COVID-19 and the global risk society

By Seil Oh SJ, 14 April 2021
Image: Unsplash


Covid-19 has forced humanity to face a global crisis that seemed unimaginable in our contemporary high-tech globalized world. It has affected schools, churches, sports, markets, and so on, bringing to a halt the ordinary habits and activities of all social organizations in every nation and region of the world. If we were under the illusion that technology and modern science had driven all the spirits out of the forests and controlled every aspect of human society, we were wrong.[1]

They have not yet provided us with a panacea in response to the virus. The pandemic has led our disenchanted world to clearly discover the vulnerable nature of global society.[2] Thus humanity is called to a collective and substantive reflection on today’s risk-based global society, in particular its socio-economic, political, ecological, cultural and spiritual dimensions.

Ulrich Beck, an influential German sociologist, writing about risk and globalization, stressed the need for such reflection, seeing in it the moral remedy to the problems of the “World Risk Society.”[3] In this regard, his insights are in tune with the concerns that Pope Francis expressed in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti (FT), reflecting on global social problems, such as climate change, the ecological crisis, increasingly severe polarization, the exclusion of the poor, threats to democracy and the common good, and so on.[4] The processes of global modernization have imposed a limited vision, which gives importance only to economic growth, promoted by “instrumental rationality” and the sacred myth of the “modern state” under the global ideology of “neoliberal capitalism.” For Beck, by concentrating on competition between individual nations and between nations as a whole, humanity has lost sight of the most important global perspective, namely, that which involves assessing and solving common problems in addition to those of individual nation-states.

At the same time, international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are supposed to be aimed at abolishing poverty in poor nations;  However, the implementation of their decision-making processes “today has been taken over by economics and finance” (FT 12) controlled by the most powerful nations, which, in turn, guided by their own political-economic interests and imposing a single cultural model, are unable to stave off the hidden ploys of those operating in transnational markets. The common good is instrumentalized in the interests of the global economy (cf. FT 12). This being the case, these international organizations are unable to play, except at a minimal level, that beneficial role of “invisible hands” that could remedy the world’s crises. The emergency due to Covid-19 has revealed the insufficiency of the laissez-faire paradigm, which promotes unrestricted global markets.

In Laudato Si’ (LS), Pope Francis showed us how we should move forward in the process of ecological conversion. As the spiritual leader of the Church, he thoroughly addressed current and future global problems and drew from them indications of the direction we should take for the good of our common home, that of humanity. In Fratelli Tutti, he has emphasized fraternity and social friendship. In keeping with the pope’s concerns, this article seeks to shed light on the global socio-cultural and political-economic landscape and, above all, to offer some spiritual reflections on world society at risk.

Public regulation versus individual freedom

We can observe first of all, regarding the growing pandemic, great tensions and clashes between the rules imposed by governments and individual freedoms. Paradoxically, in Western nations there are people who demonstrate against governments and claim the right not to use masks in public spaces, although medical science has shown that wearing them is the most effective method of protection against virus infection. Meanwhile, underdeveloped nations treat those who violate hygiene or quarantine regulations harshly and inhumanely. For example, soldiers threaten to shoot violators, or lock them up in a cage. It is in this perilous context that we must develop our reflective capacity to properly address and assess what should be the priorities at this point in the global crisis.

As it continues over a long period of time, the pandemic damages the usual sources on which our livelihoods and economic activities are based. Moreover, we do not even know when we will be able to overcome it and whether we can return to the life we led before Covid-19 emerged.

Political-economic polarization threatens the common good

When uncertainty increases in a crisis, people tend to place their trust in political ideologies, understood as a collective representation of their desires and beliefs. As the pandemic has ripped through economic systems at local, national and international levels, livelihoods have been severely damaged. Around the world, the pandemic crisis has accelerated the already prevailing political-economic polarization: in the context of the pandemic, no country has seen positive economic growth. As a result, there have been recurrent episodes of social unrest, motivated by deepening anxieties and concerns.

