With the spread of the coronavirus to every corner of the world, humanity finds itself engaged in efforts to protect itself from contagion. Most countries have opted for a total or partial shutdown of nonessential activities and commerce, in an effort to slow down the number of the afflicted. Only a few nations have opted to remain essentially open and have curtailed very few of the existing activities.
The Catholic Church, like every other institution, business, and government entity, has been pressed to rapidly make decisions on how to handle the situation. Similar to the secular order, most bishops opted for a near to complete shutdown of public Masses. On the availability of other sacraments, the ecclesiastical measures vary diocese to diocese and country to country.
Is this the best course of action? Perhaps we should start by observing distinctions and making an effort to keep much-needed balance. I argue that the measures to be taken are clearly within the realm of prudence, where absolute certainty of the best course of action cannot be claimed in a definitive dogmatic manner. Furthermore, the crisis does not affect all nations equally. Therefore, legitimate debate is healthy as no one is absolutely sure how to operate.
This being said, many countries that started with a lax attitude toward strict government measures to contain the pandemic, or put forward the idea of allowing the virus to run its course, have quickly retreated from that position. Those who started late and did not take it seriously in the beginning, have been quite publicly readjusting. There is also evidence that policies promoting social isolation and the shutdown of most nonessential activities, are yielding results.
It goes without saying that no serious priest finds the unavailability of Holy Communion for the faithful to be a trivial matter. Clearly, Catholics are suffering in this regard. But it is rash judgment to attribute these measures in the Church to a general apostasy or subservience to the state or a lack of courage and faith of the priests who, until now, have offered Mass daily to the faithful. Some are even attributing this temporary suspension of public attendance at Mass to a takeover of the Church by a one world government conspiracy. I submit that the critics having better arguments for a different approach, should stay clear from what is quite implausible and in my view false alarmism.
Notorious in this regard have been Bishop Athanasius Schneider (Auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan) and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (Former Nuncio to the United States). Even more extreme has been Archbishop Jan Lenga (former bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan). They attribute the temporary shutdown of the Mass to all manner of nefarious causes.
Archbishop Vigano claims that the hierarchy and the tens of thousands of priests that agree that Holy Communion cannot be at present distributed safely to the faithful “...have behaved like cold bureaucrats, like executors of the will of the Prince, and most of the faithful have taken their actions as a sign of lack of Faith.” He further claims the alleged capitulation is an effort “... to pacify the power of the state.”
Archbishop Vigano returns often in his protestations to the theme of a “grand masonic plan for one world religion with no dogmas, no ceremonies, no God.” But why stop there? Vigano pushes on, asserting that “these measures, along with the ban on public Masses and the suspension of Holy Communion, go against the law of God, and are proof that behind it all is Satan. Only the Evil Serpent can explain these measures....”
Bishop Athanasius is not left far behind.
“Thus,” he writes, “the entire human race becomes a kind of prisoner of a world ‘sanitary dictatorship,’ which for its part also reveals itself as a political dictatorship.”
Like Archbishop Vigano, he pushes his unproven logic to a crazy finale: “...such a drastic measure of strict prohibition of all forms of public worship was unimaginable even during the Third Reich...the current situation of the prohibition of public worship in Rome brings the Church back to the time of an analogous prohibition issued by pagan Roman emperors in the first centuries.”
Not be outdone, Archbishop Lenga challenges the Pope, telling Polish television: “Pope Francis is hiding away in his palace....Why don’t you come out to the people?” Bishop Lenga has previously called Pope Francis a “heretic” and a “usurper” and refuses to include the name of Pope Francis in the Mass, as is required. So his disappointment with Pope Francis is an ongoing saga.
There a few other unhinged bishops out there, but these are the most vocal.
This irrational agitating of the faithful seems morally suspect. Instead of making a reasonable, prudential argument for a different strategy that might help, these bishops go off the rails in a very public manner. And it is historical fact that current measures have been adopted during other pandemics by the Church. Public attendance at the Mass was suspended during the 1918 influenza pandemic and at other times when Europe was afflicted by the plague.
Bishop Athanasius and company are fond of pointing to St. Charles Borromeo Archbishop of Milan (1564-1584) and his bringing of communion to the sick and the dying during the plague of 1576-1577. They foist this upon us, as the profile in courage that we are allegedly too scared to follow. But the they fail to mention the key point: during that plague, the saint also ordered the churches in Milan to be closed. As father Joseph White OP writes, “In fact, there is clear evidence that in medieval and modern Europe, as well as in the U.S., this form of response on the part of the Church is a very traditional and time-tested one.”
