The Uncomfortable Truths Face Masks Reveal

The pandemic has made it necessary to adopt numerous precautions to preserve personal and public health. In particular, both medical experts and local, state, and federal agencies ask individuals to wear masks and practice physical distancing. What is the ethical standing of such requests? Do people have a moral obligation to follow these measures even when the law does not fully enforce them? How should we weigh the health benefits of such policies with the burdens they impose on individuals and communities? Drawing on the resources of the Christian tradition, we explore and answer these questions by developing three interrelated claims:

  1. Christian Scripture often describes suffering and challenging circumstances as locations of divine intervention and manifestation that call forth a renewal of the way we live.
  2. Traditional reflections on the virtue of charity, solidarity, and the Christian mandate to love one's neighbor provide resources to think about people's ethical obligations during the pandemic.
  3. The current health crisis reveals modes of thought and action that marginalize vulnerable populations and suggests ways to change them.

Let us start our reflection with Scripture:

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them, just as he was, in the boat . . . And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mark, 4:35-38)

Like the disciples, we, too, are in the midst of a storm. The peaceful sailing that our daily routines made possible was shattered last spring. Now the winds of the spreading illness, the ever-rising death count, and the economic disruption caused by the pandemic rage on. Our cities are rocked by racial grievances, ongoing protests, and violence to the point that we wonder whether our social fabric will resist the storm or sink. Many feel powerless, lost, unsure about how to go on, and remain puzzled by God’s seeming silence. The crisis makes us identify with the disciples’ cry: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”

In many ways, these times of trial have been a rude reawakening. Our respective bubbles have been burst so that the questions we usually avoid or drown out have seized us again. What makes life worth living? Where does my certainty lie? How should I think about the mystery of suffering and death? What does it mean to educate my children? What contribution do I have to offer to those around me? We have once again discovered our vulnerability and fragility, for our illusion of control has been broken. Reality forces us to rethink how we live and interact with one another, thus inviting us to rediscover what is essential.

“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities,” said Pope Francis last March while describing the pandemic. “[The pandemic] shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities,” he continued. “The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us” (Francis, “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer,” March 27, 2020).

We cannot hide from the urgent call of reality. Instead, we come to realize our contingency and how much we depend on one another. We are summoned away from our usual distraction and invited into a time of choosing. This is a moment in which we must “choose what matters and what passes away,” says Francis. It is a time to “separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track” (Ibid.).

“Wake up, Lord!” We find ourselves in the disciples’ plea. What surprises us is the reaction of Jesus. Jesus “awoke and rebuked the wind,” the evangelist Mark tells us, “and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’” (Mark 4:39-40) The Lord challenges the disciples’ fear. Why? Isn’t fear justified when the boat is about to sink? How can Jesus be peacefully asleep in the stern? Does he not realize that ruin is at hand? What is the origin of his starkly different attitude? Jesus “is trusting in the Father,” explains Francis. We tend to react with fear when reality reveals how powerless we are. For Jesus, instead, everything is determined by the relationship with the Father. All his life is an ongoing dialogue with the mystery of God. Jesus does not succumb to fear because no challenge can shake the bond he has with the Father and the certainty that comes from it. What does Jesus’s attitude tell us about how we should face the current situation?

The Gospel teaches us that God is present amidst the challenge. Fear grips the disciples’ hearts because the storm introduces the suspicion that God might have abandoned them. Instead, the Lord is present. Their reaction to the storm shows us that, despite all the miracles they have witnessed beforehand, the disciples still do not realize who Jesus is. The pandemic brings to the surface whether the journey of faith we have walked so far allows us to face difficulties certain of the Lord’s presence. We are sons and daughters of a loving Father who never abandons us but, like for the disciples, becoming aware of this relationship is not automatic. It takes a journey of knowledge in which, little by little, we become ever more familiar with who Jesus is and how he acts in our lives.

Rather than an objection against our journey of faith, the crisis is an opportunity to grow in the certainty of the Lord. Recognizing our impotence opens up the possibility of a more authentic relationship with God. Let us quote again from Pope Francis:

Faith begins when we realize we are in need of salvation . . . By ourselves we founder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck (Ibid.).

