Coronavirus: the storm that is toppling the facade
From a "common evil" such as the pandemic, we have rediscovered the "common good", a value that contains every other value: solidarity, helping one another, the need for community. In such a "fragile" moment never before experienced in recent history, these are values that exceed market logic. The Pope is dedicating a series of catecheses specifically to the theme of the resurgence from the pandemic. But, last March, he had already asked the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development to create a Commission of experts to investigate future socio-economic and cultural challenges and to propose guidelines to confront them. Two of these experts, economist Luigino Bruni and Marie Dennis of Pax Christi International, express their viewpoints regarding the construction of a post-Covid world and the role of both the Church and religion. The first objective, they stress, is to form a "robust conscience" in young people which will help them face the new state of affairs.
You are part of the Vatican COVID 19 Commission, Pope Francis’ response mechanism to an unprecedented virus. What do you personally hope to learn from this experience? In what way do you think society as a whole can be inspired by the work of the Commission?
Bruni - The most important thing I have learned from this experience is the importance of the principle of precaution for the common good. Absent for the most part in the initial phase of the epidemic, the principle of precaution, one of the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine, tells us something extremely important. The principle of precaution is lived obsessively on the individual level (it’s enough to think of the insurance companies which seem to be taking over the world), but is completely absent on the collective level, and thus makes 21st century society extremely vulnerable. This is why those countries which have preserved a bit of a welfare state have demonstrated themselves a lot stronger than those governed entirely by the market And then the common good: since a common evil has revealed to us what the common good is, so has the pandemic forced us to see that the common good requires community, and not only the market. Health, safety, and education cannot be left to the game of profit.
Dennis - Through the Vatican COVID 19 Commission Pope Francis has offered inspirational leadership to our hurting world. His attention to the pandemic’s impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized in our societies has helped the world to see him as a pastor uniquely able to encourage and console. At the same time, the multidimensional work of the COVID19 Commission demonstrates the seriousness of his intention to probe the roots of the crisis we are now facing and to imagine a future that is more in harmony with the vision of Laudato Si’.
Pope Francis asked the COVID 19 Commission to prepare the future instead of prepare for it. What should be the role of the Catholic Church as an institution in this endeavor?
Bruni - The Catholic Church is one of the few (if not the only) institution that guarantees and safeguards the global common good. Having no private interests, it can pursue the good of all. It is because of this that she has a vast hearing. For the same reason, she has a responsibility to exercise it on a global scale.
Dennis - The Catholic Church has enormous convening power. The COVID19 Commission is one example among many in recent years of times when critically important global issues, including nuclear disarmament, mining, migrants and refugees, cyber security, nonviolence and just peace and more, have been the subject of Vatican conferences and events. Able to bring together deep experience from different contexts around the world with excellent scientific research, socio-economic and environmental analysis, and Catholic social teaching, the Catholic Church can help generate and evaluate ideas that can shape a more just and sustainable future.
What personal lessons (if any) have you derived from the experience of the pandemic? What concrete changes do you hope to see after this crisis both personally and globally?
Bruni - The first lesson is the value of relational goods. Not being able to exchange hugs in these months, I have rediscovered the value of an embrace and of contact. Secondly, we can and must have many online meetings and working remotely, but for important decisions and for decisive meetings, the internet does not suffice. Physical presence is necessary. So, the virtual boom is making us discover the importance of flesh and blood contact and the intelligence of the human body. I hope that we do not forget the lessons learned in these months (because people forget very quickly), in particular the importance of politics as we have rediscovered in these months (as the art of the common good against a common evil), and that we do not forget the importance of human cooperation and global solidarity.
Dennis - The experience of the pandemic has helped me to recognize the fragility of life, the centrality of relationships and the importance of community. COVID-19 is exposing the deep injustice and violence that leave too many people, communities and countries vastly more vulnerable than others. After this crisis I hope for a major shift in national priorities, a decrease in spending for weapons and war and a major investment in healthcare, education and care for the earth. I believe that the seeds of nonviolence are being planted by all those responding in any helpful way to the suffering caused by COVID19. These seeds, if nourished and carefully tended, may give rise to a globalization of solidarity rooted in nonviolence that will promote a just and sustainable peace.
Preparing for the post-Covid world includes forming future generations, who will be forced to make decisions that forge new paths. In this sense, can education be considered only as a “cost” to reduce, even in times of crisis?
Bruni - Education, above all that of children and young people, is much more than an “expense”… It is a collective investment with the highest rate of social return. I hope that in those countries where schools are still closed, a national holiday will be designated when they are reopened. Democracy begins at the school desk and there it is born again in each generation. The first heritage (patres munus) that we pass on through the generations is that of education.