In social contexts severely disrupted by the effects of the pandemic, some conservative politicians are undermining the common good through brutal and aggressive strategies. In the name of “democratic freedom,” they spread “hate speech,” supported by right-wing extremists and populists, in order to preserve the status quo by increasing vested rights and defending their own interests. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some progressive politicians are attempting to foster structural reform in support of the rights of the marginalized and excluded through a broader distribution of public goods. At this time of economic crisis and political division, how can we address the threat to the common good?

Let us try to examine the markets from a concrete perspective. For example, digital platforms such as Zoom and other web-based applications are making astronomical profits because they provide digital services such as online networks or e-commerce, that is, new solutions for environments where we are forced to maintain distance between people. On the other hand, many of their employees who work in goods delivery or support roles, providing direct and physical services to customers and sick people, face dangerous conditions and are paid a minimum wage.

The place of justice, fairness and the value of human labor must be reestablished.  Marginalized  citizens are forced to work desperately hard to survive. Their work is essential and of enormous importance, so much so that British public health experts call them “key workers” and others call them “essential workers.”[5] Without these “invisible” people, who work, for example as delivery drivers, clerks, waiters and nurses, who do the direct physical contact work, the information technology services could not function fully to meet customer needs and demands. In short, political-economic polarization is pushing all of humanity to confront and re-establish the basics of essential values, recognizing which of them, in a crisis, are more important than others. The urgency of the situation forces us to reflect, to question the assessments we had previously made.

Structural and cultural reflections on the global crisis

The crisis (危機)[6] of our socio-political-economic model challenges us in two different ways: it presents us with a danger and an opportunity. Although it is now customary to call the current situation the “new normal,” emphasizing the impact of the pandemic’s symptoms, it leaves us without analytical explanations regarding the structural and cultural problems associated with the spread of the pandemic itself.

As Pope Francis’ encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti highlight, the crisis caused by the pandemic is not a totally new situation for human society. There have been diseases caused by viruses before, such as Mers, Ebola, Sars, and so on. But none of them affected entire countries   as Covid-19 has. This pandemic has become one of the strongest signs of the “ecological chaos” caused by the spread of contagious viruses originating from wild animals. As humans will not cease to explore and exploit virgin lands, such as the Amazon forests or Antarctica, it will be difficult to escape such diseases.

In our times a “linear development, which privileges economic growth” is sought, supported mainly by neoliberal ideology and based on a structural rearrangement of the international market. Today, the neoliberal structure of economies is facing a global crisis, while nation states are busy protecting their domestic markets. Industrial structures that aim to provide “greater efficiency and wider profit” cannot fully function in the current pandemic scenario. It is clear that transnational groups and companies are finding it difficult to coordinate the production, delivery and consumption of goods beyond their national territories.[7] Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are being undermined by the threat posed by the foreign policies of powerful nations aimed at protecting their domestic markets. For example, diplomatic and economic tensions between China and the United States have escalated over IT, agriculture and industries, involving tariffs and trade bans.

Contemporary lifestyles have demanded and supported such short-sighted national interests and market-driven objectives, under the pretext of so-called “socio-economic development.” We humans have become the most harmful “omnivorous predator” on the planet. We tend to explore and exploit every surviving virgin territory, to make those places resources used exclusively for the profit of a few. Unless we stop exploiting the planet remorselessly, the consequences for creatures in the future will be even greater than it is now. Without a significant change in our way of life, we will not be able to avoid other ecological crises that will lead us to ever greater environmental chaos.

Ecological conversion together with human solidarity

Pope Francis made a call for ecological conversion in the encyclical Laudato Si’, giving it further support in the social encyclical Fratelli Tutti. In summary, in a closed world over which Covid-19 projects a gloomy cloud, the essential factor for all humanity is an ecological conversion, understood as a personal and collective conversion to the love and mercy of the Creator: “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and called them to live together as brothers and sisters” (FT 5).

We report here some writings of the pontiffs that illustrate the characteristics of such an ecological conversion. St. John Paul II, in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (RH), warned that human beings often seem “to perceive no other significance of their natural environment, but only those that serve the purposes of immediate use and consumption” (RH 15). Later, in Centesimus Annus (CA), he pointed out that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology” (CA 38) and then called for an ecological conversion at the General Audience of January 17, 2001.

