A Court More Pious Than the Pope

We are in a theater. We cannot leave; the doors are locked and we’re chained into the seats. On the screen is a horror movie.

We’re about 300 reels into it. We should be bored out of our wits. We’re not just the audience, though. We’re the cast, too.

Half of us are screaming, “Don’t open that door!” Up on the screen, though….

Someone opened the door. Of course someone opened the door. Not only do they have every right to open it, but you, you hateful, despicable person, have shown yourself to be un-American by questioning their right to do so.

Doors flew open all summer long at such a pace that, but for the horror, we might as well have been living in a farce by Georges Feydeau—who, let us recall, spent his last years in an asylum, felled by depression.

Now the data say we’re about to be hit hard—harder than ever. Apparently that’s what it will take for us to smarten up. Even at that, there’s no guarantee.

The U.S. death toll currently stands somewhere about 270,000. A late-November page from the CDC predicts a total of 294,000 to 321,000 COVID-19 deaths will be reported by December 19th. That’s another 30,000 dead between now and then. Have a Merry Christmas.

Most news outlets limit their projections to similarly myopic scenarios—as if this thing was going to suddenly call it quits in mid-winter. We were able to find one reputable source—the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation [IHME] in Seattle—that’s bold enough to project farther out, through February.

Working from IHME’s estimates, and applying a little extrapolation, it looks pretty certain that this virus will have killed half a million Americans by March 17th.

We’re so old that we can remember when that sort of health outcome would be considered a bad thing by just about everyone. Now the virus seems to have a constituency of its own. We could call it the Death Panel.

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Supreme Court weighed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility to protect public health against the right of pastors to risk the lives of their flocks. On November 25th, the sheep lost.

The Court’s decision was allegedly based on the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” That has somehow come to mean that whosoever believes he knows the will of some diety has every right to spread a lethal virus. Thank Baphomet the practice of snake handling is dying out.

The next day, in the New York Times, Pope Francis—helpfully described by the paper of record as “head of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome”—wrote in an op-ed, “With some exceptions, governments have made great efforts to put the well-being of their people first…. [They have] acted responsibly, imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak.

“Yet some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions—as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!…

“It is all too easy for some to take an idea—in this case, for example, personal freedom—and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”

How odd. The highest judicial body in a nation without an official religion has somehow turned out to be more pious than the Pope.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so strange. Maybe it’s just politics as usual. In the population at large, only one American in five is Catholic. On the Court, though, Catholics have an overwhelming majority—six out of nine. How did that happen? More to the point, why did that happen?

Conservatives—many of them evangelical Protestants—have been packing the court with Catholics for years. Never mind all that mealy-mouthing during confirmation hearings, the game plan here is obvious. Use the Church’s antipathy towards abortion as a battering ram against Roe v. Wade.

It’s easy to see where this conservative juggernaut is headed:

Every sperm is sacred

Every sperm is great

If a sperm is wasted

God gets quite irate.

Our gametes may be sacred, but once they’ve grown up into nurses, doctors, and grocery clerks, they’re expendable.

This principle was demonstrated yet again on Thursday, November 26th. We may not have an established religion, but we do have a quasi-religious national holiday.

Everyone knows what Thanksgiving is. Obviously it implies that there is someone to be thanked. Who, exactly? Thank Him or Her—or Them?—for what?

NPR reports that the number of Americans traveling a significant distance dropped a whopping four percent from last year. Some of those folks may soon be showing up on lists of the late and lamented.

Georges Feydeau’s sprightly farces, cited earlier, flourished at the turn of the 20th century—about the same time the consumption of absinthe and coca-laced Vin Mariani peaked. No wonder we remember the period as la Belle Époque.

Then along came Gavrilo Princip. The tubercular 19 year-old and his little pistol started what was called, in those days, The Great War. In less than five years it knocked off ten million soldiers; in the process another four million non-combatants somehow got in the way.

That horrific cumulative death toll was doubled, or worse, by the so-called Spanish Influenza. Though limited to ocean liners, rather than jets, the war spread the flu with a vengeance. Not from Spain, but from Camp Funston, Kansas, it covered the world, sparing only Antarctica.

The calendar says that once-Great War ended more than a century ago—though some veterans of more recent vintage will assure you that hardly any war has ever really ended.

If we were to travel half the way back, from now ’til then, we would rediscover a playwright who is perfect for our times: the bleak—yet funny—Samuel Beckett.

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