Dennis - The future will be determined by the quality, methodology and content of the education we offer to younger generations and by society’s ability to cultivate the immense potential of a child from the earliest years. Respected educator Maria Montessori spoke about the task of the educator as nurturing in a child “moral courage,” a “sturdy conscience” and a sense of their own dignity and worth. Healthy families and local communities, human solidarity, world peace and survival of the planet will in many ways depend on our ability and willingness to invest in education that is rooted in love and results in a capacity for creative and critical thinking.
Tens of millions of children around the world do not have access to education. Can article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be ignored, which affirms that everyone has the right to free and mandatory education, at least regarding elementary education?
Bruni - Clearly this must not be ignored, but we cannot ask that the cost of education be entirely sustained by countries without sufficient resources. We must quickly give life to a new international cooperation under the slogan: “educating children and adolescents is a global common good”, where countries with more resources help those will fewer resources so that the right to free education becomes real. This pandemic has shown us that the world is a large community. We must transform this common evil into new common, global goods.
Dennis - No, article 26 cannot be ignored. Sustainable Development Goal 4 made clear the pressing need for quality education and the deep inequality of educational opportunity that exists within many countries and around the world. COVID19 has exacerbated that inequality. As 1.6 billion children and youth were impacted by closing schools, it became evident that remote learning was out of reach for at least 500 million students and attention to the looming educational deficit was even more urgent.
Educational budgets have undergone sometimes drastic cuts even in rich countries. Could there really be a desire not to invest in future generations?
Bruni - If economic logic takes over, reasoning such as this will increase: “Why should I do something for future generations? What have they done for me?” If do ut des ‘(I’ll give something only if I get something out of it), the commercial mantra, becomes the new logic of nations, we will always invest less in education, and we will always create more debt which today’s children will pay off. We must become generous once again and cultivate non-economic virtues such as compassion, meekness, and generosity.
Dennis - At the same time, the world has spent trillions on weapons and preparations for war, stealing resources from providing for healthy, resilient, well-educated communities that can slow the spread of disease and more quickly recover from serious threats like the COVID-19 pandemic. Authentic security in which the whole earth community can thrive will emerge only from serious attention to meeting basic human needs, including education, on a global scale. COVID-19 has exposed deep social injustices, among them lack of access to high quality healthcare and education. Moving money from military spending to education seems an obvious way to invest in a just, peaceful and sustainable future.
Though it finds itself in economic difficulty, the Catholic Church is on the front lines offering education to the poorest. As we’ve seen during this pandemic, lockdowns have had a considerable impact on Catholic schools. But the Church continues to welcome everyone, without distinctions based on creed, making space for encounter and dialogue. How important is this aspect?
Bruni - The Church has always been an institution for the common good. Luke’s parable does not tells us about the faith of the half-dead man who the Good Samaritan assisted. It is precisely during the gravest crises that the Church rediscovers her vocation as Mater et magister (Mother and teacher), that the esteem of non-Christians grows toward her, that the sea that gathers everything in, then gives everything to everyone, above all to the poorest. The Church has always known, after all, that the indicator of every common good is the condition of the poorest.
Dennis - The contribution of Catholic schools to peace and well-being in divided communities and countries overwhelmed by violence can be immense. The remarkable work of Dominican Sisters in Iraq to provide education for Christian and Muslim students is a beautiful example. Encounter and dialogue are very important. Especially valuable are those schools where the absolute integrity of every adult and respect for every student are known to be a way of life and where the curriculum includes a deep exploration of nonviolence as a way of life and an important tool for transforming conflict.
What contribution can education about religion and religions offer young people, especially in a world increasingly driven by divisions and which fosters the engagement of fear and tension?
Bruni - That depends on how they are taught. The ethical dimension which exists in every religion is not enough. The main teaching that religions can offer today regards the interior life and spirituality, because our generation, in the space of just a few decades, has squandered a thousand-year-old heritage which contained ancient wisdom and popular piety. The world’s religions must help the young and everyone else to rewrite a new “grammar” of the interior life. If they do not do that, depression will become the plague of the 21st century.
Dennis - At Miriam College in the Philippines, through the Center for Peace Education and Pax Christi, Catholic students have built a long-term relationship with Muslim students in Davao. They have come to know each other as friends and to understand the common values of their different religious traditions. The students work together to promote just solutions to years of conflict in their country. The Center for Peace Education has been instrumental in spreading an interest in peace education throughout the Philippines.