For Pope Francis, the destruction of the human environment is something very serious, not only because God entrusted the world to human beings, but also because human life is itself a gift that must be protected from various forms of degradation. Any aspiration to heal and improve our world demands a profound change in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power that today govern societies” (LS 5). Therefore, what we all need is an “ecological conversion,” which means allowing the effects of the encounter with Jesus Christ to emerge in our relationships with the world around us. Living our vocation as custodians of God’s work is an essential part of a virtuous existence (cf. LS 217).

As believers, we are called not only to look at the world from the outside (cf. Letter to Diognetu), but also from the inside, recognizing the bonds with which the Father has united us to all beings. By allowing us to develop our individual capacities, ecological conversion can lead us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in order to solve the world’s problems and to offer ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable” (Rom 12:1). We do not interpret our condition as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible domination, but rather as a different capacity, which in turn imposes a serious responsibility arising from our faith (cf. LS 220). “Various convictions of our faith […] help us to enrich the meaning of this conversion. These include the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light” (LS 221).

These remarks from Pope Francis recur in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti about the way the increasingly disturbing global culture has exploited the marginalized during the pandemic: “There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society. It is imperative to have a proactive economic policy directed at ‘promoting an economy that favors productive diversity and business creativity’ and makes it possible for jobs to be created and not cut […] The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom. It has also shown that, in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not subject to the dictates of finance, ‘we must put human dignity back at the center and on that pillar must be built the alternative social structures we need’” (FT 168). “Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those,’ but only ‘us.’ If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing.” (FT 35). In summary, this global crisis caused by Covid-19 urges us to step out of ourselves to meet our neighbors, especially the marginalized, beyond market forces and a dualistic mentality, into the fundamental horizons of the social and ecological organism.

Symbiosis: the social organism in the new horizons

Many scientists are convinced that we will overcome this pandemic with a powerful vaccine. Yet we need to look at the existence of viruses more thoughtfully. According to our scientists, viruses have survived on earth for several billion years, while we humans have lived here for just over two million years.[8] We humans tend to place ourselves at the center of the world, yet we need some antidote to such a poisonous and arrogant anthropocentrism. Symbiosis requires us to live with all creatures of the cosmos: other creatures and other ethnic groups are not objects to be exploited for the benefit of our affluent societies.

How can we properly revive and rebuild the Earth as our home? As a sociologist concerned with morality, Émile Durkheim analyzed the powerful dynamics of solidarity, focusing on the sacred that comes from the unique society to which people belong. Contemporary politics is divided according to the different sides to which “I” do or do not belong, and directs endless incitements of hatred toward the opposing side.

In the postmodern context, such identity politics, embedded in social homogeneity and similar lifestyles, become the sacred site of an intense political war that has no spiritual awareness of self-transcendence. It is true that such social tendencies can expose marginalized voices that would remain stifled in traditional, patriarchal regimes, but identity politics can result in all sorts of brawling partisan factions incapable of dialogue with the other and of self-transcendence, as well as of providing space for reflexive responses.

In sociocultural contexts, self-awareness per se can only serve self-interest; however, self-awareness can also open up a new fusion of horizons through a mutual understanding beyond self-interest, oriented toward the “fullness of life” in a secular age.[9] We need God as the “Totally Other,”[10] whom we cannot possess and appropriate, to open the reflective space of the ultimate meaning of life in symbiosis. Therefore, in dealing with these ecological crises, we should not renounce the holistic, historical and global approach, and not be led by postmodern factions[11] or trapped by totalitarianism.

Outlining a paradigm of the symbiosis-oriented social organism in the post-Covid era opens our eyes and empowers us to look sympathetically at the whole of creation from the perspective of God’s loving and merciful gaze. The early picture of the social organism advocated by social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer lacked a critical and reflective understanding of the hierarchical and unequal connections between the whole and its parts. Contemporary theorists disagree on the hierarchical classification of social organisms. Especially in the post-Covid era, we must develop toward a social organism in which we can keep spirituality and responsibility united.

