Colonnade at the Vatican with white marble statues

The Catholic Church and the Global COVID-19 Crisis

By: Henry D. Brill

July 12, 2021

Catholic engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic seeks to address a wide variety of social ills exacerbated by the global health emergency, from planetary well-being to the refugee crisis. Since March 2020, Berkley Center faculty have provided critical insight into the Catholic Church's role in creating a more sustainable post-pandemic world.

March 27, 2020: Pope Francis stands alone in a desolate St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where he delivers an Urbi et Orbi address on the COVID-19 pandemic. What would otherwise be a lively event—with thousands in attendance to receive the papal blessing, usually reserved for Christmas Day and Easter Sunday—could not look any different during the early days of the pandemic. The mood, made somber by heavy rainfall, serves as an appropriate parallel to the address, a reflection on faith in times of crisis. 

In the address, Pope Francis connects uncertainty surrounding the pandemic to a Gospel story about Jesus calming a storm. “Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time,” the pope explains. “It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.”

That call for new forms of global solidarity—later fleshed out in the October 2020 papal encyclical, Fratelli Tutti—was not entirely new, especially for a pope so focused on the margins of society. But the coronavirus pandemic has added critical urgency to the task of strengthening our common human bonds, of creating new modes of social friendship in politics, economics, and culture.

Since March 2020, the Berkley Center—in collaboration with Catholic and Jesuit partners from Georgetown, the Vatican, and beyond—has engaged in timely research and programming on the Church in the age of COVID-19. By exploring a wide range of issues, from social solidarity to Holy See diplomacy, center faculty are providing critical reflection on the challenges and possibilities of Catholic engagement toward the creation of a more sustainable post-pandemic world.

Confronting Coronavirus

The early days of global lockdown measures—coinciding with the last weeks of Lent, the solemn liturgical season before Easter—could be rightly called a test of faith: faith in public health guidance, faith in our governments, faith in each other. 

But the first Lenten season during the pandemic was also what author and Senior Fellow Paul Elie saw as test of faith in the Church and in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Writing for the New Yorker in April 2020, Elie used the pandemic to reflect on broader ebbs and flows in papal power under Francis. The pandemic, according to Elie, presented the pope with an opportunity to return to a central theme of his pontificate: the Church as field hospital, an image perhaps best captured when Pope Francis washed the feet of inmates at a youth detention center during a 2013 Lenten service. 

Paul Elie speaks at a Georgetown event in 2014.
Paul Elie speaks at a Georgetown event in 2014.

“There will be no washing of feet this year, but Francis has taken up that theme again: heal the wounds, prepare to serve, and grasp that service to others is fundamental to our humanity,” writes Elie. “In a pandemic, those are more than religious themes—they are equipment for living.”

Service to humanity as a religious theme shaping life during and beyond the pandemic—this was precisely the starting point for two panel discussions co-sponsored by the Berkley Center in the following months. The first brought Elie into conversation with journalist Austen Ivereigh and Kim Daniels, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown.

The trio explored the pandemic as not only a challenge but also an opportunity for the Catholic Church and global society. According to the panel, Pope Francis situates the pandemic as a sort of paradox: “We pray for an end to this but, on the other hand, we also have to trust that it has a purpose and that we need to engage with that purpose for it to bear fruit,” explained Ivereigh, a well-known biographer of the pope. 

The Papacy Confronts Coronavirus

What would engaging the purpose of the pandemic look like in practice? How could the Catholic Church work toward the creation of a more just world during and after COVID-19? These questions were at the center of a later panel discussion on “Pope Francis and the Reform of the Church,” hosted by Georgetown and the prominent Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and co-sponsored by the Berkley Center. 

Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica and member of the Georgetown University Board of Directors, framed the discussion in his introductory remarks. “The pope lives a constant dynamic of discernment, which opens him to the future,” said Spadaro. “It opens him also to the future of the reform of the Church.”

Reform remains critical as the Church looks to apply its prophetic witness to policy issues of international concern. One such area is the global refugee crisis, says Senior Fellow Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J. Writing for the Jesuit periodical America Magazine in March 2020, Hollenbach explained why the Church needs to redouble its advocacy and action to help those who suffer most during the pandemic. 

Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center panel in 2016.
Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center panel in 2016.

Toward Social Solidarity

Fratelli Tutti, the third encyclical released by Pope Francis, calls for “renewed hope” during a particularly trying time in global history, especially with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the encyclical, the pope discusses a wide range of issues, from exploitative economic systems to the death penalty to systemic racism.

One such issue: just war. Days after Fratelli Tutti was released, Senior Fellow Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., provided reflection on the encyclical as part of a series published by America Magazine. Christiansen later expanded his analysis in a short essay on “Fratelli Tutti and the Responsibility to Protect,” where he highlighted the encyclical as part of a move in Church teaching away from just war thinking and toward a moral theology of peacebuilding.

