April 3, 2020 — Fr. Michael Rozier, SJ, is a public health professor at St. Louis University. In this episode of the AMDG podcast, he talks with host Mike Jordan Laskey about approaching the coronavirus as a health professional and priest, Catholic social justice teachings that apply to responses to the pandemic, and the fascinating history of Catholic healthcare.
You teach public health at St. Louis University. How do both parts of your vocation as a public health professional and a priest inform your understanding of coronavirus?
Week one of the semester, I asked my students about what was going in Wuhan, China, and at that point in time, I think maybe two hands were raised.
And I said, "I promise you by spring break we're going to be talking about this in a more serious way." I did not quite frankly anticipate it escalating as quickly as it did. I'll now be teaching the class remotely for the rest of the semester.
I think as a public health professional, there's certainly the epidemiology and policy that is really important for us to get right. But I think where my heart is with all those people who are particularly vulnerable at this moment in time. I think of my grandma who is in an assisted living facility. And there are so many people in nursing homes across the country who are not only at increased risk for the virus, but now are more socially isolated than ever before.
I think about people across the country who are incarcerated. We know we have the highest incarceration rate of any developed country and they also are at particular risk for this disease. Or I think of school children having to forego a lot of the meals that they would be getting during this time. The list goes on and on. My interest as a public health professional, and certainly my interest as a priest and somebody who wants to care for people, is very much aligned in that regard.
I think about those communities that you mentioned and so many others who are particularly vulnerable, including folks who don't have stable home situations or those who are exposed to increased domestic violence in the case of these lockdowns.
Maybe because this is cutting across and affecting everyone it's even more likely for us to just forget about some of those communities. It's hard to be compassionate when you also are feeling like there's a threat right behind you, right? How do you balance all those things?
I think what this is putting into fuller relief for everybody is that we're all always vulnerable. None of us are invincible to any kind of tragedy. This kind of puts it into fuller relief at a personal level, but it's also raising our awareness of the vulnerabilities of people all around us.
There's these little signs of neighborliness, things that wouldn't have happened before. I find that heartening. Maybe there is some solidarity. But I also feel like, "Oh my gosh, we're so early, we don't know what's coming."
When you say that we're so early in this, it's almost framed as “it could get much worse.” But I think of it as: “We're so early in this! We are just figuring this out.” And so my hope is that we're just figuring out how to live with each other in this new way, whether it's within our household or within our neighborhood or within our city, town. And like anything else in our life, even individual habits that we try to build up, it takes us time to figure out. How do I love people from a distance in a different way? How do I support people? How do I connect with people?
We are early in this, but I think that is a hopeful turnabout, that we're going to get better at this for sure. I hope that in this era of crowdsourcing and different ways of connecting that it's actually easier to do this now than it would have been 25, 30 years ago.
I think about some of the different concepts that are important in Catholic teaching being lived out now, especially the concept of giving up personal freedoms. To me, it’s this crystal-clear illustration of what the common good is, is that we give up some of these individual liberties we enjoy for the good of the community. And that seems to me to be a very Catholic thing.
Absolutely. I think there are several principles in Catholic social teaching that at one point in time might be fairly theoretical and now are very much lived out in the concrete. So you mentioned the common good, how we structure our society to foster the wellbeing of all. I think of a solidarity as well. That it's not just me and you, but it's us, that we are bound together in ways that we often don't appreciate.
I think also of the option for the poor: It's not that the people in the nursing homes, or people in prisons, or people in domestic violence situations are better morally than anybody else. But they're the ones that we need to be thinking about the most during this time because they are in situations that are most at risk for degrading their dignity.
One of the concrete ways that we've seen these Catholic teachings lived out throughout our church history, especially here in the United States, is Catholic healthcare. What do you know about the history of Catholic healthcare?
Healthcare has always been a part of who we are as a faith community. Early on in the Roman Empire when there were plagues, people who had resources fled to the countryside to be away from the infections, but it was the Christians who stayed in the cities and cared for the victims of disease. And it was actually caring for those victims of disease during those moments when other people fled that converted a lot of people to Christianity.
More particularly to the United States, the religious women — Ursuline Sisters in 1727 in New Orleans — saw a need for was education and healthcare.
And that's why we have this vast network of Catholic Healthcare and Catholic education, largely because of these religious women. And it was them responding to needs that nobody else would.
The first hospitals in this country were not for people who had insurance. Even though we imagine hospitals now for people with insurance, it was the exact opposite. If you had wealth, a physician would come to your home and if you didn't have any wealth, then you had to go to these houses of dying, essentially, houses of a compassionate care. And it was the religious women who were running those.
And that to me is the absolute foundation of what we are doing. It's not a new invention. It's been done since the early Christian communities. But we're always reinventing ourselves. We're always trying to figure out, "Okay, what does that look like today at this moment in time?"