Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

COVID-19 and Religious Gatherings: “What is at Stake for You?”

In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, how much power should the state have to enforce limits on church gatherings this Easter?  As we watch the showdown unfold in Kansas, Kentucky and Florida, I am also commenting on my students’ reflections on this topic, which was a perfect storm of a problem for our current Georgetown Law seminar on Religion, Morality & Contested Claims for Justice

In our class discussion (over Zoom) last week, my first reaction was one of intense frustration and anger with what are probably the outliers – the religious and political leaders who seem to deliberately ignore the gravity of the crisis, or who seem callous to the health implications for the people of their communities and the broader public. 

But on further reflection, I wonder if there is at least a tiny bit of room for dialogue across difference, in some circumstances.  To what extent is some of the insistence on gathering grounded in the lack of trust that marks our polarized landscape?

At some point in my seminars we do an exercise in pairs entitled, “What is at Stake for You?”  The goal is to create a space where each person can express in their own words, with their own categories, what are their stakes and/or what worries or concerns them most as we enter into conversation about an otherwise polarizing topic.  The pair is then invited to jot down on a single index card a few words that capture their stakes, and to hold those thoughts throughout the conversation with the larger group.  Generally, the exercise helps quite a bit in preparing a terrain for a more open, sincere and productive seminar conversation. 

I still believe strongly that the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic presents appropriate circumstances for the strong exercise of state power to limit and/or regulate the size of gatherings of any kind – including religious gatherings.  But I wonder: if each “side” of this debate felt that others were trying to understand their stakes, might that lead, in some circumstances, to more openness to the kind of creative problem-solving that might also ultimately help to “flatten the curve”?


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