Researching COVID-19, scientists used a human cell line called “HeLa” to isolate and identify how the virus infects human cells. HeLa cells reveal both the possibility of scientific discovery and the deep brokenness of our world. Over the last 70 years, HeLa cells have revolutionized medicine and biotech as a key component in medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to genetic mapping.
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Without her knowledge, cells were taken for experimentation, originating the HeLa cell line. Thus, HeLa cells also expose the deep, systemic, and ongoing racial injustices embedded in American society, including health care.
I begin my moral theology of health care class with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown) by Rebecca Skloot. Through investigation and interviews, Skloot shares Henrietta and her family’s story alongside the path of scientific research on HeLa cells. The narrative illustrates bodies broken as much by segregation and poverty as from disease. My students are always outraged when they realize the biotech industry profits while Lacks’ children and community often struggle to access medically necessary medicine, sometimes medicine developed thanks to their own mother’s cells.
“The fundamental problem,” notes Skloot, “isn’t the money; it’s the notion that the people these tissues come from don’t matter.” With COVID-19, the inequalities and injustices of our health care system converge with wider injustices of racism, classism, and ableism.
As we celebrate our second pandemic Easter, I find myself grasping onto the hope of Easter, a hope that not only promises eternal life but that strengthens us to work for the kingdom of God in the here and now.
Last August during a general audience, Pope Francis implored that “we must keep our gaze firmly fixed on Jesus: in the midst of this pandemic, our eyes on Jesus; and with this faith embrace the hope of the Kingdom of God that Jesus himself brings us.” By keeping our gaze on Jesus, the pope urged, we see that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing and of justice. This invitation to focus on the gaze of Jesus is at once an invitation to see what could be and the dignity of all that is.
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing and justice.
Throughout the pope’s series of catechesis on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holy Father reminded us that “Christian hope, which trusts in the transforming grace of the risen Christ, impels us to work for the healing of our world and the building of a more just and equitable social order.”
Hope, for Christians, is not naïve optimism but rooted in our belief. Reflecting on Thomas Aquinas, Jesuit Father Nicholas Austin explains, “We hope for some good, while hoping in some person, whether ourselves or another.” This dynamic of hope for and hope in comes together at Easter in which our hope for eternal life is ultimately hope in a person—Christ.
Austin continues, “If theological hope aims at eternal beatitude with God, why could there not be an earthly virtue of hope that aims at more proximate goods?” Thus, Austin sees moral hope as a category in addition to theological hope.
Tying the virtue of hope to the universal destination of goods, Pope Francis envisioned moral hope as motivating work for equality, justice, and healing. “When the obsession to possess and dominate excludes millions of persons from having primary goods; when economic and technological inequality are such that the social fabric is torn,” he implored, “we cannot stand by and watch! With our gaze fixed on Jesus . . . we must act all together, in the hope of generating something different and better. Christian hope, rooted in God, is our anchor.”
The gaze of Jesus calls us to have hope.
It has now been a full liturgical year—Lent to Lent, Easter to Easter, amidst a pandemic that prevents us from our normal communal gatherings and worship. Hundreds of thousands have died, and millions struggle under the exacerbating precarity of poverty and injustice. Yet the gaze of Jesus calls us to have hope. We pray, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). May the gaze of Jesus give us hope in eternal life and in the justice and healing of the kingdom of God.
This article also appears in the April 2021issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 4, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Gabriella Clare Marino