Health, wealth both integral to society’s managing of pandemic

Americans must move past the health-wealth dichotomy that dominates public debate about how to manage the current pandemic to find a way forward, said a panel of Catholic scholars during a webinar June 2.

“Either you want to kill Grandma or you want to destroy the economy and leave millions of people unemployed, and people fight and they polarize, but we don’t ask, ‘What is the wealth for?’” said Mary Hirschfeld, associate professor of economics and theology at Villanova University.

“And on the health side, it’s just a very thin idea about health” that doesn’t consider the importance of social interaction, work, productivity and human relationships, she said.

Consensus is absent in liberal, present-day society about what goods to pursue and tends to emphasize “instrumental goods,” such as health and wealth, she said.

However, a “thicker conception” of the common good is needed and is precisely what Catholic social teaching can contribute to the public conversation.

The online event was organized by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago as a follow-up to an event it held last month that addressed the COVID-19 response mostly from an economic perspective.

Much of the June 2 discussion, moderated by Joseph Capizzi, moral theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, hinged on the principles of Catholic social teaching.

Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Georgetown University, underlined competing conceptions of the common good that emerged during the public debate, including the utilitarian, neo-liberal and totalitarian perspectives.

He contrasted these views with the Catholic understanding of the common good, which he described as “integral,” where the good and flourishing of the individual is in part constituted by the good and flourishing of the whole and vice versa.

This “integral” approach seeks both to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 and to act in solidarity with the poor, he said.

Kirk Doran, associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, also emphasized that “there is no dichotomy between health and wealth.” Rather, health and wealth are “intimately related.”

“What we’re trying to do is to understand a very subtle set of responses that are rippling through our economy, rippling through people’s emotional lives, rippling through everything, and they’re all affecting each other at the same time, and that’s what makes this super complicated,” said Doran.

“If it was simple tradeoffs between health and wealth, it would be easier.”

Doran’s observation of the social movement that emerged online — what he called “a viral desire” — to protect others by not engaging in usual economic activity, opened the discussion on the principle of solidarity in Catholic social teaching. Continue reading

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