Piety in the Time of Coronavirus

The nation has been treated to an uncanny spectacle over the past few weeks. Schools and businesses closed in the face of the Wuhan flu, and public health officials urged all Americans to stay home and  practice “social distancing” to slow the spread of the disease. But as anxious families braved supermarket lines to stock up on staple foods and household goods, the young and unattached queued for an altogether different reason, packing the bars of New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities.

On the one hand, there is nothing at all unusual about hiding from mortality in drink and revelry. “Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” is of course as old as the Gospels, and both The Pardoner’s Tale and In Taberna give medieval witness to the same instinct. When we drink, as the song says, we don’t care that we are dust. And, indeed, the available data suggest that the disease poses relatively little risk to the young and healthy.

There is, however, a darker side to all this. Though the young themselves are at low risk of dying from the disease (many experience only mild, cold-like symptoms) they can and do carry the illness to others. All this was common knowledge by mid-week, but somehow it failed to have an impact on the weekend’s revelers. “It’s only killing the old” became a common refrain. That they could become disease vectors was, apparently, a matter of indifference to the young and indeed, for many, a matter of ironic celebration. Over the weekend, the Wuhan flu was widely hailed online as “The Boomer Remover” and the “Boomer Doomer”—the agent that would, at last, sweep the baby boomers off the world stage.

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The trend was significant enough to attract the attention of major publishers, and in recent days a handful of think pieces have emerged to explain, contextualize, and justify the mockery. But the claim that “the Boomer Remover” is used in jest to voice legitimate frustration does little to mitigate its cruelty. We are, after all, facing a virus that could (in some projections) kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, most of them elderly. To mock or make light of these deaths is, at best, an act of shocking callousness; to mock their deaths while contributing to the spread of the virus approaches outright malice. Indeed, the behavior of the younger generation led the Wall Street Journal to conclude that we are witnessing the rise of a “generational war.”

It’s a war, alas, that we should have seen coming. Indeed, we saw the first major rumblings of this generational conflict well before anyone had even heard of the Wuhan flu. In the fall of 2019, “Ok, Boomer” came to dominate public discourse as Millennials and Zoomers united in wholesale rejection of arguments based on authority, prudence, and maturity, and in still more pointed rejection of the generation that made those arguments. For their part, the older generation behaved nearly as badly, as far as I can tell, meeting rebellion with condescension, frustration with indifference, and scorn with scorn. Nowhere was this attitude more evident than when the leading Democratic candidate for president dismissed a critic as a “child.”

All this conflict is thoroughly predictable. Russell Kirk observed long ago that only the moral imagination is capable of maintaining the “contract of those who are dead, and those who are living, and those who are to be born;” only it can link one generation to the other in an enduring human community. In the absence of an enduring moral order there is nothing to arbitrate between the demands of competing generations; communication is therefore impossible and the libido dominandi reigns. In the end, only one can rule. Suspicion, hostility, and resentment will inevitably follow. While there are obvious exceptions to the rule, it is hard to escape the sense that intergenerational enmity has become one of the defining elements of American public life.

The restaurants and pubs are closed in most major cities today; at some stage, please God, the Wuhan flu will subside and life-as-normal will resume in some form or other. In the meantime, however, Catholics of both generations would do well to consider these matters with the seriousness they deserve. Even the pagans regarded familial piety as the bedrock of society: think here of Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy, or old Laertes tending to an orchard whose fruit he will never eat. Revelation raises this natural piety to the level of divine command. As St. Paul reminds us, the fourth commandment is the first one to bear a promise: honor your father and mother, that it may be well with you and you may live long upon the earth.

The last chapter of the last of the prophets puts the matter in starker terms: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.”

As in so many other prophetic utterances, the Lord sets before his people both life and death, blessing and curse. Elijah is coming to restore the bonds of piety and affection between fathers and sons; should they refuse, the land will be cursed. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that the Wuhan virus is God’s punishment for America’s lack of familial piety. I can’t help, however, but wonder: if the virus were in fact God’s curse on an erring and rebellious people, would things look any different?

Image: Aeneas and His Father Fleeing Troy by Simon Vouet


  • Ben Reinhard

    Ben Reinhard is an associate professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His new translation of Beowulf is available from Cluny Press. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio with his wife and five children.

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