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Priest’s advice puts personal choice above others’ safety

Tom Givón

When I first heard a priest declare from the pulpit that wearing masks and being vaccinated against the resurgent COVID-19 plague was strictly a matter of individual conscience and personal liberty, I couldn't believe my ears.

I've been debating ever since whether I should come out with a response, for more often than not, silence is golden. If I have decided to finally go public, it is because lives are at stake.

My church insists on multiple dos and don'ts that leave little room for individual conscience. Say, attending Mass, confession, taking Communion, the Ten Commandments, anti-contraception, anti-abortion, anti-suicide, the minute details of arcane rituals, as well as the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy with their hundreds of dire injunctions. For this church to now say – with the current resurgence of the COVID-19 plague and the fast-spreading delta variant – that wearing a mask indoors is a matter of individual conscience and personal freedom is, to say the least, strangely inconsistent.

What the priest was telling the good, hard-working, long-suffering people of our parish, as far as my less-than-perfect ear could tell, is that it is OK to put one's individual judgment ahead of preserving the life and health of one's fellow humans. This message from the pulpit goes starkly against the grain of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, it goes against the very core of the Gospel of our savior Jesus Christ.

You don't need to be a trained scientist to know that as far as viruses go, masks are not worn to protect the wearer, but to protect the other. And as current statistics suggest, the delta variant of this killer plague is spreading largely among the unvaccinated – who then proceed to infect their kin and friends and neighbors. Those “others.”

The matter of one's personal liberty is just as thorny. The rural precincts of our county are rife with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers whose motivation is as complex as it is varied: a reflexive anti-science bias, a profound resentment of the educated elite, communing with like-minded people and rampant politicization of all issues, including public health. Their interpretation of our constitutionally-protected liberties often goes against the grain of what it means to be a society, indeed a social species.

In any human society, be it a clan, a tribe, a village, a city-state or a mega-nation, one's individual freedoms have always been sharply circumscribed by the freedom of one's neighbors and fellow members. What you do on your side of the fence is indeed your business – as long as it does not infringe on your neighbor's business across the fence.

To give the good people of our county the kind of dispensation our priest has given us, all in the name of “individual conscience” and “personal freedom,” is to give them a license to kill – not only themselves, but others.

Yes, let us ring the bell for liberty. But liberty without compassion rings hollow.

Tom Givón ranches near Ignacio. He can be reached at tgivon@uoregon.edu.