By Charlie Johnston
Over a decade ago I was running two Congressional campaigns at opposite ends of the state. I would bounce back and forth. On a Monday morning when I was opening a weekly meeting at the western one, I was furious at some things that had been bobbled over the weekend – several significant unforced errors. I don’t mind hollering a little, but when I am seriously angry, I tend to be quiet and understated. So I began the meeting by saying that I had just a couple of things I wanted to discuss. Almost everyone visibly stiffened and sat up straighter. I asked what was wrong – and one brave fellow volunteered that whenever I gently said I had “a couple of things” to discuss, people got their heads ripped off. I was startled, a little shaken that they were on to me – and a little amused that they were on to me. I later asked some friends and family – and both my daughter and sister said that scariest words they knew were when I said I had “…just a couple of things” to discuss. I was a little disappointed, but for those in the know, when I am really mad, saying “just a couple of things” is, itself, often enough these days without expanding on what those things are. I love efficiency.
So…just a couple of things…
The global shutdown arising from the Wuhan Virus scare has sparked a flood of people stating with prophetic certainty what it means and what God is going to do next. On a slow day I get 20 such missives in my in-box. More than a few people are wondering why I am not getting in on the action. Well, noting that the horses are not properly secured after they have already fled the barn is not my cup of tea, period. Whatever my flaws, I am pretty consistent. I said from the beginning of speaking publicly that I spoke in order to prepare people for what was to come, but that once events began seriously, what would count would be how we actually behave before God and our neighbors. I speak not here of those who seek to encourage you on how to live well your duty to God, only of those who think they have divined the mind of God and can tell you exactly how everything will play out from here. God will not let anyone know how it will all play out: His purpose in those who He authentically sends to speak for Him is to encourage the habits of heart, mind and spirit needful for these times. I once likened what this would be like to being in a canoe in a swift-moving rocky rapids. It is not the time to try to learn how to paddle, but the time to be aware and ready to act quickly, decisively and prudently to the many unexpected twists and obstacles you will encounter. That remains the case. When the world was relatively calm a couple of years ago, critics accused me of being an alarmist. Now that the world is in turmoil, critics accuse me of being in denial. It is not I who have changed. In fairness, I would have to seek the formal indulgence of my Archbishop to speak prophetically about future events, as I am under discipline to him. In actuality, I have no desire to do so for the very reasons I stated above AND stated consistently when I was so speaking. Now is the time to live the prayer of doing.
Many knowledgeable people are very concerned about the potential of this virus. Many other knowledgeable people think fears are vastly overblown and that we have fostered unnecessary panic. When people whose knowledge and character I respect find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum, while I may take a position, I try to be respectful of all positions – as more than ever I am aware I may be wrong. In such a rare situation, I reserve my anger for those on either side who seek to ridicule and shame those on the other – and I can get pretty testy with these. Michael Brendan Dougherty , whose take on the virus, itself, is different than mine, writes compellingly on how we should engage with each other in these times.
It has been wisely said that a big economy rarely collapses without significant other consequences down the line. We will take a hard look at those going forward. Whatever propaganda China is pushing, it has lost heavily in all of this. Instead of hegemony, it has made itself a pariah among nations. (Yes, I know, the invincibly partisan still parrot its line – but responsible leaders will be deeply cautious with it going forward.) This has set its dreams for world domination back at least a couple of decades. It may even be toppled from within. The old Soviet Union was only able to sustain its huge internal contradictions and brutal repression for 72 years before collapsing. Chinese Communism will be 72 years old in 2021. Iran may see an internal revolt. Though not fully clear yet, you better bet this will re-shuffle the global deck.
Patriotic nationalism (not to be confused with dangerous triumphal nationalism) is already making a comeback. As you know, I count St. Joan of Arc my great patron. Her whole story is an object lesson on how God values nationalism. He raised her up to save France from becoming an English province. Why? That is a question I long contemplated. My final take was that each nation is a flower in God’s garden – and it pleases Him to have a variety of blooms in that divine garden.