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center panel in 2014.
Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center panel in 2014.

That essay was published by the Berkley Forum, a platform for public scholarship and informed commentary hosted by the center. Less than two weeks after the encyclical was released, the Berkley Forum convened a series of essays on Fratelli Tutti and its significance in and beyond the Catholic Church. The series brought together over a dozen leading scholars to reflect on themes ranging from migration to political life, from human dignity to the role of women in the Church.

Other Berkley Center faculty also provided critical insight into the encyclical as part of the series. Hollenbach reflected on the significance of Pope Francis citing the grand imam of Al-Azhar as inspiration for Fratelli Tutti, suggesting the encyclical “may bring significant advance in Christian-Muslim relations in the long term.” Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall explored how the themes of inclusion, equity, and sustainability in the encyclical resonate with the challenges of global development during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. flag flies outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

“If Fratelli Tutti has a future in the Catholic Church in the United States, it will be because we have summoned the courage to meet Francis where he has called us: at the place where we can accept the consequences not only of the truths that are fundamental to our identity as Christians, but also of those truths that are undeniably hard to accept.” 

— Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Read Ford's full essay on the Berkley Forum.

Building in Vatican City in clouds at dawn

“In its reach, the strength of its critique, and its constructive and open-ended vision for the future, Fratelli Tutti offers a spiritual and intellectual intervention we cannot afford to ignore...Francis tells us that the politics and theology of naming matters: Before we are anything else, we are brothers and sisters, and, as such, we are called to become neighbors and friends.” 

— Anna Rowlands  

Read Rowlands' full essay on the Berkley Forum

“By exposing the special vulnerability of the displaced and the very poor to health and humanitarian catastrophe, the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the importance of global humanity as a moral frame of reference,” writes the Jesuit ethicist.

That vision of global humanity as a moral frame of reference—coupled with a call for the thoroughgoing transformation of our social, political, and economic structures—is central to Catholic engagement on building a more sustainable post-pandemic world. But what would a more just world look like? And what teachings could inspire action toward social solidarity? In October 2020, Pope Francis provided answers to these and other questions in Fratelli Tutti, a subject of sustained Berkley Center work.

The interface between Fratelli Tutti and the pandemic also set the stage for a March 2021 panel discussion moderated by Elie. The discussion brought together three public intellectuals—Michael J. Sandel, Marilynne Robinson, and Pankaj Mishra—for critical dialogue on the themes of Fratelli Tutti in contemporary life.

The themes of social friendship and human solidarity articulated in the encyclical are especially relevant in the era of COVID-19, the panel concluded. 

Fratelli Tutti: Social Solidarity from Several Points of View

“We are going through a period of global transition, more complex and more complete than we can possibly imagine at this point,” said Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. “It would be the most natural thing in the world to rediscover the essential unity of humankind.”

Coming from the Global South also shapes how Pope Francis critiques global social ills in the encyclical, according to award-winning author Mishra. “Many of his specific concerns which are stated in the encyclical—about the excesses of the market economy, the rise of inequality, the breakdown of solidarities—they are all rooted in a very particular Latin American spirit.”

Mishra and Elie in conversation at a Berkley Center panel in 2017.
Mishra and Elie in conversation at a Berkley Center panel in 2017.

Pope Francis presents social solidarity as a political and spiritual solution to global inequality brought by the market economy, panelists explained. 

“What strikes me about Fratelli Tutti is that Pope Francis conceives that the case for solidarity depends on taking on not only markets and neoliberalism,” said Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University Law School. “The project of solidarity—beyond being a political project—is ultimately a spiritual project.”

The dual political-spiritual project of global solidarity also finds resonance in interfaith action on global warming and planetary health, the subject of a two-day conference on “Interreligious Responses to Laudato Si,” held in October 2020. Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, provided a keynote address at the conference, co-sponsored by the Berkley Center.

Interreligious Responses to Laudato Si: How Laudato Si Moves Interreligious Dialogue Forward

The cardinal stressed how we need to work in solidarity, across lines of religious and cultural difference, to tackle the social and ecological challenges of global warming. “We need to think of ourselves as a single family dwelling in a common home,” he explained. “All of us, irrespective of whichever religion we profess, have a moral and religious responsibility to shape an ethic of care for the earth.

Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J.
Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J.

Interreligious dialogue can also help to create faith communities better equipped to prevent and heal child sexual abuse, the subject of grant-funded research led by Senior Research Fellow Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J. In April 2021, McGlone spoke at a symposium on “Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse,” hosted by Harvard University with support from the Berkley Center and other partners. The conference featured a keynote address from 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rev. Denis Mukwege.

“The priority is to the story, the words of the survivor—to listen to how, why, where, and when that abuse took place,” explained McGlone, an expert on the clerical sexual abuse crisis in and beyond the Catholic Church. “Most especially, it is the role of the entire community to welcome and restore that survivor to their rightful place.”

