Commentary

Fr. Marcel: Mass Gathering Limit, 'Non-Essential' Designation Are Not Assaults on Religion

By Fr. Marcel Guarnizo | April 27, 2020 | 3:28pm EDT
A priest of the Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo wears a mask in an empty church on April 26, 2020 in Ariccia, Italy. Italy will remain on lockdown until May 4th to stem the transmission of the Coronavirus (Covid-19), but some industries are being allowed to reopen. (Photo credit: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)
A priest of the Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo wears a mask in an empty church on April 26, 2020 in Ariccia, Italy. Italy will remain on lockdown until May 4th to stem the transmission of the Coronavirus (Covid-19), but some industries are being allowed to reopen. (Photo credit: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images)

On April 15, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of the Diocese of Las Cruces (New Mexico) penned a letter announcing that public Masses and sacramental life in his diocese would resume. He did note that the resumption of these services would remain in line with public health regulations. 

The current New Mexico health ordinance reads “any public or private gathering that brings together five or more individuals in a single room or connected space, confined outdoor space or an open outdoor space where individuals are within six feet of each other” is not allowed. 

In promulgating this ordinance, the bishop stated, the governor has demonstrated that she “no longer considers the Catholic Church an essential service. I strongly disagree....We offer the greatest 'essential service' to our people.”

Bishop Baldacchino compares Walmart and Home Depot to the service of the churches, saying “which of these do you think is more essential? If we have a soul, the answer is clear. You can’t buy what we offer.” He asks “isn’t the soul more important?...The Big Mac and Miller Lite, essential, the Body of Christ, not so much.”

The decision of the bishop has been hailed by some as nearly heroic. This because as Rusty Reno at First Things argues, we are experiencing at the hands of the state “unprecedented measures of social control...the suspension of public worship...punitive mentality” and an  “atmosphere...of censorship and intimidation.” 

But it is crucial to note that such hyperbole does not comport with the facts. The state has never suspended public worship in New Mexico. Mass with as many people as you may please could have always been held outdoors while keeping the six-feet required distance.

Public prayer outdoors has never been an issue, as long as a safe distance is kept. Bishop Baldacchino's current decision to have parking lot Masses, with people attending in their cars, is something he could have done day one. They really don’t even need to be in their cars. 

Adoration of the Holy Eucharist in an open space has always been possible. Confessions have in no way been suppressed. In my own state, I have gone to drive-through confession from my car regularly ever since this started, no problem. In fact, their liturgical services need never have been suspended, from the state’s perspective. Just take it outdoors and keep your distance. Baptisms and weddings can even be celebrated inside the Church, just keep it under five people. Last rites to the sick and dying have never been impeded by the state.  

Even distribution of communion has never been forbidden by the state. Whether Bishop Baldacchino resolved the risks in that operation satisfactorily is clearly debatable. But even going to Mass outdoors and not receiving communion seems better than observing Mass on the other side of a screen.

The decision to suspend liturgical services, public Mass, and the rest, as bishop Baldacchino states in his letter to the priests of his diocese, was entirely his. "At the outset of the pandemic, I ordered the priests of the Diocese of Las Cruces to suspend all public Masses.” Rusty Reno may disagree with the bishop, but the state had nothing to do with this. The governor of New Mexico is not suppressing anyone’s religious freedom. 

Not having mass associations within a confined space does not mean, as Rusty suggests, that the government suspended public worship in New Mexico. There are no government officials intimidating anyone not to worship. Bishop Baldacchino, who carried on outdoors with public Easter celebrations, states that someone called the police and they came, and they said, “Father, this is all fine, we cannot see any problems.” 

There are so-called culture wars with the state, regarding abortion and other matters, and those are very real. But these “faux” claims of oppression over a temporary limitation of association in New Mexico, are imaginary. Bishop Baldacchino is freely making prudential decisions, unimpeded by the state, and that is his call. I submit we have enough dislocation in the Church and in society at large to be inventing hills on which to die upon. Rusty Reno and others agitating in this regard need to redirect their fire to real things. 

The bishop thinks churches should be exempted just like government workers from these regulations. He complains, for example, that alcohol can still be acquired but people cannot congregate in churches in mass gatherings. He concludes, “It all boils down to whether or not you consider what the Church offers essential.”