I also do not feel afraid to defend the Church or the Eucharist against the state or anyone else. I do not believe I am in any danger of committing apostasy or betraying Our Lord, or bowing to a “totalitarian state.”
Indeed, after this is over, I predict there will be no general apostasy of the priests. They will go back to serving the faithful joyfully and doing what they can to return to normality.
I am an American priest of the Moscow diocese and am therefore, by profession and education, quite familiar with the persecution of the faith in communist countries and the hatred for religion and moral dissent in Nazi Germany. I have received on many occasions first-hand accounts of the persecution both in Germany and Russia. I have spoken for hours with priests and bishops who survived a real persecution of the faith.
I also have spoken directly to people involved in the resistance against Hitler and I say to Bishop Athanasius that it is offensive and absurd to compare our current situation to totalitarianism.
It is senseless to argue that our current predicament vis-a-vis religious freedom is worse at present than that under the Nazi regime or that we are back to the Roman persecutions, the ones that were killing Christians and martyrs for not worshiping pagan gods. Is Athanasius seriously comparing this temporary hiatus in attending Holy Mass to the times when Christianity was illegal and Christians were being thrown to the lions? Or to the Nazi totalitarian regime, which sent the faithful, priests, and millions of Jews to be murdered in prison camps? Nazi Germany and the Roman persecutions are the definition of having no religious freedom.
Please note that this is not a question simply of whether some churches remained open or not. Stalin, himself, kept some churches open. Athanasius is very well aware of the nature of Soviet persecution of the church, including the need for clandestine Masses. He knows well that this pause is not those dark times. It is highly irresponsible for him and Vigano and the rest to be agitating so carelessly.
In Russia during communism, five-year plans to vanquish religion were put into motion. Churches were turned into museums of atheism, desecrated, and in some cases simply blown up. Hundreds of thousands of priests, religious, and the faithful were executed, sent to prison camps, or stripped of virtually every right. The Western bishops today agitating over this matter have not even seen the inside of a jail in their defense of the faith. All this talk of persecution and enslavement rings hollow. The Slovak bishops who are no wilting lilies and saw real persecution, described all this as “cheap heroism.”
The Right of Association
This temporary suspension of attendance at the Holy Mass is not an attempt to subvert our religious freedom. This temporary shutdown has little to do with Catholicism per se. The right that is being limited is not religious freedom, but the right of association.
The right of association has been limited temporarily by Church and state, in an effort to slow down the pandemic. It happens to be the case that we want to associate in a church, so it hits us in our desire to worship, indirectly. But the reason for the suspension is not because state, bishops, and priests want to keep the faithful away from the faith. The virus also happens to spread, by association.
This is not some anti-Catholic shutdown; many people who associate for completely secular reasons are also limited in their activities.
It is quite possible, as courageous and heroic pro-lifers know, to be imprisoned for the righteous defense of human life. My friend Mary Wagner and others could render witness to a genuine persecution in the defense of human life. That is real persecution. The persecution of Cardinal Pell is also, as I have argued, hatred of the faith that he represents.
But rest assured and I surely speak for many priests, we are in no way trying to lead you to a general apostasy, nor are we collaborating with the state or the freemasons as some are astonishingly claiming.
Serious priests are rightfully more concerned with the fact that distribution of Holy Communion and close gatherings of the faithful may endanger the people they are trying to serve. Distribution of communion cannot easily be performed during this pandemic within the margins of acceptable risk.
Neither is this a permanent situation and many countries and even some bishops are already open to the faithful or seeking ways to do so safely.
The Common Good
Taking unnecessary risks in this situation also avoids the responsibility for the consequences, as many who chose to ignore social isolation policies have discovered. Your parish will not be providing medical care, or a respirator, if you are a victim of the virus and need them. It will fall to the state and private hospitals to deal with the aftermath of further contamination.
It is clear that the state has a proper voice in the matter, not only because much of this cannot be dealt with through private institutions. But also because the consequences of choosing our own path will be something with which the state will have to deal.
The fact that most dioceses have suspended the public’s attendance at Holy Mass does not mean—as should be obvious—that Masses are not being celebrated. The temporary suspension of public Masses should not make us feel as if the celebration of Mass has disappeared from the face of the earth. Some of the critics repeatedly state that Masses have been abolished, suspended, and the like. In fact, the number of Masses said on a daily basis around the world is probably the same as before, since the priests are saying private Masses. There has not been any suspension of the Mass, only the attendance of the public at Mass.
The Special Dangers of COVID-19
Surely, we all have heard the argument that during the flu that kills tens of thousands of people each year, none of the now-mandated preventative measures have been implemented. I submit this misses the point. The present situation is not really comparable to the flu or influenza virus.
