Empathy – an ethical attitude at the time of Covid-19


(from the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

(Part II)

By Mario Boies, C.S.R., M.Ps. [1]

Through this reflection, my objective is to present some psycho-ethical and spiritual aspects of empathy, to react in a serene, responsible, supportive and resilient way in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the first part of this Blog, in the light of the research of psychologist Martin Hoffman, we have exposed four psycho-ethical dimensions of empathy: cognitive, affective, motivational and prosocial. We have demonstrated how, in the current context of Covid-19, each of these components can foster the development of moral judgment and ethical conduct at the personal, interpersonal, social, and global levels.

  1. The spiritual dimension of empathy

However, in addition to Hoffman’s psychological vision, there is a fifth dimension to empathy that is of paramount ethical importance: the spiritual dimension. In the Christian tradition, empathy is an attitude that promotes the living out of evangelical charity and love of neighbor, as the American Jesuit moral theologian Charles M. Shelton rightly points out:

– Empathy is the human foundation from which Christian moral conduct emerges;

– it is the impulse and the inner drive to live the great evangelical commandment of love-charity;

– it has inspired and marked the life, experience, and preaching of Jesus;

– finally, it is an essential dimension for the proper functioning of the moral conscience [2].

Empathetic evangelical charity taught by Jesus himself through his incarnation, his attitude, his gestures, and his words.

– In fact, Christ empathically accepted, from God that he was, to embrace our human condition by being in solidarity with the sufferings associated with our human frailty (Phil 2:7; Eb 4:15; Eb 5:2) [3].

– In the Gospels it is possible to recognize this empathy of Jesus, filled with compassion and concern for people and crowds to alleviate their suffering [4];

or in his teachings: for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), or the parable of the merciful Father (Lk 15:11-32) [5].

This is why, amid this pandemic of Corvid-19, Jesus Christ is close to us, he is with us. For, as Pope Francis reminded us in his Ubi et Orbi blessing of 27 March last in St. Peter’s Square, the Lord “holds us dear” […] and “does not leave us at the mercy of the storm” [6].

Jesus makes himself empathetic and compassionate in the face of our grief, our illnesses, our sufferings, our anguish because in his incarnation he lived our human condition and suffered as each one of us did to bring us Redemption.

5. Conclusion: Altogether, in solidarity and empathy.

In the light of these considerations, it is possible to conclude that in this Covid-19 era, the integration of the psychological (cognitive, affective, motivational, prosocial) and spiritual dimensions of empathy, can foster in each of us a path of the gradual growth of our moral judgments, with a view to interiorizing and adopting ethical conduct inspired by evangelical charity and the values of respect for life and the dignity of persons, co-responsibility, solidarity, compassion, mutual aid, and resilience, to halt the spread of Covid-19.

It is possible that in the face of this scourge we may feel helpless and vulnerable, as Francis admits: “We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples of the Gospel, we have been caught off guard by an unexpected and furious storm. We realize that we are all in the same boat, all fragile and disoriented […]”[7].

Nevertheless, the Pontiff continues to open the way to empathy as a fundamental proactive attitude to adopt to overcome this calamity together: “[…] but at the same time (we are) all important and necessary, all called to row together, all needing to comfort one another”[8].

In this sense, the Pope’s words, which invite us to take ethical actions in solidarity that bring hope, are powerful:

We realize that we cannot go forward alone, each one of us, but only together. …] “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people show patience every day and instill hope, taking care not to create panic but co-responsibility!

This trial also allows us to become aware of our need for spiritual transcendence in the face of human frailty and death. Amid this suffering, Jesus, whose words and actions constitute the foundations of Christian ethics (cf. VS, 19-20 [9]), walks with us, assisting us with his Hope and the strength of his Spirit. And as Pope Francis invites us to do:

Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us entrust our fears to Him, so that He may overcome them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with Him on board we do not become shipwrecked. For this is the power of God: to direct everything that happens to us, even the sad things, towards good. He brings serenity in our storms, for with God life never dies [10].

This assurance of Jesus’ empathic presence allows us to believe that we are living a passion, certainly, but that it will lead us to unsuspected ways of life, to ways of resurrection, to ways of salvation.


[1] Visiting Professor of empirical anthropology at the Alphonsian Academy of Rome. of Rome © All rights and contents of this article, in whole or in part, are reserved to the author.

[2] Cf. C. M. SHELTON, Morality of the heart: a psychology for the Christian moral life, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York 20053, 98-116.

[3] M. BOIES, Psychologie et morale, 496.

[4] Cf. A. GRÜN, Jésus thérapeute: la force libératrice des paraboles, Salvator, Paris 2011, 109-120. For example: the healing of Simon’s sister-in-law (Mk 1:29-31); the healing of the man with the paralyzed hand (Mk 3:1-6); the healing of the crippled woman (Lk 13:10-17); Jesus who felt compassion for the widow of Nain whose son had died (Lk 7:13); Jesus who felt compassion for the crowd (Mk 8:2; Mt 9:36), etc.

[5] Cf. M. BOIES, Psychologie et morale, 497-499.

[6] FRANCIS, “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer in Times of Epidemic (27.03.2020)”, 2020, in http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/fr/homilies/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200327_omelia-epidemia.html, [Accesso: 28.03.2020 on the Website of the Holy See].

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[8] JOHN PAUL II, Veritatis Splendor [= VS], Encyclical Letter on Some Fundamental Questions of the Moral Teaching of the Church (4.08.1993), in AAS 85 (1993), 1133-1225.

[10] FRANCIS, “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer in Times of Epidemic”.


Source: text&photo – http://www.alfonsiana.org; the original text is in French.