The danger they face amid the agitated waters forces the disciples to discover how dependent they are on Jesus. In turn, Jesus uses this occasion to manifest his power and further reveal his true identity so that the disciples may realize who he is. The result is that what begins as a fearsome event becomes a powerful occasion of conversion: “they were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41) A new awareness is born in the disciples. “The Lord awakens us,” says Francis, “to reawaken and revive our Easter faith . . . In the midst of isolation . . . let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side” (Ibid.).

God uses all circumstances, even challenging ones, to manifest himself. We should not think of the pandemic as a big parenthesis, after which we will resume our “real” lives. We need to respond to the call of reality, for reality is the place where the dialogue with the mystery of God happens. The circumstances through which the Lord has us pass are essential to our vocation. The Lord calls us through the events of our lives, whether big or small, joyful or challenging, and there is no way to realize our vocation without living intensely the circumstances we are given. We are often tempted to think that the reality we find ourselves in is an obstacle that hinders our fulfillment. Instead, circumstances are the place where our destiny can be realized in our relationship with the Lord.

So let us look at our circumstances now. We are still in the midst of a storm, with Jesus still seemingly, asleep; God still seemingly silent. As Pope Francis says, we recognize that “on this boat . . . are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing’ (Mark 4:38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this” (Ibid.). Yet, at the very time that we are more aware than ever that we need one other, our union and communication with others are hampered; for the disciples, by raging rain and howling wind; for us, by measures such as wearing masks and physical distancing. The obvious difference between our position and that of the disciples is that we control whether we mask and distance; the disciples, instead, had no control over the rain or the wind. Here the analogy breaks down. Unlike the disciples, we are in control of particular things that seem detrimental to community. In fact, insofar as we choose measures that seem harmful to community, we, like Jesus, may seem open to the charge that we “do not care.”

And let us speak truthfully: unlike in Jesus’s case, there may be some truth to this charge. We may mask and distance only because we are afraid for our own lives; we may use our masks and distancing as excuses to go on not caring for others; we may hide our selfishness behind our masks and distancing.

But, with purified intentions, we may mask and distance also to protect others from death, serious illness, or long-term health effects. We know that “asymptomatic” persons are responsible for part of the spread of COVID-19, and we know that masking is more effective in preventing spread when both contagious persons and healthy persons wear masks. There are also many persons, many of whom have increased risk with respect to COVID-19, who are unable safely to wear masks, such as the very young and those with certain medical conditions. Wearing masks, then, protects us from others who are contagious, but also protects others from us if we are contagious unknowingly. Wearing masks especially protects those who are vulnerable and those who cannot wear masks.

There are real sacrifices involved in masking and distancing. Masks are physically uncomfortable, making it feel more difficult to breathe, causing our ears to hurt, sometimes causing headaches, and fogging up our glasses. It is also certainly true that masking and distancing do take away from personal interaction. Masks obscure the face, which “expresses the person” (John Paul II, A Theology of the Body, §12:4); physical distancing makes us feel more distant in conversation, too; both masks and distancing seem to disrupt the naturalness and closeness of communication.

And so we must wear masks in truth and in charity. Truth recognizes the physical discomfort and real social impediments of masking and distancing, but truth also recognizes the effectiveness of these measures in protecting persons, including the most vulnerable. Charity endures physical discomforts and social impediments to ourselves, and allows some foreseen but unintended physical discomfort and social impediment to others, for the sake of the good of the other. Masking and distancing are acts of love through which we affirm the good of the other above the inconveniences that these measures cause us.

We do not mask and distance because the government or the experts ask us to. Instead, we take these measures because the love of neighbor that is capable of enduring sacrifice for the sake of the other’s good is at the heart of discipleship. We take these measures because by heeding the needs of the vulnerable, we learn to embody the gaze of Jesus, a gaze of charity.

