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.