It is a Sin Not to Wear a Facemask
Anyone perusing social media these days will be well aware that the latest politicized controversy dividing American society is about wearing facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic. One cannot make a simple trip to the grocery store without becoming bogged in a morass of invisible social pressure, judgment, and labels regarding whether one decides to don a face covering or not. Christians and Christian Churches are divided, largely along political lines, as to the compulsoriness of facemasks. A recent article published by America Magazine, describes the mask issue as dividing faithful Christians, because, “some see mask use — or not — as a partisan issue or a political statement, with political conservatives less likely to mask than political liberals.” Evincing this division, some Catholic dioceses, like St. Louis, require facemasks for mass attendance, while others, like Milwaukee, only recommend masks, presumably out of respect for personal freedom and decision-making. Arguments for wearing facemasks by Christian authors and theologians thus far have tended to make the case that wearing a facemask should be seen as a form of charity for one’s neighbor, or as a sign of respect for authority and care for the weak among our society, i.e. as a voluntary action that goes above and beyond what is strictly required. I think Christians and the Church need to go further in taking a moral stand on this issue. I argue that freely refusing to wear a facemask is a sin. Period.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in agreement with the majority of the Christian Tradition, defines sin as follows: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” The final phrase quoted in the definition, as is footnoted in the Catechism, comes from St. Augustine and is interpreted largely through the lens of Thomistic natural law theology. (Thomas Aquinas draws upon the same Augustinian phrase for his definition of sin in the Summa theologiae.) I suggest we take a moment to draw from this resource in order to understand what the Church means by sin, and then apply it to our current context.
What St. Thomas teaches, roughly, is that a sin is doing something bad. More specifically, a sin is doing anything other than what would be chosen by a perfect, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful being that never makes any mistakes. Hence, a sin is freely doing anything contrary to the will of God. Sin is making a bad decision; it is choosing the bad action over the good action; or, it is choosing a lesser good over a greater good. Thomas fully understands the practical difficulty of his definition. Humans are not perfect, all-knowing, or all-powerful. Humans do not know the will of God with infallible accuracy. In fact, humans are pretty darn good at mistaking their own will and their own self-interest in any given situation, for the will of God. Hence, Thomas, in his typical style, makes some distinctions. He says that there exists a single, true, absolute, objective right and wrong thing to do in every particular situation. He calls this the eternal law, and he teaches that it exists perfectly only in the mind of God. Humans do not always know the absolute right and wrong thing to do in every situation because they do not have, but have to interpret, the mind of God. From our limited perspective, the moral world appears usually as a muddy grey, rather than a clear black and white.
What humans do have access to, first and foremost, is something Thomas calls the natural law. Humans are not all-knowing, but they are a little knowing. We do not know everything, but we can use our minds to know some things. Thus, there are some instances in which humans can use their reason to reliably figure out what is good and what is bad. For instance, the vast majority of humans and cultures throughout history have agreed that murder, rape, cruelty, stealing, etc. are bad, or sinful, actions and that almsgiving, telling the truth, caring for other people, doing an honest day’s work, etc. are good actions. We do not need God specially to tell us right from wrong in these instances. The ability to reason, which is given to humans by God, can tell us these things.
There are other things, though, that our reason cannot tell us. No human and no society has ever figured out on its own that God wants us to love every other creature, even our worst enemies, like they are our own brothers, sisters, or children. A perfect, loving, all-powerful, all-knowing being, like God, would certainly treat everyone with the same respect, dignity, and value as everyone else, regardless of merits, but our fallen finite human reason fails us; it leads us to view true selflessness as madness, rather than as the one thing needed (Luke 10:42). We think we are entirely justified to love our friends and hate our enemies (Matthew 5:43). To correct this fault, St. Thomas thinks that God gave humans some extra help in addition to the obvious, agreed-upon, natural law. Thomas called this extra law the divine, or revealed, law, which includes the whole of Scripture, Tradition, and Church teaching. For Thomas, God had to spell out to us that we should love our enemies, because our own reason (after the fall) was too weak to get us there.
Now, let us return to the Catholic Tradition’s definition of sin. The Church teaches that a sin is any offense against truth and reason — either our own reason, which we have access to, or God’s reason, which we have access to only insofar as God has revealed it to us and we have understood it. Sin is transgressing either the natural or divine law. The question at hand regarding wearing facemasks during a pandemic is thus: Does freely and knowingly refusing to wear a facemask violate either the natural law or the divine law? Does failing to wear a facemask during a pandemic go against either right human reason or God’s revealed higher reason of love? I argue that it does, that it in fact goes against both, and thus that refusing to wear a facemask in our current context is a sin.
Human reason, often expressed in scientific findings, unquestionably dictates that wearing a facemask during a respiratory-based pandemic is good. I will demonstrate this at two levels. First, even basic animalistic self-interested human reason would affirm the following: Dying is bad. A lot of people dying is really bad. Catching a disease that might kill you is bad. Giving a disease to other people that might kill them is bad. If you can even potentially avoid dying and killing people, you should. Facemasks potentially prevent people from dying during a respiratory pandemic. Therefore, wearing a facemask is good.
