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The Caroline Divines and COVID-19

By Christopher D. Jones

COVID-19 poses unique practical and moral challenges, as it affects the respiratory, circulatory, and neurological systems, and causes harm to vulnerable populations and the general public. So far in 2020 it has upended the global economy, changed the practices of the Church, and led to over 260,000 deaths in the United States alone. Currently the numbers of positive cases and deaths are on the rise after leveling off in the summer and fall. And since political polarization has fomented disagreements over mask wearing, social distancing, and the proper role of individuals and governments in addressing the pandemic, we have no bipartisan plan to respond to the virus. Can the Anglican tradition provide moral principles that shape a response to this crisis that moves beyond the current partisan stalemate?

The Caroline Divines are particularly helpful in this matter, as they have an authority recognized by all Anglicans, and their ethic is developed in the context of intense suffering and polarization. Robert Sanderson (1587-1663) and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) write during the course of the tumultuous 17th century, which sees the death of Queen Elizabeth, the English Civil War, and the Restoration of the monarchy. In this period, the Anglican Church is attempting to preserve its identity in response to conflicts. To meet this challenge, the Caroline Divines plot a middle way between the individualism of Puritanism and the legalism of the Roman Catholics of the era. Sanderson and Taylor defend an ethic premised on liberty of conscience, loyalty to the neighbor, and obedience to the law in its various forms: the eternal law in God’s mind, the natural law (our rational understanding of God’s eternal law), biblical laws, and human laws. They do so by synthesizing inductive casuistry, virtue ethics, and spiritual practices, resulting in an ethic that forms people to act rightly in society and promote the common good.

The first piece of this ethic is inductive casuistry, which resolves cases of conscience by reasoning from the particulars of a given situation to identify the general principles that guide moral decision making. Rather than pose questions like “What is the nature of moral freedom?” inductive casuists would ask “What does freedom mean here and now in light of COVID-19?” To answer this kind of question, Sanderson and Taylor look at the characteristics of a particular moral situation, then consult Scripture and the Christian tradition for guidance, and finally use prudential reasoning to bring the biblical and historical insights to bear on one’s conduct. This procedure reflects the Anglican emphasis on Scripture, tradition, and reason.

Inductive casuistry works by forming the conscience. Sanderson and Taylor see conscience as an internal sense of right and wrong that determines how one should act in concrete situations. Sanderson defines conscience as the “Habit of the Practical Understanding, which enables the Mind of [a person], by the use of Reason and Argument, to apply the light which it has to particular Moral Actions.”[1] In other words, conscience decides which moral principles should be followed in a particular case, and determines whether one has acted rightly or wrongly in light of those principles. Thus, conscience is not just a “gut feeling” about ethical matters, but a rational awareness of moral principles like Jesus’ commands to love God and neighbor. Taylor discusses conscience in relation to concrete moral problems that arise in daily life. Perhaps most relevant to the current situation, he gives extensive guidance on dealing with illness and preparing for death.[2] In these respects, the Caroline Divines prioritize practical matters over abstract theory.

The virtues and spiritual practices are critical pieces of the Caroline Divines’ middle way between individualism and legalism. Virtues are defined as the mean between vicious extremes. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage shape the conscience to follow the example of Jesus. These virtues are developed through spiritual practices like prayer, fasting, and service that mold the conscience and direct the person to maturity in Christ. Hence, a conscience formed in these ways has true freedom to discern the good alongside the demands of loyalty to the neighbor and obligations to the law.

This ethic is relevant to the COVID-19 crisis for several reasons. First, in a pandemic, practical guidance is needed more than discourses on moral theory. Next, inductive casuistry is useful when dealing with a new problem that conscience struggles to solve. Furthermore, the Caroline Divines provide guidance on acting in concrete cases and consoling for the sick, dying, and mourning. Finally, this ethic moves past partisan stalemates by consulting Scripture and sources in the Christian tradition that invite conversations across political and religious divides. In these respects, this ethic fits our situation.

So how can it be put into practice? The Caroline Divines model a seven-step method that is appropriate for dealing with COVID-19. First, commit to forming your conscience. Studying the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer yields moral values and insights. “What do these sources say about protecting and promoting health and economic activity? Which gets priority, and why? What does it mean to resist evil, serve Christ, and respect the dignity of every human being in the midst of COVID-19?” Prayer, fasting, and service mold the conscience so that one can answer these questions prudently.

Second, learn all you can about the spread of the virus from reputable sources like the CDC. It is appropriate to ask “What is the current number of confirmed cases in my area? What is the likelihood of coming into contact with an infected person if I venture out of the house? What does the medical community recommend? And what does the law require of me?” It is also necessary to ask, “Do I have any symptoms of the virus, such as temperature, cough, or shortness of breath?” Their presence indicates one should stay home to avoid possibly infecting others.

Third, determine what analogies can be made with our current situation and cases in the past. “Is COVID-19 like the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919?” If so, refraining from public meetings, closing economies, and abstaining from the Eucharist are applicable to our situation. “Is the economic impact of COVID-19 like the Great Depression or the Great Recession?” One’s answer determines whether individual initiatives and/or expansive state ventures are needed to stimulate the economy. Other analogies can be drawn with respect to each person’s particular circumstances.

Fourth, gather pertinent moral principles and reflect on them. The Caroline Divines emphasize God’s love, human dignity, the love commands, the virtues, liberty of conscience, loyalty to others, and obedience to the law. It is proper to ask “How can acting in light of these principles foster love of God and neighbor in my context?”

Fifth, decide on a plan of action using conscience and the analogies and principles already identified. When determining a plan, it is advisable to make a list of potential choices and possible outcomes, and then consider which option is most likely to advance flourishing for all people — especially the vulnerable.

Sixth, test the conscience to ensure that a prudent and just decision has been made. After settling on plan of action, it is best to reflect for a period before acting. This increases the likelihood that one will become aware of the risks inherent in the proposed action, and who might be adversely affected. This shows loyalty to others and obedience to the law.

Finally, after completing the action, it is important to evaluate the outcome(s). “Did my choice promote flourishing? Or did it harm myself and others? Did I put vulnerable people at risk?” Answering these questions forms the conscience to act prudently in the future.

In these seven ways, the ethical guidance of the Caroline Divines can be applied in our present cultural circumstances. Although this does not yield a concrete program or set of policies, it allows persons and communities to discern appropriate action in light of liberty of conscience, loyalty to the neighbor, and obedience to the law. In these ways, forming the conscience and searching for moral principles from Scripture and the tradition can help to break partisan stalemates concerning proper behavior in this season of COVID-19.

The Rev. Christopher D. Jones, PhD is assistant professor of theology at Barry University.

[1] Robert Sanderson, Bishop Sanderson’s Lectures on Conscience and Human Law, ed. Christopher Wordsworth (London, Rivingtons, 1877), 2.

[2] Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Dying: With Prayers Containing the Whole Duty of a Christian (London: George Bell & Sons, 1883).


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