What Role Has Prayer Played in Driving Down COVID-19 Deaths?

Back in April, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York excluded the possibility that God had anything to do with the dropping numbers of COVID-19 in New York State (emphasis mine):

During a press conference on April 13, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo contended that God has nothing to do with the notable decrease in COVID-19 cases across the state.

“The number is down because we brought the number down,” he told reporters. “God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that.”

“A lot of pain and suffering did that,” Cuomo, a professing Catholic, continued. “That’s how it works. It’s math.”

… In recent days, the number of hospitalizations and fatalities from the virus have decreased significantly, suggesting that New York City has crested “the curve” and is now on the downhill path to recovery.

Cuomo credits the slowing of the spread to “our actions,” … “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus,” he said. “God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.” [*]

The Governor, of course, does not consider the possibility that there is an intermediate view: that human decisions may have interacted with or have been aided by God’s grace. His protestations seem to show irritation with the notion that God could have anything at all to do with the results or with assisting our actions. “Nothing” is a strong and absolute word. In using it, he demonstrates the fierce secularism of our age, which seeks to exclude God/faith from any role or participation in public conversations or during times of crisis. This secularism bespeaks more of fear than it does of a rational, principled position. Why the need to exclude other views or to denounce them in such absolute terms?

Consider another story circulating recently, regarding the strong decline in Italy’s COVID-19 rates, as reported at ChurchPOP:

Recent data for COVID19 in Italy shows [sic] a drop in new daily cases and deaths after Pope Francis prayed for the world during his Urbi et Orbi Eucharistic blessing on March 27.

Italy took extreme measures throughout the past couple of months to prevent the spread of COVID19. The country enforced a two-month lockdown, which suspended public Masses, closed schools, restaurants, shops, etc. …

Along with these measures to slow the spread, Pope Francis prayed for the world in a special Eucharistic blessing in St. Peter’s Square. The live televised prayer and blessing aired on March 27.

Following that date, the rate of new daily deaths and cases dropped in Italy. [**]

ChurchPOP also supplied the following graph from Wikipedia:

What do you think? The graph shows a steady drop the day following Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi Eucharistic Blessing. Is it a coincidence? Is it the result of prayer? Surely the drop was also fostered by human activities such as staying at home, the shuttering of many businesses, and the cessation of certain activities. However, these mitigations were going on before the Pope’s blessing as well.

While we cannot know for certain whether prayer played any role in the drop, as a man of faith I choose to believe that the Pope, along with all of us who prayed, did contribute.I respect that some will reject this outright, but to those I would like address these questions:

    • What are your reasons for rejecting the possibility that God and prayer could have played a role?
    • What is your evidence that it is not possible?
    • Your view is that prayer and God had no impact; mine is that there might well have been. Consider that although I advance the possibility that prayer had an impact, I also point to human activity as critically important. I am also willing to admit the possibilitythat prayer played no role, even if I doubt it. Your view, however, categorically denies that God or prayer could have played a role. Which view do you think is more open-minded and why?
    • Religious people are often accused of being dogmatic, but in this case are you not in fact being dogmatic?

As I pointed out above, Governor Cuomo represents what I term the fierce or militant secularist viewpoint.This perspective does not simply proposesecular, material causes as the complete explanation for events; it does not simply reject religious interpretations of events or religious views on moral issues; it actively opposessuch views and seeks to remove them from any public consideration. Religious and spiritual truths as well as faith-based explanations are to have no place in public discourse. Some with this stance resort to ridicule rather than reasoned debate. Some also seek to erect legal barriers to keep such views contained within the walls of churches, synagogues, and mosques. We religious are not simply wrong or laughable; we are dangerous because our view is that there are limits to human power and freedom. In crediting God, we undermine their agenda and the programs they set forth. For example, if people think that prayer might help, maybe they won’t be as diligent in following the norms set forth by public health officials. In fact, my experience is that believers have overwhelmingly followed the guidelines/directives issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public officials.

The vast majority of believers do not think of prayer as “magic”that absolves us of the responsibility to act on our own and our neighbors’ behalf. St. Augustine once said, “God, who made you without you, will not save you without you.” We are not simpletons. We know that prayer and action go together.

