When it comes to the pandemic, our passions forge our fetters
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” — Edmund Burke
In recent decades, scholars have made an interesting case that Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish politician and political theorist who is widely regarded as the philosophical founder of conservatism, was secretly raised a Catholic by a family that had converted to Anglicanism in outward form only. Whatever the truth of the matter, passages such as this, from his “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” reflect a Catholic sensibility that still strongly influenced the political and intellectual life of the United Kingdom more than a century after the practice of Catholicism had been outlawed.
Over the past 18 months, I have often recalled this passage from Burke, and especially in the days since President Joe Biden announced his executive order directing the Department of Labor to force businesses across the United States with more than 100 employees to mandate that their workers either get vaccinated or be tested weekly for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Burke’s lines capture the tension at the heart of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the idea that problems should be handled at the most local level possible — or, to put it another way, that a central authority like the federal government in the United States should only perform those functions that cannot be carried out more effectively at the personal, local or state levels. In theory, subsidiarity should radically limit the authority not only of the federal government but of state and local ones, because, in a healthy society, men and women would take responsibility for their actions and properly balance the exercise of their personal liberty with the concern for the common good that lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching.
In practice, though, the history of the modern world has been marked by a decline in the Christian sense of moral responsibility for one’s own actions, much less the common good, in the name of personal liberty, and in the United States that decline has accelerated dramatically in recent years as Christian practice has fallen precipitously. Writing 230 years ago, in the same year that the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Burke appears prophetic: If men and women will not govern themselves, they will be governed, else “society cannot exist.”
Limited government and personal responsibility — moral action — go hand in hand, and conversely, so do irresponsibility and tyranny. From the earliest days of this pandemic, the course of this disease has largely been determined by the corporate results of our personal actions. A year and a half in, on the backside of the fourth major wave of COVID-19, the United States is only days away from surpassing the number of deaths suffered during the first four waves of the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. There was no vaccine for the Spanish flu; three separate vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 have been widely available in the United States for over six months, yet only slightly more than half of us have been vaccinated. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the USCCB’s committees on doctrine and pro-life activities have declared the use of these vaccines morally licit and urged Catholics to be vaccinated not only for their own sake and for the sake of the members of their families who cannot be vaccinated, but for the common good; yet vaccination rates among Catholics in the United States are roughly comparable to those of the general population.
Were the U.S. population largely vaccinated, there would be little or no political support, and even less moral justification, for President Biden’s vaccine mandate. Secret Catholic or not, Burke is right: Our passions forge our fetters.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.