Since we understand masking and distancing to be acts of charity, we now want to reflect on an aspect of charity that is more often overlooked, namely, that charity desires “a certain union with the beloved” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 27, Art. 2). This desiring of a certain union with the beloved, what we might call the social aspect of charity, calls to mind the concept of solidarity. Indeed, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope St. John Paul II says that Pope Pius XI had solidarity in mind when he spoke of “social charity,” and likewise Pope Paul VI had solidarity in mind when he spoke of a “civilization of love” (§10).

Perhaps we are convinced that in the present pandemic, in most circumstances, all things considered, masking and distancing are done for the good of the other. But how can we say that masking and distancing are acts of charity expressing a certain union with the beloved? How can we say that masking and distancing are acts of solidarity, when wearing masks and physical distancing precisely hamper communion, as we have acknowledged?

Consider the ways in which masking and distancing can unite us in mind and heart with many of those most at risk during this pandemic; with those whose lives always involve uncomfortable medical equipment, and those who cannot do all of the things and interact with others in all of the ways they want to. With respect to the physical discomforts of wearing masks, consider those who must carry around an oxygen tank, those who must have a catheter, and those who must walk with crutches.

With respect to the social impact of masking and distancing, consider those who face challenges to everyday communication because they cannot see or hear, or must use a machine to speak; consider those who must receive nutrients from a feeding tube, who cannot share the same pleasures of eating a meal with others; consider those who are sick who cannot have any visitors, consider those who before the pandemic could have visitors, but whom no one ever visited. While some of the prudent measures we take during this pandemic do challenge the communion between family, friends, and others, the pandemic has also brought into stark relief the places where we lacked community that we should have had.

Through masking and distancing, many can come to understand something of the physical discomforts and social challenges that are lifelong for others. We all can also offer our discomforts and loneliness to God for the sake of comfort and community for the vulnerable. And through our empathy and spiritual union with the vulnerable, we can also be moved, as Pope Francis says, to “make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring” and to find “new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity” (Ibid.). That is why, while the pandemic has exacerbated the loneliness of many, it has also provided the opportunity for gestures of unity and care. For example, connecting via video call with those whose daily struggles many are just now beginning to see, such as the homebound, sick, disabled, imprisoned, or even family—all of whom we frequently neglected in normal times.

We should also examine our own close family relationships and friendships. In addition to highlighting broken communion with the most vulnerable, the pandemic perhaps also shows us how much of our time spent and communication with others has not built maturity and depth of relationship—for instance, we often waste time on conversation and entertainment that are ultimately destructive of community. Even in our closest relationships, we still often pretend that we are entirely self-sufficient, and we are unwilling to ask for or receive help. Instead, those who have embraced the circumstances as an opportunity to change, have found creative ways of strengthening community bonds, including with the most vulnerable who are too often passed over; not temporary bonds, but bonds that will endure.

We are still in the midst of the storm, and the storm has lasted much longer than we may have anticipated. We long for the quieting of the storm, for calm waters, to gather with friends and family, to share meals and conversation freely and closely once more. Let us not, during this time, live in fear or imprudence, but let us choose to allow God to help us to grow in faith and charity. God’s apparent silence, Jesus’s sleep, is not a sign that he does not care, but a means through which he can enter into a deeper relationship with his disciples. May our masking and distancing not indicate a lack of care, but may they be a means to enter into deeper relationships with God and others. May we, hampered in our union with others by the howling winds and raging rain, find new ways of solidarity such that when the storm does pass, we do not simply go back to how things were before. Rather, may we return to gatherings with friends and family that are now more inclusive of the vulnerable and more centered on Christ and the good of the other. May we grow in closer union with God and one another.

Featured Image: Screen capture from Vatican Media YouTube video of the Extraordinary Moment of Prayer (38:47), Fair Use. 


Gina Maria Noia and Alessandro Rovati

Gina Maria Noia is Assistant Professor of Theology and Resident Bioethicist at Belmont Abbey College. She has served as a clinical ethicists in two hospitals and is a Board Member of New Wine New Wineskins, a national association of young, Catholic moral theologians.

Alessandro Rovati is Department Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College. He is a Board Member of New Wine New Wineskins, a national association of young, Catholic moral theologians.

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