us to understand how, even in the presence of human suffering, we can see God’s redemptive love. Francesco Moraglia, the Patriarch of Venice, where the virus has hit particularly hard, has encouraged Catholics in his diocese to respond to the crisis with practical charity and also by developing their spiritual lives, remembering that “everything is an occasion for grace, a favourable time to grow both in our humanity and as disciples”.
Over the next few weeks, we will find out whether the optimists or the doom-mongers are correct. It may be that early preventative action will mean cases declining and headline writers moving on to the next crisis, as happened with other recent health scares such as avian bird flu, Zika and SARS. But this could be far, far worse than those precedents. Whatever happens, we can be sure that Catholic doctors, nurses, priests, nuns and lay people will be on the frontline, helping to care for the vulnerable even at risk to their own lives.
David Paton is professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School and is visiting professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham