Face Masks: Charity vs. Liberty


Wearing masks in public places is now strongly recommended by public health experts. It could significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 to somebody else without knowing it. Therefore, in Catholic terms, choosing to wear a mask in public right now is an act of charity and a work of mercy.

Nevertheless, many Americans are opposed in principle to wearing masks, some expressing their opposition vehemently and even violently. The reasons offered vary quite a bit, but many of the arguments seem to come down to liberty. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, unlikely to be much of a deterrent to my own getting sick (and may even make it more likely since I will be touching my face more), and infringes on my rights.

I will leave it to the courts to decide about the thorny legal issues surrounding enforcement of policies that require the wearing of masks. As a Christian, and particularly as a Catholic, I am much more interested in the theological question that this issue raises. Assuming for a second that it is both true that the wearing of masks can help slow the spread of the disease and that it infringes upon our liberty to wear them even in a voluntary capacity, which one of those goods should win out? If both charity (love) and liberty (freedom) are things that Christians ought to practice and value, which one is more important?

First, a couple of definitions.

For Christians, charity refers not merely to any sort of altruistic action but to what St. Paul points to as the greatest “abiding” gift of God in 1 Corinthians 13. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Unlike other virtues, such as prudence or temperance, which human beings can develop within themselves simply through the building of good habits, theological virtues require the grace of God to become effective. We cannot just will ourselves to be loving. God has to plant love in us. Yet our love grows when we cooperate with God’s grace. It is the greatest of all the virtues because God Himself is love. Jesus specifically calls us to “love one another” as a way of becoming more like Him and thereby participating in the divine life (John 15:9-12).

In Scripture, the Greek word eleutheria can be translated both as “liberty” and “freedom,” two words that are not entirely interchangeable in English but close enough to be more or less synonymous. Liberty is not a virtue like charity is, but it is a gift from God. According to the Catechism, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility… Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” In other words, we may have the ability to make choices about how we live our lives, but we are not truly free until we choose to live in union with God.

Are liberty and charity in competition? Perhaps on the surface they seem to be. Certainly, when we engage in acts of charity, we necessarily accept limits and make sacrifices. If I give my money away to the poor, I cannot then use that same money for my own personal benefit. If I choose to get married or have a child, I am bound by love to tend to the well-being of those other people and must give up some of my own liberty in the process.

Nevertheless, if this offering up of our liberty is done not by coercion but voluntarily, as an act of love for another human being, it does not ultimately diminish our freedom but rather allows us to become free at a far deeper level. “The more one does what is good,” says the Catechism, “the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” When we seek the good of others ahead of our own, we become more loving and therefore more free to be fully human. Or as St. Paul puts it, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Regarding the wearing of masks then, the question cannot be whether we privilege liberty or charity. We have to have basic liberty in order to be able to choose to be charitable, but only one choice actually leads to the fulfillment of both. It is only when we accept the duty to be charitable that we arrive at true freedom. The well respected microbiologist and theologian, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, made a lengthy post earlier this week explaining the science behind how transmission of Covid-19 takes place and why masks are effective as a deterrent. In referring to the decision of the White House to require the wearing of masks internally to stem an outbreak, he said, “This is morally justifiable, and some may even argue, morally obligatory once you know that masks could minimize viral spread from respiratory droplets.”

Of course, life is more complicated than that. There are always exceptions. Some people are not able to wear masks for medical reasons. There also may be times when the good of wearing a mask is outweighed by some other pressing good, the need to communicate in an emergency for instance. Individuals and private entities, including churches, will have to make prudent choices about just when and how to make use of masks for the safety and well being of others.

Still, the basic theological and moral principle at play is clear. We cannot grow in knowledge and love of God without also growing in love for other people, including strangers. Jesus models for us the greatest exercise of human freedom when he freely chooses the cross for the sake of the world.

Photo by Nickolay Romensky. Used under Creative Commons License.

We are not our brains

right_brainThe soul cannot be scientifically proven. That should not cause alarm for Christians. There are lots of things that cannot be scientifically proven, either because science has not gotten there yet or because science is not the right tool with which to explore that particular question. Science can tell me who my biological mother is but it cannot prove that she loves me. It can determine whether or not a person’s DNA was left at a crime scene, but it cannot determine whether or not he should be held accountable for committing a crime.

