The man known as the ‘Pope whisperer’ has called on the faithful to activate Catholic “antibodies” against populist exploitations of the coronavirus scare.

– Coronavirus, “symptom (and symbol) of fear

Father Antonio Spadaro SJ, one of Pope Francis’ closest advisors and editor of the semi-official Vatican journal La Civiltà Cattolica, observed in that publication March 2 that “the coronavirus COVID-19 is spreading around the world, generating a syndrome of universal contagion”.

“The pandemic in these cases always ends up being one marked by insecurity and anxiety”, the Jesuit observed, adding that “the coronavirus seems to have also become today a symptom (and a symbol) of a more general condition of fear that we carry within us”.

Recalling that according to a recent poll 72% of Italians fear that their children will not have a decent standard of living, and 58% fear that they will not be able to raise a family, Spadaro lamented: “ear of the future: this is today the virus of the soul”.

Fear withers. The first effect of being infected by the virus of fear is the arid soul, in a state of desolation. The first task of a Catholic is, first and foremost, the fight against drying up and withering“.

– “Fear at the personal level, fear at the political level”

Spadaro affirmed that the same fear driving the coronavirus panic “is taking root in our societies and assumes various forms: a narrow, security-driven outlook that diminishes our rights, our freedom and the rule of law; sovereignty understood as the opposite of a foreign policy based on multilateralism and Europe; hostility toward integration; the political manipulation of Christianity reduced to ‘civil religion'”.

The logic of fear “applies at the personal level; it applies at the political level”, the Jesuit asserted.

“A specific viral form of “fear” is nationalism, which reduces the idea of ‘nation’ to a filtered bubble”, Spadaro went on.

He recalled that Pope Pius XI in 1938 already declared that “Catholic means universal, not racist, not nationalistic, not separatist. Such ideologies are not Christian, but they end up not even being human”.

“The Catholic vision is universal and places the person and peoples at the center, recognizing the other, the outsider and the different as a brother or sister”, the Jesuit explained, adding that in times of coronavirus it’s more important than ever to defend the true Catholic understanding of nationalism.

– Towards “a pastoral response of the Church to the viruses of our democracy”

“But how to organize Catholic forces within public life” to fight the coronavirus frenzy?, Spadaro went to ask, recalling that even though Pope Francis counsels that the lay person is to be “immersed in the heart of social, public and political life”, the Church cannot nonetheless “give general directives in order to organize the People of God” in the public square.

Between the two extremes of disconnecting faith from political responsibility, and of allowing faith to be instrumentalized for political consensus, Spadaro suggested a third way “in a context such as our crisis of governance and representation”: that of “synodality”.

“Certainly that synodal dynamic is less governable a priori, because it puts at the center the assembly of real people who participate and represent the Church”, the Jesuit acknowledged.

“But this is, in our opinion, the way to activate the antibodies proper to Catholicism, finding a pastoral response of the Church to the viruses of our democracy”.

– Populists using coronavirus as excuse to up migrant controls

In any case, Spadaro’s warning that the Church must find a better response to the twin epidemics of coronavirus and fear is especially timely, given that European populists are already making the most of the COVID-19 scare to up their anti-migrant rhetoric.

“Uncontrolled flows of scientifically unfounded or completely false claims, irresponsible statements by politicians, incomprehensible measures by local authorities and obsessive information on the coronavirus have given rise to a shameful wave of sinophobia in our country”, Gianni Ruffini, general director of Amnesty International Italia, declared March 4.

That was in response to far-right populist leader Matteo Salvini’s repeated attempts to use the coronavirus outbreak as as a political argument to call for the closure of Italy’s borders.

The situation is similar in Greece, where Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week intensified border controls to “maximum deterrent” levels in an attempt to stop migrants from entering the EU, regardless of whether or not they’re actually infected with COVID-19.

“Migration is now taking on a new dimension, as flows to Greece include people from Iran- where we have had many cases of Coronavirus- and many passing through Afghanistan”, Mitsotakis explained.

“Our islands, therefore, already burdened with public health issues, need to be protected twice”.

Catholic leaders from Italy to France have been denouncing the “alarmism” over COVID-19, but as the stakes are raised – and the outbreak becomes an excuse for blatant xenophobia – it’s up to the Church to take a stronger stand.

Novena’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis:

French bishop deplores coronavirus fearmongering: “It seems we’ve all lost our minds!”

Risk prevention or capitulation to fear? Italian Church group head criticises coronavirus Mass cancellations

Coronavirus fears claim March, May Pope education and economy events though Francis reportedly tests negative

Italian cardinal dismisses conspiracy theory that coronavirus is “divine punishment”

Coronavirus forces postponement of first ‘ecumenical Mass’ in Geneva cathedral in 500 years

Coronavirus: Italian bishops say Ash Wednesday cancellations a reminder of human “fragility”, but also “occasion for grace”

General Audience 26/2: Pope prays for coronavirus victims, Iraq, Air Italy employees under threat of mass layoffs – full text

Milan archbishop criticises “alarmism” over coronavirus, apathy for victims in poorer countries; Vatican also takes preventative measures

24/2: Coronavirus: Italian Church cancels Masses, Ash Wednesday services as over 200 infected and five dead


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.