I realize that correlation is not causation, but there is a long chain of anecdotal evidence in human history that collective public prayer can be correlated with the ending of plagues and famines. The graph above may be further evidence. Human experience over centuries and across civilizations confirms the common human sense that prayer and asking God to intervene and send grace helps.

To Governor Cuomo and others like him I ask:Why be so dismissive of prayer and of God’s role in history? What do you have to lose by allowing others to praise God and give Him the glory? The vast majority of us aren’t the snake handlers you seem to think we are.

Governor Cuomo, one day you will face God and—like all of us—be judged. I pray for you as I do for myself. I hope that you will then come to know what prayer actually did and what a danger it is to fail to pray and give to God the glory.

10 Replies to “What Role Has Prayer Played in Driving Down COVID-19 Deaths?”

  1. Msgr. thank you for your thoughts. Though, I appreciate your sincerity, you have made some significant errors in thought. One being that you are confusing correlation with causation. The second error you made was to shift the burden of proof from your argument. You made a claim, that you believe the Pope’s blessing contributed to the decrease in cases, then asked how do you know that it did not? The person making the claim has the burden of proof. You are suggesting a flawed epistemology. That being said, thank you for your thoughts.

    1. I wonder, if perhaps you did not read the article fully? I make the very point that correlation is not causation in the article. As for burden of proof it is a common tactic to place this on only one side. Governor C. and other militant secularists also make a claim that prayer and God had nothing to do with the reduction. They too must supply “proof” for that claim. As for my burden of proof I supply evidence from history and numbers BUT, I am not making an absolute claim and am will to accept the POSSIBILITY that God and prayer had little or nothing to do with the reduction, only human agency. The word “proof” itself is problematic. St. Thomas Aquinas for example did use the proof, but rather presented arguments for his position. Proving things in the modern sense of the word is a steep hill. I prefer to advance arguments and evidence and remind you that I am not trying to prove prayer and faith were causal since I do not make an absolute claim to this effect. So I think your critique of “flawed epistemology” (don’t you really mean logic since epistemology is the study of knowledge?)in my pondering here needs some adjusting and less of an severe critique.

      1. Thank you for your reply. You are correct, I did miss that you wrote later on about correlation not being a cause, I apologize for that. I also agree that the Governor would also have a burden of proof to claim that God had nothing to do with it. I think as It stands both of you have a burden of proof and I do not think either of you have met the burden to justify the belief. I also apologize for my messy language and if my criticism came off as too strong. You seem to be correct that I misspoke in my use of epistemology for logic. I appreciate the correction.

        I also think that anecdotal evidence of the power of prayer is not particularly impressive. I have generally been disappointed in any systematic attempt to demonstrate an effect of prayer beyond chance. I have also been disappointed by my anecdotal experiences of prayer. That has been a disappointment to me as I have grown up. I would be happy to consider other evidence as it comes. Thank you for your thoughts and thoughtful response. I appreciate your passion for trying to do what is right for others, especially the poor.

  2. Excellent presentation of the problem with secularists, Msgr. – I also appreciate your rebuttal of the criticism your article received. If I may, the criticism sounds like more of the “absolutism” that secularism has been pushing so hard for in the last decade-plus. Thank you for your summary. I agree that the blessing from the Pope is a significant – and more than just a – coincidence. I too would choose to believe it to be causal as well. What a shame that someone like Governor C. would be so insistent on rejecting the possibility. My first response to that was that this kind of arrogance is spiritually dangerous. My prayers go out to him and all those who refuse to acknowledge a sovereign God over their own efforts.

  3. The problem is that many people think of prayer as a magical incantation. An incantation is an attempt to somehow “force” spiritual powers to do what one wants; prayer is not like that, because true prayer always contains at least an implicit “Thy will be done” or “not my will but Thine be done”. Nor are we telling God something He does not know, nor is God any less merciful if we say “Lord have mercy” less often. I suspect most prayer does not often change what happens, but rather how we receive it; we prepare ourselves to receive God’s will as a blessing, trusting that He knows more than we do and loves us better than we love ourselves.

    And yet, suppose my mother is sick. If she makes an astonishing recovery without me praying for her, I am much less likely to see the hand of God in her recovery and to respond with gratitude and love, but if I have been praying for her, there may be a spiritual blessing in addition to the physical blessing. I suspect many blessings are withheld because, without the correct disposition, they would be not only useless to us spiritually, but actually harmful.

