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Deacon Kyle Eller: What does being pro-life have to do with wearing a mask?

My social media circles, which include people from varied political and religious perspectives, have included a lot of conversation about an unusually obscure topic — how pro-life beliefs correspond (or don’t) to wearing a mask in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Cards on the table: As a matter of conviction and principle, I am unapologetically and unconditionally pro-life. As a matter of obedience and prudence, I am conditionally pro-mask.

On social media, I have repeatedly encountered the claim that people who are pro-life on abortion but who resist mask mandates are hypocrites. My gut reaction is to dismiss it — whatever truth there may be in it seems overwhelmed by the vastly worse hypocrisy going the other way.

I mean, it’s been hard to bear weeks of listening to people who favor an unlimited license for the deadly violence of abortion, which directly, purposely, and with virtual certainty destroys a tiny person’s body, as they lecture others on the sanctity of life over wearing a piece of cloth on one’s face just in case one is sick without knowing it and might unintentionally infect someone else, posing a small risk of death.

It’s like listening to a Mafia attorney sanctimoniously scold someone for reckless driving.

But even an outrageous hypocrite can say something true. Is there merit? Reflecting on the question is fruitful for better understanding what Pope St. John Paul II called the “Culture of Life.”

The most aggressive form of the “pro-lifers who don’t wear masks are hypocrites” argument goes something like this: “If you really believe every life is infinitely precious, you should do anything that might save even a single life.”

That’s easy enough to refute, because it’s a totally impossible standard no one can or does follow. Being pro-life doesn't involve imagining one can eliminate every risk, and one can literally always do something more to reduce the risk of people dying.

A few examples illustrate the point. Flu is normally not as deadly as COVID-19 seems to be, but it still kills people every year. We could lock down the country every flu season, and it would likely save some lives. But we don’t, because collectively we consider the disruption disproportionate to the gain in public safety.

Or consider cars. Cars in 21st century America are much safer than they once were, as those of us who predate seat belt laws and air bags and car seats can tell you. But people die on the roads every year, and cars made even safer could save some of them. We could keep making cars safer and safer until they became so expensive to make that no one could afford one. Society regards that, too, as disproportionate.

Does that mean we value money or convenience more than human life? It seems to me it depends. At some point cutting corners on safety plainly is greed and wanton disregard for human life. But at some point the pursuit of safety plainly verges into something unworkable and unrealistic. In between is a range of places people of good will might draw the line.

Traffic laws, workplace safety, regulation of food and medication, building codes, and countless other areas of life all offer similar situations, where society has to make choices balancing safety and what is practical, a line that often shifts over time with new possibilities and sensibilities.

These situations pose real moral questions, but of a different kind than situations like abortion or euthanasia, where causing death is literally the objective.

That distinction is so glaringly obvious it feels crazy to have to spell it out, but welcome to 2020 America.

There is a better version of the argument, though. Our pro-life Catholic beliefs are rooted in the dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and precious in his sight. Even in situations that don’t involve direct attacks on human life, where there are difficult judgments to make and room for legitimate disagreement, shouldn’t our pro-life convictions strongly influence the way we approach them?

Again, the answer seems obvious to me: yes. A business owner who publicly professes pro-life convictions while running a notoriously unsafe workplace would rightly raise questions — and eyebrows. Where convenience and money come into tension with protection of human life, being a people of life and for life should mean we noticeably err on the side of life, even when those intrinsic evils aren’t involved.

It’s in this framework that I suggest we consider the mask debate. Not wearing a mask is not an intrinsic evil like abortion. But if our reflection ends there, we’re falling into a form of legalism. How should our conviction at the heart of why we’re pro-life — the dignity and inherent value of every human person, particularly the vulnerable — influence our approach? I’ve already given you my conclusion, and I don’t say it’s the only one a person could reach in good faith, but it’s worth wrestling with.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].