We have calmed some fears in this crisis by making an already bloated government even more bloated and saturated with power. Our biggest economic issue has been a massive and unsustainable debt. Our main approach has been to make that debt even more massive. Fears are rising that what we have accomplished is to summon a global depression of unprecedented proportions. I value steps to calm panic, even if they are substantively ineffective. You have got to get the drowning swimmer to stop thrashing in order to rescue him. Yet I fear our economic illiteracy has persuaded us that currency has real, intrinsic value – and simply printing more of it adds value to an economy. The only things that have real economic value are productivity – the creation of goods and services. Currency is merely the encryption key that decodes the value of that production for easy liquidity. Back in 2009, the government of Zimbabwe thought it could conquer its ruinous inflation by printing 50 and 100 trillion dollar banknotes. It couldn’t – just as governments the world over have found throughout history.
We have not developed the habits of heart, mind and soul to weather crises. I hear people say, “If it saves just one life, it is worth it.” If that is the standard, then we had best banish cars, sporting events, recreation – and just about everything else. We might just as well all give up and die. There is no such thing as risk elimination – never has been and never will be. Living is inherently risky. What we are called to is to make rational decisions on risk management as adults. Similarly, some very well-meaning people have said that statistics are meaningless when you, personally, are affected. Seriously?! You mean you are not concerned with whether what you have is as deadly as pancreatic cancer or as mild as a summer cold? Does knowing that make any difference in what treatment regimen you will adopt? Such knowledge is gained, in large measure, from statistics – and the more serious the matter, the more you need good information to make prudent decisions. No matter how mild a virus is, some are going to be infected. Should those infected have the coercive power to decide how everyone else should behave? I know that we are not getting good information here – partly because of legitimate unknown factors inherent to Wuhan Virus and partly because some sectors are vested in creating panic. That is no excuse to abandon rigor and prudence in deciding rationally how to deal with serious crises.
Finally, why a panic shutting down the world over this virus rather than other recent ones? Ebola was, even under the best of projections, far more lethal (though, thankfully, not as easily transmitted). The Swine Flu was at least as easily transmitted – and we didn’t even pay any attention to it until after a thousand in America had already died. I realize some of the mysterious characteristics of this new virus have spooked a lot of people, but its ease of transmission is in line with previous variants – and its lethality is within the normal range – if near the top (but nowhere even close to Ebola). The fact is that ALL viruses are more dangerous to the elderly and to those with compromised immune systems. That is not new. This underscores that we have probably not taken prudent means to protect those who are particularly vulnerable in normal flu seasons. Anecdotal stories appearing in the media make this seem like a wholly new and unnatural scourge. The fact is, though, that every flu season some young people and other outliers mysteriously succumb to normal flus. So why have we shut everything down over this when we did not over Swine Flu or Ebola scares recently? Is this that radically different?
One major problem is a serious decline in public confidence in public health entities, scientists and governmental authorities. The fact is that the confident pronouncements of supposed experts over the last 60 years have often not just been wrong, but dramatically and absurdly wrong. The World Health Organization (WHO) has long been the puppet of the totalitarian regime of the day. It has been so consistently wrong I largely quit paying attention to it a decade ago. The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been better, but has become so bureaucratically driven that it is almost useless in combating a fast-moving crisis. It slowed down the effort to build new masks and respirators and is now slow-walking the approval of chloroquine, which has proved extremely effective in every trial it has had in its early, limited testing.
Some entities have never acknowledged or dealt with the massive errors in previous projections – just insisting that we trust them this time even though their performance record would embarrass a bookie. With some entities busily trying to protect their turf rather than deal with a public crisis and others trying to leverage the crisis for political advantage, it is no wonder people do not know who to believe or, more importantly, who to trust. We deeply need to restore credibility to institutions – and that means acknowledging previous failures candidly and explaining what steps have been taken to refine methods. Institutes and authorities must no longer merely assert that they are experts, but demonstrate both expertise and humility. Ben Weingarten wrote the single best column I have yet read on how to start restoring confidence so that we can make good decisions in crisis. Former Congressman Thaddeus McCotter also foreshadowed some serious decisions we will have to make after this is over. These are the sorts of things we will explore here as this crisis plays out. I fear much of what we are doing is lighting a fuse for a much greater crisis yet to come. I don’t know whether that can be prevented, but it can be seriously mitigated if we start acting like serious adults and making prudent decisions before God.