  4. Msgr thank you for your words. They are right on the mark and I’m in full agreement.

    Unfortunately, they will fall on deaf ears.

    Cuomo doesn’t listen to the people in his own state, especially on the Western New York side where I live. His remarks are not surprising given he’s signed legistlation over the will of the people allowing for the murder of babies from conception through and including after birth. Further he forced nursing homes to take in Covid patients thereby increasing the number of deaths (at least 5000 deaths because of his actions of possible manslaughter).

    I know prayer is needed…but I am afraid this godless man needs to be taught a lesson by the Almighty. May Our Lady of Fatima pray for us.

  5. Thank you, Monsignor, for your wise words. Prayer is an act of humility, that shows God we depend on Him for our needs, not just on ourselves. And yes, I believe prayer DOES affect what happens, as I have witnessed this so many times in my life. Yes, God knows what we need in advance, but it pleases Him to have his children ask in prayer, because that acknowledges our dependency on Him. If prayer had no effect, why would Jesus teach his followers the Lord’s Prayer, and tell them to “pray without ceasing?”

  6. “While we cannot know for certain whether prayer played any role in the drop, as a man of faith I choose to believe that the Pope, along with all of us who prayed, did contribute.” Of course, nothing in the Faith requires you to believe that a Pope’s prayers are necessarily and automatically given more weight by God than all other prayers. It is told to us, with particular emphasis, that God will hear the cry of the widow and the orphan; we are not told that He hears kings or presidents — or Popes. No doubt He does, but He is not impressed by prestige the way we are. When the Pope is only one of hundreds of millions of people praying for the same thing, some of whom (it can scarcely be denied) are great saints who will not be known before the Last Judgement, who can say whose prayer was more powerful? And yes, I am thinking not only of the pandemic of Covid-19, but also of the pandemic of Communism.

  7. Thank you Msgr. Pope

    The statements of Gov. Cuomo are very confusing to me. Is it not true that the Church teaches that God is the only source of good in the entire universe? If the Gov. thinks this downturn in the virus is a good thing, then why does he not give God credit? Does he not say he is a member of the Catholic Church?

    We all thank you for all of your very clear spiritual guidance over the years. You are a very great help to us.

    1. Cuomo may well be a ‘member’ of the Catholic church – but to be a CHRISTIAN as well, is a rather more serious matter that requires a great deal of commitment and obedience to GOD’S instructions – NOT pandering to the latest whim of whatever popular faction is providing the votes!
      Just because you say you are a Christian, does not necessarily mean that you are a Christian. I think the Pope made that very clear, (if it isn’t already clear enough for everybody!) when he said the same of President Trump, not too many years ago, about building walls instead of bridges!
      I seem to recall at the time that Trump lost no time in delivering the following return salvo: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”
      He perhaps does not read his Bible a great deal, otherwise he would be aware that it is very much the religious leader’s job to point out a person’s error and failures in this respect, however gently but firmly he may do so. Jesus Himself tells us this in Matthew 18:15-17 – and concludes with saying that if the offender won’t even listen to the church itself, he will be treated as an outcast! “By their fruits you shall know them.” – Our Lord in Matthew 7:15-20.
      St Paul says the same thing about ‘brotherly correction’ to just about everyone! – Romans, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Timothy, Titus and many places elsewhere. Now – there’s a small time-filling research challenge – to find the actual verses – for anyone still in lockdown!
      Let’s all of us who SAY we are Christians – (or would like to think we are), examine our very own consciences thoroughly before we stand up and make the sort of sweeping statements that Cuomo – and it seems, Trump – (all of us, as well!) – make on a regular basis.
      Just because you happen to be ‘pro-life’ does not make you a ‘Christian’ either! However, I would venture to suggest that, if you favour the so-called ‘right’ to abortion and legislate for it – then you most certainly are not!!
      In the very best brotherly sense and in all humility, I beg Mr Cuomo to stop in his tracks and think very carefully about himself and his relationship with God, the next time he finds himself standing in the line going to communion. Perhaps he (perhaps we ALL) might have to come to the conclusion that we should first “. . leave our offering at the altar and go and be reconciled . . ” (Matt. 5:24)
      God bless all – stay safe.

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