This is not only because the pandemic COVID-19 is perhaps more contagious and would be many times theoretically more lethal if allowed to run rampant through the population. But it is also crucial to understand that the coronavirus is a new virus—therefore the population has no antibodies built up against it. We have no vaccines at present and don’t know if a second deadly wave of the virus will come upon us. Neither are we sure if the virus mutates and to what degree.
But more significantly, shutdown measures and social isolation can prove to be effective principally at the outset of a new deadly virus. This is the key argument, in my view, for emergency measures at this time and what makes the comparison to the flu so wrongheaded. The flu has been with us for centuries, at least known to be so, since the 16th century but arguably from much earlier times.
To shut down and isolate populations and do contact tracing would not be sensible when it comes to the flu. At the outset, you can do contact tracing, sometimes all the way to patient zero and with whom they were in contact in order to prevent or ameliorate the spread of the disease.
We were very late in this regard, as were testing and isolation measures, and yet they still will help. But in the case of the flu and different types of influenza, they have been with us for so long that trying to get to patient zero would be absurd. Where would you even start to do social isolation for the flu? What would be the point? You cannot isolate or properly contain a disease that has been moving within a population for centuries. No one is advocating such measures with the flu because that would not help.
Slowing down a new virus also makes sense in order not to exhaust medical resources, human and material, so that our best care for the sick may be insured.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the current measures, such large claims of persecution are unwarranted and alarmist.
Distinctions in the Sacramental Life
I submit that further distinctions must be made between life or death in the sacramental life. That is to say, baptism, confession, and last rites can be matters of life eternal or its loss. Therefore there is absolute urgency that these never be suspended, even if creative ways that can guarantee the safety of all involved may need to be utilized. Many are doing this, with drive-through confessions while in one’s vehicle, or simply proper distance in outdoor confession.
Yet, proposals for canonically invalid confessions, such as the use of the telephone, Internet, and other such things should not be contemplated.
Now, regarding last rites to the sick, it is absolutely true that the faithful cannot be deprived of the urgent sacramental assistance of which they may be in need. It has to be done thoughtfully. Yet, it is not morally acceptable to simply start entering ICU units, when we have no way of knowing that we do not have the virus ourselves. We cannot become what could be a lethal health risk to other patients. This is not just for the current situation—a priest who has the flu should not sensibly be visiting ICU units.
Regarding hospitals, many solutions may be available, such as real protective equipment which can guarantee the safety of both the faithful and the patients. One bishop in the United Sates equipped a squad of priests with protective gear and they are dedicated to the sole purpose of giving last rites to extremely ill patients.
The Vatican has also granted permission for bishops to permit general absolutions with the adequate or possible involvement of the faithful in doing so. General absolution is reserved, yet always possible, during legitimate emergencies where individual confession is not possible. This may or may not be the case in most hospitals, but it is clearly an option.
The same goes for baptism. Much less risk is involved here than in giving communion or dealing with patients in ICU units who are almost universally immune-compromised. If the bishops believe there are no safe ways to celebrate baptism, then they should authorize and instruct parents in the manner to baptize their own children. If it is in practice deemed, as it seems clear, that we are in a major health emergency, a solution or varied solutions must be immediately implemented so that children or adults may be baptized. Baptism, too, is a matter of life or death. In my view, there is no reasonable justification for any bishop to shut down any of the sacraments that are matters of life and death.
Regarding marriage, confirmation, and ordinations, postponement is not a life or death matter. If bishops cannot find the path to their continued safe celebration, suspending the administration of these sacraments for a period of time is not fatal.
We Are Blessed
The current situation should bring us all to intensify our prayer and gratitude for the blessings of the availability of the sacraments to which the West has largely become accustomed. During the communist persecution in Russia, sacraments were forbidden, prayer censored, and God’s ministers eliminated. It was the fate of millions of Catholics not to have received confession or communion for their entire lives. We should in this difficult period seek to strengthen our resolve to avail ourselves of the grace of confession and Mass more frequently when the situation is restored to normality.
One must say priests may reflect on how few confessions they normally hear when it is possible to do so. Most parishes, certainly where I am, have one hour of confession per week.
Maybe this crisis will spur priests to regain a greater appreciation also for Eucharistic adoration in their parishes. Maybe they will dedicate their time to writing cogent and instructive homilies when their faithful return to the pews. Maybe, just maybe, bishops, priests, and laity will cease in their laxity and learn never to take for granted the sacramental life in the Church.
Fr. Marcel Guarnizo, is a philosopher and theologian involved in public discourse on economics, philosophy, ethics and theology.