Ecological Spirituality and Reflective Responsibility

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to find a new way for ecological conversion. In the biblical context, “conversion” means not only metanoia (i.e., change of mind), but also shuvah (i.e., a holistic change, involving mind and body). Moreover, the place of conversion is not limited to the human heart, but encompasses the planet, where human beings interact, together creating or destroying the lives of other creatures. Donald L. Gelpi expanded the areas of conversion, which for Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan included intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion, to include social and communal levels.

Today, the Church and secular leaders are required to face up to their spiritual, institutional and public responsibilities, especially in our post-secular society.[12] In civilized societies, the public sphere is essentially the terrain in which to achieve hegemony; it is a reflection of the signs of the times. The Church, which is at the service of all humanity, has a duty to listen to the various discourses of human societies in the public sphere. On the other hand, her goal goes beyond these secular battles in the public sphere. Therefore, her eschatological vision leads her to deal with historical and public human issues under transcendent perspectives.[13]

Conversion always implies moral and social responsibility. In the biblical context, the forgiveness of sins constantly entails an invitation to loving care or moral responsibility for the marginalized, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:30-37).[14] In our view, from a praxis-oriented perspective, ecological spirituality can involve the following three dimensions of responsibility.[15]

1) “Spiritual responsibility” is required in our direct relationship with God on an individual and community level. We can exercise and develop it only in the context of contemplative prayer and the most sincere encounter with God. Spiritual responsibility captures the profound meaning of secular goods, and indicates the right and healthy relationship we need to have with them, thus helping us to live freer and happier lives. Each person must account for some degree of responsibility as a subject of discernment, and furthermore each of us must take responsibility for some aspect of decision-making in common discernment.

2) “Institutional accountability” is necessary for all institutional matters in the Church and in society. Power is a relevant element in decision-making. Listening to the marginalized of God’s people and being guided by the Spirit is always critical in building a collective consciousness endowed with institutional accountability that strengthens human rights and prevents predatory bullying of those who are weaker. Institutional accountability must devote much time and energy to listening to diverse and discordant voices, seek to restore trustworthy relationships that transcend indifference and antagonism, and strive to find common ground that is more meaningful to all humanity. Thus, institutional accountability is a means of implementing synodality not only in the governing structures of the Church, but also in secular institutions and governments.

3) “Public responsibility” is influenced by the “spirit of the times” (Zeitgeist) and reflects it in the public sphere of human societies, where rational and open-minded communication, as Jürgen Habermas argues, can enrich civil society and democracy and can provide remedies to recurring problems. Similarly, in the contemporary world, where the internet, social networks, artificial intelligence and various other media sources closely connect people and erase geographical distances, higher levels of public accountability are required.

Fundamentally, human responsibility should be enlightened and enriched by God’s mercy, that is, by the way we human beings reflect and follow in the world the Truth, the Way and the Life with the help of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, those who lead the Church should be people of prayer, spiritual and sensitive to the action of the Holy Spirit, whose voice is like a wind (cf. John 3:8) acting on the people of God at the time of the crisis caused by Covid-19; on the other hand, secular leaders should be held accountable for their decisions, as social actors who have and exercise power and authority within businesses or governments.

The Church as a beacon

In historical times of crisis, the Church has played key and “liminal” roles.[16] Two great popes, Gregory and Leo, showed significant leadership at the time of the great plagues in the early Middle Ages. In the dark shadows that are gathering over humanity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we as Church must be aware of our mission to be salt and leaven in the world and we must walk in the joy of the Gospel.

Although attendance at Masses was limited during the acute phase of the pandemic, the Church emphasized the dignity of the marginalized and the importance of our common home. For example, the Korean Catholic Church adopted rules to prevent infection, and all parishes followed those guidelines. At the same time, Korean Catholic authorities have mobilized organizations such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement and Pax Christi, which are active in campaigns on climate change and ecological awakening.

On the dark horizon of today’s world, Pope Francis’ “prayer to the Creator” illuminates the need for us human beings to discern and move forward in the “new normal,” the society facing global risk. Here is that prayer:

Lord, Father of our human family,

you created all human beings equal in dignity:

pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit

and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,

dialogue, justice and peace.

Move us to create healthier societies

and a more dignified world,

a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.

