Earlier this year, members of the St. Thomas community in Minnesota learned that Dr. Julie Sullivan, president of the university for the past nine years, was stepping down and had accepted the presidency of Santa Clara University in northern California – a five-minute drive from most of her grandchildren. In conversations with colleagues, some opined – why is she really leaving St. Thomas, there must be another reason. My response was: “pandemics can be clarifying.” When I saw Julie last month at the school of law graduation, I congratulated her on the great work she did at St. Thomas and her move to Santa Clara. I then said, “pandemics can be clarifying” – and she responded, “it was for me.” The primary reason for Julie’s departure from St. Thomas was to be closer to her family – no conspiracy, no mystery, just reality….and clarity.
The global pandemic, which came on the scene with gusto in March of 2020, has taken more than 6 million lives world-wide, has upended daily life as we know it, has wrought profound economic costs – shifted the labor market, exacerbated societal polarization, and has been the source of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression. We will not soon understand the depth and breadth of the effect of the pandemic on lives, emotional health, and culture. In addition to the above, the pandemic has also been clarifying – a source of clarity regarding relationships, injustice, and the fragile condition of humanity. The pandemic has been clarifying in three primary ways – explained below.
The pandemic has clarified for many the importance of relationships and has confirmed that we are indeed social creatures. The privation of socialization, especially for children and young adults, has been source of great harm – sadly the rate of suicides and suicide attempts among the young increased exponentially during the pandemic. Other factors, of course, are also at play in this alarming increase, but the pandemic carries a multiplier effect – I have described it as topspin. The pandemic has also clarified which relationships are most important for many – which relationships and people are most life-giving and supportive. Relatedly, during the pandemic, many feel less inclined toward social obligation and more free to limit or jettison those relationships that are challenging or non-affirming.
The pandemic has also revealed and clarified here in the United States and globally that deep injustices are present within the social fabric of our societies. From healthcare, to access to technology, to disparities in education, racial disparities related to the pandemic, access to vaccinations, and other effects from the widening wealth gap – the verdict, for those who are awake and sentient, is that we are failing at justice, and it hard to imagine that our present course is socially sustainable.
The pandemic has been akin to a stress test at the doctor’s office, where lurking beneath the surface, clogged arteries reveal a troubling and unstainable reality. Last fall, I invited three Catholic doctors to speak to my Catholic thought, law, and policy students at UST Law. When I asked the doctors for their opinion as to the greatest area of needed reform in American healthcare, one doctor – a pediatrician – pointed not to healthcare but to societal reform – specifically the troubling prioritization of the individual over the common good in American society. Autonomy has become an idol in American society – every value, priority, or noble goal must bow before the false God of autonomy. The pandemic has clarified this.
Lastly, the pandemic has clarified that our culture here in the United States is greatly in need of justice and healing. To an empty and dimly lit St. Peter’s square, at the beginning of the pandemic, Pope Francis exhorted Catholics and the world – “now is the time to choose what remains and what is left behind – what matters and what matters less.” My personal view is that the pandemic has clarified for people of faith – this has been less apparent for secular society – that it remains absolute folly and deleterious for people, societies, and nation states to journey apart from the light and wisdom of God. To journey apart from a God who loves us will always end in darkness, destruction, and dissolution of culture.
In the Twin Cities and at St. Thomas, my colleagues and I have been involved in the work of restorative justice – St. Thomas Law launched a new Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) last September. We are heartened by how warmly our work has been received. It was clarifying for my colleagues and me that now – during the global pandemic – was the time to launch our Initiative. Now more than ever, the work of restorative justice – especially when paired with Catholic social teaching – has the potential to accompany, to listen, to bridge the gaps, to bring justice – and to be a source of healing for a wounded world.