Much as solidarity with survivors can help to create safer faith communities, another resource of the Catholic Church—the unique diplomacy of the Holy See—can spur action on other issues of global concern. By convening global experts at and beyond the Roman Curia, the Berkley Center has explored Holy See diplomacy on critical issues, from nuclear disarmament to peacebuilding in the Middle East.

Holy See Diplomacy

The Holy See lays claim to a diplomatic history and influence broader than that of most modern nation-states, playing an international role disproportionate to the small geographical size of the Vatican. Since 2014, Senior Fellow Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., has led Berkley Center work on one of the most pressing diplomatic issues facing the Church and global society today: nuclear disarmament

It is critical to continue Catholic advocacy on nuclear issues in the age of COVID-19, according to Christiansen. “The first challenge is not letting the pandemic take our eye off the ball of nuclear disarmament,” he explained in June 2020. “This is a very, very critical time for nuclear disarmament. All of the post-Cold War disarmament architecture is seriously frayed.”

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center conference in 2020.
Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., speaks at a Berkley Center conference in 2020.

For the past year, Christiansen has responded to that challenge by organizing Berkley Center programming on ethical and policy issues surrounding nuclear disarmament. One major event: an international webcast on “Catholics Commemorate 75 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” co-hosted by the Berkley Center and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. 

The commemoration—broadcast on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings—brought together prominent Catholics in the United States and Japan who are working in solidarity to promote a world free of nuclear weapons. It featured reflections from Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, and Bishop David J. Malloy, chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Catholics Commemorate 75 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki

“As long as the idea that weapons are necessary for peacemaking persists, it will be difficult to even reduce the number of nuclear weapons, let alone to abolish nuclear weapons,” explained Archbishop Takami, a survivor of the bombing. “It would be ideal if the U.S. and Japan could truly reconcile with each other and work together for the abolition of nuclear weapons.” 

Working in solidarity for the abolition of nuclear weapons is also at the heart of a recent volume co-edited by Christiansen: A World Free from Nuclear Weapons (2020), proceedings from the 2017 Vatican symposium where Pope Francis first condemned the very possession of nuclear weapons. The volume includes contributions from global luminaries including Pope Francis and six recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. In December 2020, the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development—in partnership with the Berkley Center and a host of other partners—organized an international book launch event.

A World Free from Nuclear Weapons

Panelists continued the discussion started in the volume and highlighted how achieving a world free from nuclear weapons is a critical priority for the international community.

“The arms race wastes resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of people and to protect the natural environment,” explained Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican dicastery. 

Ongoing events—especially the COVID-19 pandemic—emphasize the need for transformative thinking when it comes to security and solidarity, panelists said. 

“COVID-19 proves the urgent need for a globalization of solidarity and for greater investments in integral security and new models of global cooperation,” said Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See secretary for relations with states. 

If the diplomatic influence of Pope Francis and the Church can help to encourage solidarity in the movement for a world free from nuclear arms, it can also address other issues of global concern, including interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding in the Middle East. Pope Francis tackled precisely these themes during his apostolic visit to Iraq in March 2021. A week after the pope returned from Iraq, the Berkley Center co-sponsored a panel discussion exploring the religious and political significance of the historic visit.

The Pope's Visit to Iraq: An Historic Juncture

Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who accompanied the pope to Iraq, was one of the panelists. He summed up the visit, commenting, 

“The core of the message that Pope Francis wanted to deliver to the country is to be united: considering religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity which has characterized the Iraqi society for a millennium as a precious resource that requires a healthy pluralism.”

Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald speaks at a Georgetown event in 2018.
Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald speaks at a Georgetown event in 2018.

During the trip, Pope Francis met with the influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani to discuss interreligious relations. A later panel discussion, hosted by the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and co-sponsored by the Berkley Center, explored what the meeting might mean for the future of interreligious dialogue. The event featured Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr., a widely recognized expert on Muslim-Christian relations.

“The meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani was surely significant, as it showed that the pope is ready and eager to enter into relations with all branches of Islam,” the cardinal explained. 

Holy See diplomacy on a wide range of issues, from Muslim-Christian relations to nuclear abolition, will continue to be on the agenda as the papacy looks toward a post-pandemic word. The work of supporting research and commentary on Catholic diplomacy and interreligious dialogue—like that supported by the Berkley Center for the past year—remains as critical as ever.

Looking to the Future

In the introduction to Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis provides reflection on how the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the encyclical. 

“For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all,” the pope writes. “It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women.”

Human dignity. Universal solidarity. Radical rebirth. Such themes are well reflected in ongoing Berkley Center work on global challenges during and beyond the pandemic. Tackling a wide range of issues—from the global refugee crisis to nuclear disarmament, globalization to interfaith dialogue, faith and culture to religious nationalism—center faculty are well poised to continue providing critical insight into the creation of a more just post-pandemic world.