Coronavirus and the Mass: Following the science

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By Deacon Rob Lanciotti

Deacon Rob Lanciotti is a permanent deacon at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins and holds a doctoral degree in Microbiology. He was employed as a virologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for 29 years.

Back in June as we began returning to Mass, I wrote from my perspective as a virologist with experience in public health that attending Mass for most people was a relatively low risk event. 

The past several months have convinced me that this is still the case. Mass attendance under the guidelines that we are following in the Archdiocese of Denver is reasonably safe, and at this point most of us should be participating in the weekly liturgy. Here I would like to reiterate a few previously stated points in support of this, with the addition of new and valuable data.

It is unfortunate that most news organizations are emphasizing case numbers and other rare outcomes of the disease.  We may read about the 10-year-old who died of COVID-19, yet the story fails to place this rare event into perspective.  For example, there have been 72 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of over 200,000 total fatalities), whereas we typically have 700 deaths due to drowning per year in this same age cohort.  COVID fatalities are not even within the top 20 causes of death for this age group.  Media emphasis on these rare outcomes has led to a generalized fear that is unfounded for most of the US population.  The facts are clear; the disease is of low incidence overall and severe outcomes and fatalities are occurring among an identifiable sub-set of the population – a subgroup that can be protected.  Overall, the public health response and the media focus has been disproportionate to the threat.  Catholics should focus on the facts and not be manipulated by the press.

The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US.  New York City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%.  All other sites are at 5% or less.  For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population.  

Secondly, as has been observed from the outset of the pandemic, there is a clear age and health relationship between COVID-19 infection and serious outcomes.  Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that most people are at low risk of serious outcome and thus should feel safe returning to Mass; especially with the precautions in place at the Sunday liturgy.  

Moving forward, there are two principles of Catholic social teaching that I would like to reflect upon that can be applied in dealing with response to the pandemic; subsidiarity and the common good.  The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that those closest to the situation under consideration are best suited to make correct decisions.  Applied to this current scenario this means that individuals and families (not necessarily the government) are best suited to decide the appropriate level of precautions necessary.  For example, a healthy couple with young children should approach returning to Mass differently than an elderly couple with pre-existing health conditions, because the risk is objectively different for the two categories.  Secondly, the common good, the health of others, must also be considered.  Although the couple with young children is facing a disease of low consequence for them, they must consider the potential of infecting those in higher risk categories.  Combining these two principles, it is possible for individuals and families to make prudent decisions.  As an aside, I can attest from my 30 years of experience in public health that government & public health officials detest subsidiarity, because they believe that it is their role to inform and guide your decisions.  Unfortunately, they are unable to assess every situation and therefore generally overreact.

The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).  What this means is that for those in this age category, the drive to Mass poses a much greater risk than attending Mass! My advice is that each individual & family determine their own health risk of attending Mass, consider the risk to others, and then make a decision.  In this process, it is essential to focus on the data and ignore the media’s bias.  Even statements by Public Health officials must be taken “with a grain of salt,” since they believe that individuals are unable to make good decisions, and that it is their role to tell you what to do.  Without hesitation, I can say that for the majority of individuals, attending Mass at this time is a low-risk endeavor.  Finally, as should be obvious to us, Mass attendance is of paramount importance for our salvation and therefore we should do all we reasonably can to participate in this great liturgy! 


Sources:

  • For example, there have been 64 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of 180,000 total fatalities), whereas there have been 700 deaths due to drowning.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from: cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Deaths from other causes: worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender
  • The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US. NY City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%. All other cites are at 5% or less. For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population. 
  • Seroprevalence study data from: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/commercial-lab-surveys.html
  • 1918 Influenza infection rate: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291398/#:~:text=An%20estimated%20one%20third%20of,pandemics%20(3%2C4).
  • Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from above compared to influenza infection fatality rate average of 0.12%
  • The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Auto traffic deaths by age from: www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.