May our hearts be open

to all the peoples and nations of the earth.

May we recognize the goodness and beauty

that you have sown in each of us,

and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects,

and shared dreams. Amen.[17]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 6, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.6

[1].      Max Weber described the “disenchantment of the world” as a process of “rationalization.”

[2].      The vulnerability of human beings provides an opportunity for a social, existential and spiritual journey. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, in Sacro e secolare. Religione e politica nel mondo globalizzato (Bologna, il Mulino, 2007), explain how religiosity finds a place in underdeveloped societies, which have not reached a level of social well-being that fills their condition of vulnerability. However, Robert N. Bellah, in Le abitudini del cuore. Individualismo e impegno nella società complessa (Rome, Armando, 1996), emphasizes how the recognition of the vulnerability of the human condition is an essential premise for human solidarity to exist at the heart of the most advanced nation, the United States. Bryan S. Turner, in Vulnerability and Human Rights (University Park, Pennsylvania University Press, 2006), also affirms that vulnerability is the ultimate imperative for promoting human rights. In Christian spirituality, admitting one’s vulnerability is essential in surrendering to the fullness of life, that is, to self-transcendence by God’s grace.

[3].      Cf. U. Beck, The Risk Society: Towards a new modernity, London, Sage 2000; Id., The World Risk Society, London, John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

[4].      As a sociologist, Beck, in his book Power and Countervailing Power in the Global Age (Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2014), emphasized the role of counterpowers in the global power games that unfold between businesses, nation-states, and civil movements. However, the pope invites all human beings to convert in order to receive God’s mercy. He calls for institutional reform with a view to a better world in which the dignity of every human being and the common good can be fully pursued.

[5].       R. Wilkinson – K. Pickett, L’equilibrio dell’anima. Perché l’uguaglianza ci farebbe vivere meglio, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2019.

[6].      The Chinese character for “crisis” (危機) consists of two words, referring to danger and opportunity, respectively.

[7].      In the economic outlook report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of June 2020, it was predicted that the overall “economic growth rate” would be predominantly negative due to the uncertainties caused by the pandemic. These contraction rates were forecast: USA (-7.3 percent), UK (-11.5 percent), Italy (-12.4 percent) and Spain (-18.5 percent). South Korea posted -0.8 percent – the least negative rate – due to its effective control of the pandemic (see

[8] .     Cf. E. Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, New York, Harper Collins, 2016.

[9] .     Cf. C. Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007.

[10].    Judith Butler, in Critique of Ethical Violence, following Emmanuel Lévinas, states that “Other” signifies a symbol of unlimited ethical relations, while “other” signifies other human beings. However, we propose God as the merciful Father and the ultimate foundation of human transcendence as “Totally Other,” where the Immanent can truly intersect the Transcendent in the joy of the Gospel.

[11].    Postmodern factions are closely linked to “‘deconstructionism,’ whereby human freedom claims to build everything from zero.” As a result, “there is a growing loss of the sense of history” (FT 13).

[12].    Cf. J. Habermas, “Secularism’s Crisis of Faith. Notes on Post-Secular Society”, in New Perspectives Quarterly 25 (2007/4) 17-29.

[13].    Cf. S. Oh, “The Crisis of Korean Catholic Church in the Post-Secular Society: In the Light of the Legitimacy Crisis”, in Catholic Theology and Thoughts, vol. 76, December 2015, 83-117.

[14].    Love, rooted in the heart of all human beings as imago Dei, can overcome any particularistic identity politics: “Love does not care whether the wounded brother or sister comes from one place or another. For ‘love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home… Love exudes compassion and dignity’” (FT 62).

[15].    These three dimensions are further described in S. Oh, “Tasks for the Catholic Church in Korea on the Path of Pope Francis”, in Catholic Theology and Thoughts, vol. 81, July 2018, 235-269.

[16].    The term “liminal” is derived from limen (“threshold”). Victor Turner’s liminality, originally explored by French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, explains the meaning of a transitional communitas “on the way.”

[17].    This prayer was composed by Pope Francis and concludes his encyclical Fratelli Tutti.


With thanks to Seil Oh SJ and La Civilta Cattolica where this article first appeared.


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