So the only prophetic messages I have are the same fundamental ones I have always expressed: Acknowledge God, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope to those around you. Live that well and with rigor, and all will be well.
One of the Bishops who has most impressed me during these troubles is Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. From the start, he has been focused on bringing the Eucharist to and comforting his people. He encouraged his Priests to have public Eucharistic Processions in their Church parking lots. He has, himself, taken the Eucharist in a Monstrance and walked the streets with it, blessing the people and cars he encountered.
The man is amazing – and his great heart for his people is right there on his sleeve for all to see.
I have said numerous times here that I think the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops (TCCB) is the most faithless, degraded bunch as a group in the country. It is they who gave the support to make Texas’ forced euthanasia law a reality.
At a meeting of the TCCB last week, Bp. Strickland refused to sign a statement that would strip hospital patients in Texas of their most basic rights. He is the only active Catholic Bishop in Texas to do so. (Corpus Christi Bishop Emeritus Rene Gracida has also been an outspoken opponent of this ugly law and a consistent supporter of Catholic doctrine on the right to life. Would that he were still an active Ordinary!). Quite apart from the Church Militant (CM) article I linked to, I have independent knowledge of this meeting – some from sources one might expect, a couple from sources I doubt anyone would expect. In the past, I have sometimes chided CM for overstating their case. In this instance, they have been remarkably restrained. As ugly as they portray the meeting, it was uglier than that. I suspect that Bp. Strickland is already showing himself to be the sort of leading shepherd we need in these times – and the influence peddlers who cloaked their ambition by calling them religious orders are snarling and hissing at him. Be prepared to stand with him.
During these times, I very much appreciate the work some people I know are doing – and want to give them a little shout-out.
First is David Daleiden. This is an interview he did with NTD at CPAC about a month ago. It is a marvelous interview that really covers a lot of ground. Some of you may be amused at his striking new hairstyle. I joke with him that the way he looks now, he would have fit right in with me on a beach with a campfire, taking night swims with hippie girls back in the ’70s. Ah, those were good times! Ironically, David has some heavy work to be done for some big public initiatives this summer – so the quarantines have given him an excuse to buckle down.
A young songwriter and singer from Canada, Kay Clarity, has been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles working to hone her trade. She wrote and recorded this song about Venezuela recently – and will soon have a piece published that is geared to young people about that subject. Over the last year, she has become a good friend. I am very excited about a song she is working on (at my request), entitled “Stella Maris”. I heard an initial draft of it while I was in LA last fall. I can’t wait until it is finished and I can share it with all of you. In person, she radiates warmth and kindness that cameras don’t do justice to.
Though it has been eclipsed by recent events, Dr. Peter Howard, President of the Fulton Sheen Institute, continues to advocate for Sheen’s canonization and goes around the country doing Parish Missions and events sharing the wisdom of the late Archbishop Sheen. It is wisdom that is much needed in these times. The troubles we are in will not last forever. You might want to go to the Sheen website and book an event or Parish Mission for this summer. Consider it an expression of hope.
Meantime, Dan Lynch continues to work steadfastly promoting devotion to Jesus King of All Nations and Our Lady of Guadalupe. All the devotions he promotes are worthy, but I think an extremely important and underestimated devotion is that to Our Lady of America. The messages from OL of America genuinely foreshadowed the times we are in and offer us a way forward. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with this devotion and, if you can, send Lynch a donation. He works tirelessly and has kept the focus on heaven in these devotions for more than two decades.
I’ll end it with this little song from a couple of years ago.