Pope Francis voiced his support for authoritarian restrictions and criticized the ideals of individual rights and liberty in a disturbing opinion piece for the New York Times. As someone who was born and raised Catholic, I find it extremely upsetting that the leader of the Catholic church would express sentiments that are so insulting to people who value, and bravely stand up for, personal freedom.
Here is an excerpt from the article that I found to be particularly dismaying:
“With some exceptions, governments have made great efforts to put the well-being of their people first, acting decisively to protect health and to save lives. The exceptions have been some governments that shrugged off the painful evidence of mounting deaths, with inevitable, grievous consequences. But most governments acted responsibly, imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak. Yet some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions – as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom! Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate. It is all too easy for some to take an idea – in this case, for example, personal freedom – and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”
I disagree so strongly with these sentiments this that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
First of all, Pope Francis is wrong to equate acting responsibly with imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak. The strict measures that governments implemented at the beginning of the pandemic and continue to enforce today are morally impermissible because they violate people’s rights. For example, all people have the rights to move about freely, to go to stores, restaurants, and other businesses as frequently as they wish, and to decide whether or not to wear a mask. Restrictions such as closing parks and beaches, closing all businesses deemed non-essential, monitoring people’s movements and health status, requiring masks, only allowing people to leave their houses when absolutely essential, and even banning people from leaving their houses entirely, violate everyone’s rights. Implementing restrictions that violate everyone’s rights is not a requirement for being responsible; it is not even morally allowed. Refraining from implementing such restrictions is not irresponsible; it is the only morally correct option.
Second, Pope Francis is wrong to characterize authoritarian restrictions as “measures that governments must impose for the good of their people.” Not only is it not true that governments must impose such measures, they actually must not impose the measures, because the measures violate everyone’s rights. The pope laughs off as ridiculous the idea that these restrictions constitute a political assault on autonomy and personal freedom, but that is precisely what they do constitute. In other words, the very claim that the pope flippantly dismisses is actually 100% correct.
Additionally, the pope is wrong about what constitutes the well-being, or good, of people. It is true that the authoritarian measures imposed by governments were motivated by a desire to protect people’s health and save lives, and they probably succeeded in achieving these aims for the most part. But this does not mean that the authoritarian measures protected people’s well-being. A person’s good, or well-being, consists of whatever matches the person’s preferences. Some people value health and safety above all else and are willing to forgo visiting their favorite places, participating in their favorite activities, and purchasing their favorite products in order to reduce their risk of catching the virus. But others would prefer to do the activities that make life enjoyable, even if this carries an increased risk. Health and safety are certainly an important part of people’s well-being, but there are other things that are valuable as well, and people have varying preferences for how to balance these things. What is best for people is to allow everyone to make his or her own decisions about how to balance the risks and benefits of various courses of action. Forcing every person to prioritize health and safety above everything else, as Pope Francis believes governments should do, might line up with some people’s preferences but it goes against the preferences of others. By forcing many people to live in a way that goes against their preferences, governments’ Covid restrictions decrease, not increase, people’s well-being.
Furthermore, I disagree with the pope’s claim that the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. How else would one measure the common good, besides adding up the well-being of all the individuals? It’s not as if the common good is some kind of sentient being, separate from and in addition to individual people. What is best for the common good is what is best, in total, for all of the individuals in the society. And what is best for individuals is to empower them to make their own decisions, as opposed to forcing them to trade freedom for safety when that does not necessarily fit their preferences.
Finally, I disagree with the idea that having an ideology is a bad thing. Pope Francis criticizes people who turn the idea of personal freedom into an ideology and a prism through which everything else is viewed. But this is not a bad thing; it is what it means to have moral beliefs. According to Dictionary,com, ideology is defined as “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc. that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” In other words, ideology is the moral principle or principles that someone lives by. Why would this be considered bad? For me, personal freedom (or individual rights, or individual liberty, or the non-aggression principle, these terms all mean basically the same thing) is the moral principle by which I live my life. I believe that each person has the right to do anything that he or she wants, as long as this does not violate the rights of anyone else to do what he or she wants. Because this is a basic moral principle of mine, it is the prism through which I judge everything. If something violates a person’s right to personal freedom, then I believe it is morally wrong. That is how moral beliefs work. If you think that it’s okay to follow a moral principle in some cases but not others, then you are either a hypocrite with no integrity, or a person who doesn’t particularly care about morality but simply does whatever is expedient in the moment without regard for whether it is right or wrong. Neither of these is a good thing, and it makes no sense that the pope would consider this to be morally superior to having moral principles and applying them consistency.
Pope Francis argues that humanity can emerge from the pandemic better off than we were before if we reconsider our values. “We have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain,” he writes. “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities… We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”
But Pope Francis is ignoring the well-being of people such as myself, who value personal freedom. He is ignoring the pain inflicted by the authoritarian measures that he praises: the pain of business owners whose livelihoods have been destroyed, the pain of individuals who have essentially been sentenced to house arrest, and the justified rage that comes from being deprived of the ability to make decisions about one’s own life. In arguing that governments are morally obligated to impose restrictions that take away people’s freedom, the pope is advocating for the exact opposite of giving people a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Nor would his vision of politics dialogue with the excluded, as he claims. It is those who value liberty over safety who are excluded in today’s society and who would continue to be excluded in the type of society that the pope imagines.
I could not disagree more strongly with the pope’s idea of what constitutes dreaming big and creating a better society. We do indeed need to rethink our priorities, but in the opposite way from what Pope Francis urges: we must give individual liberty the importance that it deserves for once, instead of treating it as secondary to safety. The pope’s vision of a world where the greater good is worshipped and personal freedom ridiculed sounds like a hellish dystopia. People may be healthy and safe in such a world, but health and safety are worthless when everything that makes life worth living is taken away.