Nonetheless, for many people who have been heavily influenced by materialism–the philosophical conviction that matter and physical processes are all that there is–the lack of a testable hypothesis about the soul means that the soul must be an illusion. As neuroscience continues to advance, more and more research has shown that, physically speaking, we are our brains. All our memories are stored in the brain. All our feelings are generated by the brain. When we feel pain in our hands or feet, there is no actual pain there. Rather, our brain is interpreting reactions in our nerve endings as pain. Many scientists now believe that all that we call consciousness takes place in the brain and that it will not be long before we figure out just how the whole trick of it works.

The NPR program Intelligence Squared hosted a debate in 2014 on the question of whether or not there is life after death. Debaters on both sides were scientists, but those on the pro side argued largely from personal and anecdotal evidence of near death experiences. Those on the con side focused instead on the question of consciousness. They likened death to a candle being blown out. The matter and energy still exist, but the process is done. The flame was never really its own thing, but an illusion of perception. Likewise, what we think of as us is merely a set of complex chemical processes taking place in our brains. Everything about us from our sense of humor to our experiences of love is reducible to the firing of neurons. Once that firing stops, there is nothing left of us to live on. The soul was never more than chemistry and therefore has nowhere to go when the chemistry is done. This argument handily won the debate.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it assumes its own philosophical premise. The soul has to be a physical reality in order to be scientifically disproven in this way. If the soul is something different, something other than the stuff that makes up this world, then the tools of physics and biology might be able to catch glimpses of it but they would never be able to reduce it to a formula. The proponents of near death experiences sometimes do try to subject those experiences to scientific rigor, as they should, but the kind of scientific questions that can be asked about such experiences will not yield the kind of answers that strict materialists are ever likely to accept.

The Bible speaks of the soul in multiple ways. Sometimes the soul is simply a synonym for life itself, as when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The soul is also sometimes spoken of as inclusive of our whole being, including our bodies, such as when Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Elsewhere, however, the soul is clearly a separate faculty altogether, as when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26).

If all this seems confusing, it should. When we speak of the soul, we are delving into a mystery. It is hard to speak of spiritual reality when we spend all our time in a world that has been scrubbed clean of it. To a materialist, appealing to spiritual reality will always sound like special pleading because it requires us to look at the world through a different lens than that of a microscope. It requires the same knowing that allows me to accept that my mother’s love for me is not merely a chemical reaction in her brain or that the “me” I am in my mid thirties is the same “me” that I was when I was only four or five years old, despite the fact that everything about me has changed during the time in between including the entire set of atoms and molecules that make up my physical body.

Yet it would be incorrect to say that we have no evidence at all of the soul besides the purely subjective experiences of religious people. Throughout the Intelligence Squared  debate, I kept asking myself how I would have argued the question if I had been on the pro side. What I would have said would have been something like this: The first, last, and best piece of solid evidence for the existence of the human soul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that probably would have made further conversation impossible, at least from the materialist point of view. It is unfair, they might say, to try to buttress one religious idea by means of another. We have to stick to facts after all, not faith. But the resurrection of Jesus is knowable, not through scientific testing, but certainly through the social sciences and the study of history. We can test the veracity of the resurrection the same way we test the veracity of the reign of Julius Caesar or the existence of Socrates or any of hundreds of other important historical events that happened in the ancient past. We look at the best evidence we have and draw likely conclusions based on that evidence, just like we do in a court of law. When we look at the evidence that way, the case for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Do not take my word for it. There are plenty of good studies that have been done on the subject, the best in modern times probably being N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whatever the outcome, though, it has to be clear that the resurrection has a strong bearing on the questions of life after death and the true nature of the soul. If the resurrection is a fraud, then the materialist view may happily stand. But if it is true, then the reality of life beyond death for at least one of us has to be admitted and the rest of what Jesus claimed about Himself and about us, including what He had to say about the soul, becomes admissible as evidence. Near death experiences can be quite powerful and should not blithely be dismissed, but an actual death and return experience really ought to be decisive.

Naturally, I do not expect that argument to convince the staunch materialist. We simply live in different worlds. The world of the materialist is rational to a fault but dead even before it begins. It is a world where human beings lack not only a soul but also true freedom, the ability to love, the wonder of great art and music, the transcendence that comes from awe at creation, the intimacy of prayer. Not that a materialist cannot have some of these experiences, but they are reduced and diminished by not having access to their spiritual foundation.

We are not our brains. We are our souls. Neither the soul nor the body are in competition with each other. The theory of the soul does not require an incomprehensible brain for it to work. Each new discovery of neuroscience, far from being a challenge to the supernatural, is a wonderful and even awe inspiring glimpse into the way that God has put us together. The world is enchanted. The brain makes the body dance, but the soul makes the brain know that its natural end is the eternal dance of life with God.

Image by Allan Ajifo and made available through Wikimedia Commons.