Second, at a more complicated societal level, human reason no less dictates the following: Convenience is good. Being comfortable, physically, socially, and in one’s normal routines, are good. Maintaining personal freedom is good. Avoiding economic shutdown and disruption is good. On the other hand, avoiding sickness is also good. Avoiding dying is good. Avoiding a lot of people dying is good. Avoiding a significant risk of a lot of people dying is good. Some goods, unfortunately, are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, to get one good, like a pizza, one has to give up another good, like $10. Not all goods are equal. Thus, giving up a less valuable good in order to get a more valuable good is good. The good of not dying outweighs most other goods. The common good outweighs most private or individual goods. Accordingly, if one can advance the common good and avoid mass death, but it comes at the cost of private comfort, personal freedom, or individual political ideology, one should. Facemasks advance the common good by helping to avoid mass death, potentially at the cost of one’s comfort, personal freedom, or political ideology. Therefore, wearing a facemask is worthwhile and is good. Freely and knowingly acting against the good that right human reason compels all to affirm is none other than rejecting the good and choosing the bad. To do so is to break the natural law and, in the Christian tradition, to sin.
As Thomas Aquinas knew, however, human reason is weak, short sighted, and easily confused. Sometimes, faulty human reason leads well-intentioned people to disagree upon or even act against right and true reason, which is God’s reason and God’s will. Sometimes, as the Catechism states, faulty human reason leads persons to fail to love God and neighbor, due to a “perverse attachment to certain [lesser] goods.” Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, faulty human reason leads people to act against the love of neighbor, or even against their own self-interest. It leads people to choose a greasy hamburger rather than a healthy salad, fully knowing that eating one is good and eating the other is bad. It leads people, selfishly and absurdly, to offend reason and violate the natural law by choosing personal comfort over the common good. And sometimes, it leads people into valuing one’s worldview, one’s political beliefs, or the delusion that one knows everything and has been right all along, more highly than one values life itself. For exactly these times, Thomas taught, God gave humans some extra help in the form of the divine, revealed, law.
For Thomas, divine revelation, which is chiefly expressed in Scripture, expands upon, amplifies, and clarifies the conclusions of human reason, as grace perfects nature. Looking to Scripture for guidance in the facemask debate, one finds exactly such confirmation and clarification. Scripture often depicts sin as the absurd choice of lesser goods over higher goods; and, it frequently warns against choosing death over life. Adam and Eve, for instance, literally chose death, suffering, toil, and Hell over a life of joy, peace, and paradise (Genesis 3). They did so not because they wanted to die, but because they found death preferable to feeling weak, uncomfortable, ignorant, or wrong. They more highly valued the delusion of their own omnipotence and omniscience than they valued the actuality of a life of dependence and giftedness. They flouted reason and reality itself because their faulty human reason lead them to conclude that, in the words of Milton, it might be better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Such a choice is the exemplar of sin. It is, more precisely, the original sin.
Absurd human choices against right reason echo throughout the divine law in Scripture. God set the ancient Israelites free from the Egyptian empire, but they cried out to return to slavery rather than wander the wilderness in freedom (Numbers 14:4). They made the absurd decision that they would rather die than be free (Exodus 16:3). In Deuteronomy, God calls the faithful to choose life over death, by following God’s commandments, precisely identifying that the problem with people is that they absurdly choose death and disobedience over life and righteousness. The text states, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live!” (Deuteronomy 30:19). In the time of the prophets, Isaiah similarly laments people’s absurdity. God acted in Isaiah’s day to satisfy people’s needs with true water and true bread, with wine and milk that have no price. Yet, absurdly, the people refused what good sense would counsel. To which, Isaiah cries, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). The early followers of Christ, no less, saw people making the same absurd choices. Christ came into the world to save people from their sins. He spent his life freely serving others and doing nothing but speaking the truth. God became incarnate in Christ purely to bless us and reveal the depth of God’s love. Our response was the absurdity of the cross. Our response was to reject and murder God incarnate for expressing infinite love. Hence, John writes, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).
The divinely revealed law in Scripture, therefore, leads those who will listen to be on the lookout for perverse human absurdity that violates right reason. Scripture warns us to repent of this sin before it is too late. As is evident from even a cursory glance at our society, people today are no less evil, no less absurd, and no less tragically misguided than the people confronted by Moses, the prophets, Christ, and the early Church. People today are still choosing their own deaths and delusions of self-righteousness over repentance, salvation, the common good, and their own life. Christians, therefore, with the extra help of divine revelation to guide their reason, should make no mistake. Choices like refusing to wear a facemask during a pandemic in order to defiantly proclaim one’s political allegiance at the cost of human lives, are none other than absurd choices of death over life. Choices like stubbornly reopening schools, Churches, professional sports, and businesses as a means of willing our society back to normalcy because one has counted the costs and more highly values profit and economic health than one values people and personal health, are exactly absurd choices of death over life. Such choices blatantly work against the common good; they thus violate reason, the natural law, the divine law, and the eternal law. Such choices wound humans, injure human solidarity, and are a failure of genuine love of God and neighbor. Such choices have always been called by their true name in the Christian Tradition. Such choices are sin. Period.