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DiLeo, Ph.D., is assistant professor and director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program at Creighton University. Kelly, Ph.D., is professor of theology and director of the Office of Academic Service-Learning at Creighton. The views expressed are theirs and do not necessarily represent those of their institution.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has made national headlines by threatening to withhold shares of our state’s nearly $1 billion CARES Act coronavirus relief funding from counties that require masks in county offices. As Catholic theologians in Nebraska, we write to communicate this approach threatens the common good for which the governor is responsible and breaches the Catholic tradition with which he identifies. We urge Gov. Ricketts to reverse his position and encourage other constituents to convey this message.

The Catholic Church teaches that persons possess intrinsic dignity as made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). Relatedly, the Church asserts that persons have inviolable rights understood as claims on everything needed to protect human dignity. The Church also stresses that some rights are more basic to dignity and take priority amidst direct conflict: rights to life and health take priority over the right to freedom of attire. Additionally, the Church teaches that each person is innately social, since God in whose image all are made is love (1 John 4:8) and calls persons to love one another as God loves us (John 13:34). Therefore, the Church emphasizes that persons have essential duties to enact love by promoting and respecting the rights of others.

Since persons are both sacred and social, the Church stresses that individual dignity is bound up with the common good of all. Relatedly, the Church stresses that rights and duties are inexorably connected and denounces assertions of rights that reject duties to promote the basic rights of others. This is arguably the current situation with masks. Multiple studies show masks can prevent spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for illness and death. Nevertheless, many Nebraskans refuse to wear masks based on invocations of a right to individual choice. Although this right is not illegitimate, it is also not absolute: One’s right to freedom of attire is surpassed by one’s more basic duty to ensure and not violate the essential rights of others to health and life.

When some persons persistently violate the basic rights of others, the Church calls governments to enact policies that will protect the common good of all. Amidst many Nebraskans’ refusal to wear masks, governments arguably have a responsibility to require their wearing. To date, however, Gov. Ricketts has absolutized the right to individual choice and rejected such a state-level policy. This is paradoxical, since he argues the opposite on abortion and correctly articulates and supports the Church’s position: a woman’s right to individual choice is not absolute but surpassed by her more basic duty to promote and not violate the essential rights to life and health of her fetus, which the government should protect.

Although Gov. Ricketts has refused what the U.S. Catholic bishops call a “consistent ethic of life” framework amidst the coronavirus pandemic, his new threat to withhold desperately needed coronavirus relief from people— teachers, small business owners, farmers — of counties that require masks more deeply threatens the common good for which he is responsible. It is also a more profound rejection of the Church’s vision. It is one thing to not enact a policy; it is altogether another to punish the people of counties in which the local government discerningly enacts a policy to protect essential rights by mandating basic duties.

Saint John XXIII declared that “to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” To build up rather than tear down the common good of Nebraska, we urge Gov. Ricketts to withdraw his threat and avail CARES Act coronavirus relief funding to Nebraska counties that require masks. We also urge other constituents to contact his office and similarly communicate this request.

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