Pandemic and the common good
After University of Dayton students hastily left campus largely shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, theologian Kelly Johnson watched Italians supporting each other by singing from their balconies and neighbors placing stuffed teddy bears in their living room windows for scavenger hunts for children.
How could she support her colleagues and students at UD during these strange times? She yearned for what she calls “the constant give-and-take with colleagues in halls or department offices, the library, over lunch, in all of the encounters where we would be helping each other make sense of what is happening.”
“That’s the life of a university, people thinking together,” said Johnson, the Father William J. Ferree Chair of Social Justice and associate professor of religious studies.
Johnson wanted to help people to think about the common good, a key element of Catholic Social Teaching. She compares the common good to “happy family life, a lively downtown or a great class,” where the full participation of every person is what makes it good for each person. When looking at how each person’s health is connected to every other’s in a pandemic, she explained, the common good “is not a pie-in-the-sky dreamy idealism. This is how we are. We’re tied to each other.”
The times turned into a teachable moment.
Johnson quickly wrote an essay for Catholic Moral Theology and asked colleagues to help her develop a llibrary research guide on the common good and the pandemic, a worthy scholarly topic for a university that embraces the common good as part and parcel of its identity.
“We’re hungry for chances to think together.”
“I was struck by the depth of the expertise of my colleagues, and I realized that in ordinary circumstances, we would probably be putting together a teach-in so that students and faculty could talk about the unfolding crisis. We’re hungry for chances to think together.”
Within days, an ambitious virtual teach-in on the pandemic and the common good started to take shape, with the help of co-organizer Shelley Inglis, executive director of the Human Rights Center, faculty from across campus and IT specialists in the School of Law. During April hundreds of scholars, students and practitioners tapped into a 12-hour, four-week series of webinars on topics such as public health, social justice, economics and workers’ rights, and solidarity practices.
At the heart of the discussions: As the world takes steps to corral the virus in an act of global solidarity, how do we embrace our interdependence and develop ways to collaborate and care for the human community? How do we respect universal human rights principles, including providing access to health care and other services for the most vulnerable?
“The vulnerable are often the ones we don’t see in our public lives — even when we are out,” said Inglis, opening up a teach-in session devoted to social justice implications of the pandemic for people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, the homeless and the incarcerated.
With the advent of physical distancing measures, the loss of jobs and the capriciousness of the disease, some scholars argued that the pandemic is a good moment to notice that we are all vulnerable.
“We’re all disabled now because we’re all affected by this,” observed Meghan Henning, assistant professor of religious studies who serves as book review editor for the Journal of Disability and Religion. “Here we are on Zoom using another assistive technology when our bodies prove themselves to be vulnerable.”
UD President Emeritus Brother Raymond Fitz, S.M. ’64, who has devoted much of his life to tackling the seemingly intractable issues of poverty, racism and social injustice, observed that the health risks are greater for African Americans. “The trends that we see in rate of infection and death from the virus is the social injustice of our metropolitan region,” he noted.
Mark Willis, director of the Hall Hunger Initiative, has seen food insecurity increase in the region during the pandemic but lauds the work of churches, chefs and the Ohio National Guard in providing support to food pantries and distributing food to those who need it.
“These aren’t normal times. We’re building a plane while we’re flying it,” he said.
“But we’ve dealt with the KKK, tornadoes and a mass shooting (within the last year in Dayton), and we’ve learned to work together in a tragedy.”
In “the midst of shared suffering,” teach-in organizer Johnson said she sees the opportunity to develop new ways to care for one another, to recommit to Pope John Paul II’s idea of the common good as human flourishing.
“We’ve lost something precious, in having to distance ourselves from each other,” she said. “But if we embrace that cost as an aspect of our solidarity with all in this moment of shared danger, we can discover in it a new and fuller sense of our humanity.”
“By taking care of others we are taking care of ourselves.”
Theologian and colleague Vincent J. Miller agrees: “By helping others we are more safe; by taking care of others we are taking care of ourselves.”