Springfield Bishop Argues Against Morality of State-Imposed Lockdowns

Empty church with stained glass windows and man walking
Unsplash/Erez Attias

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, has employed arguments from bioethics to assert that the state has no right to enforce months-long lockdowns in response to an epidemic such as the coronavirus.

In an essay published this month in the bioethical journal Ethics & Medics, Bishop Paprocki contends that long lockdowns are an “extraordinary means” of saving life and therefore are not morally obligatory and should therefore not be state enforced.

We have “taken the extraordinary and unprecedented step of shutting down a major portion of our economy for the past several months, telling people to stay home, not to go to work, and not to go to school,” Bishop Paprocki declares.

“The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life is important, for if a means is extraordinary — that is, if the burdens outweigh the benefits — then it is not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by state power,” he states.

In the face of a pandemic, “do we have a moral obligation to shut down our society, require people to stay at home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain, and prevent worshipers from going to church? I would say no,” the bishop argues.

In a follow-up interview, the bishop told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) that “‘extraordinary’ is a word that we use in Catholic medical ethics when we talk about treatments to save life, when you’re talking about an individual patient.”

The impact of lockdowns “on people being able to go to church, receive Communion, go to their jobs, go to school, with all that being basically shut down for a period of time, again, it just struck me as extraordinary, that this had never happened in my lifetime, and probably in the lifetime of most people who are alive today, and so the word extraordinary kept coming back to me,” he said.

In making this distinction, the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that when forgoing extraordinary treatment, the intention is not for people to die, but rather to avoid remedies that outweigh the harm of the disease itself.

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment,” the Catechism states.

“Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted,” it continues.

Bishop Paprocki noted that from a Catholic point of view, many profoundly valuable and important goods have been sacrificed during the pandemic in the name of physical health.

“Being able to go to church and receive the sacraments, Holy Communion; or a person who’s dying to receive Anointing of the Sick. All of that is more important than our temporal activities, or even our physical life here on earth,” he reasoned.

“So I thought, ‘well, if that applies to … individual people, why can’t that same principle apply to society as a whole? Do we have to do everything possible to save every human life? Well not if it’s extraordinary,” he added.

As an analogy, the bishop observed that we could halt all traffic fatalities, but we don’t because the measures required would be “extraordinary” and overly burdensome.

How do we prevent the more than 35,000 people U.S. automobile fatalities? he asked. “Let’s not drive. Let’s close down our highways, don’t get in your car.”

“We wouldn’t do that, because people need to get to work, to school, and other obligations,” he said.

If this distinction between extraordinary and ordinary means “applies to individuals, why doesn’t it apply to our society as well?” he asked. “And I would argue that it should.”

“When you’ve got politicians, for example governors and other government leaders, making decisions about shutting things down, I’m not questioning their motivation – it’s a good motivation, they’re trying to save life, and that’s a good thing – but I’m trying to add a little bit more of a moral analysis to that conversation,” he said.

“It’s not that simple to say we have to do everything to save every life possible, because we just don’t do that, that’s not possible,” he continued. “Instead we take ordinary means, and that’s what I’m hoping to contribute to the conversation here.”

“I would be arguing that morally, we don’t have to. If someone voluntarily says, ‘you know what, it’s not safe out there, I’m not going out,’ fine, that’s your decision,” he said, “but in terms of the government ordering everything to be shut down, I just don’t think that’s morally required.”

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