This kind of argument is emblematic of more than a few bishops and religious leaders and I submit it is wrongheaded and misses the point. I have already argued at length that the current restrictions on mass gatherings ( five or more people), in church are in no way a limitation on the right of religious freedom. 

They are, rather, a limitation on our right of association. It is the fact that we want to associate in a church and the constraint on association indirectly hits our ability to worship. However, the measures are not designed to impede the practice of the faith, but rather to prevent a lethal epidemic from continuing to spread through the association of the population. 

It is therefore not our right to religious freedom that is being limited, but the right of association. This is also true for others, who are limited in their right to association for secular purposes. Nothing here is aimed in particular towards the faith or the exercise of religious freedom. 

Bishop Baldacchino’s reasoning is faulty with regards to what "essential" is intended to signify at a time of national emergency. The bishop’s accusation that the governor does not consider the Catholic church essential is driving at a false equivalency between essential in a national emergency and most important per se. The bishop is basically asserting that the Church is being classified as irrelevant by the health ordinance of New Mexico. 

Let us start with the smaller logical mistakes in Baldacchino’s reasoning. He argues that since citizens in New Mexico can acquire marijuana and alcohol, ergo (therefore), the churches should also be allowed to have mass associations. This is simply a non sequitur. Because these shops or a McDonald's is open, it does not follow logically that mass gatherings (more than five), should be allowed in churches. It seems to escape the bishop that a further possibility exists, and that the marijuana shops should also be closed. His reasoning in this amounts to “they are doing it, so we should do it also.”

Second, there may be some non-essential businesses that will open even before the churches. This is a prudential decision (i.e. debatable), which has to be regulated by the increasing degree of association necessary for those services to carry out their business. Surely, the bishop realizes that packed churches, shoulder to shoulder for an hour on Sundays with priests distributing communion into the hands or into the mouth of hundreds of people, is clearly at the high end of the spectrum of activities of association. Therefore the risk is evidently higher than purchasing a bottle of whiskey at a liquor store. This equally pertains to prudential decisions like that of the governor of Georgia allowing tattoo parlors and barber shops to be opened up, which is ridiculous and dangerous.

 

What Constitutes an Essential Service

The larger logical mistake is centered on the meaning of the term “essential services,” during a national crisis. A national emergency, or even a crisis situation, could consist of a terrorist attack, a nuclear threat, or a more contained crisis such as an active shooter or an attack on an embassy, or even a larger crisis like a hurricane or a devastating earthquake, that threatens the population. In our current predicament, we have a pandemic that has already killed more than 50,000 Americans in just a few months.

The bishop fails to understand that in designating essential services that need to continue during an emergency, the governor is in no way making reference to a metaphysical category of what is of more value per se. A non-essential service is not a synonym signifying the things that are irrelevant to life in general, society, or your own personal life. The health ordinance use of "essential" is not creating a hierarchical, philosophical-theological ordering of reality. 

When the bishop writes about what is more important for your salvation, or if you have a soul, to determine what is essential, he is flying a solo mission through theological and philosophical clouds that no one else is even contemplating, deciding, or thinking about when using the term "essential personnel" and "non-essential personnel" or activities in a national crisis.

In every U.S. embassy, workers are designated as essential and non-essential personnel in case of an emergency. But this distinction obviously does not mean that some human beings (the non-essential personnel), are considered of less worth than others. 

If there is a bomb threat in a school, the bomb-sniffing dog is essential to the counter measures to the attack-- it is an essential part of the team needed to protect the school’s population. This dog is more essential to that mission than the children who attend the school. But to imagine that anyone is thinking that this implies that the police believes dogs are more valuable than children is absurd. 

In a fire, all non-essential personnel are immediately cordoned off. They are non-essential to arresting, or controlling of the emergency. Their normal activities, in fact, could be a hindrance to the effort of dealing with the crisis. So you remove them, lest they get hurt. You ask them to stay indoors lest they get shot. They are clearly non-essential to the operation at hand. 

The designation of essential personnel for a crisis was established and understood even previous to the current pandemic. The denomination "essential" is not due to the weak, theological ruminations of a governor on what she perceives to be the most important things in life. 

There are state-by-state lists of these essential people, most of which are government employees, “workers who perform critical and clinical research, development, and testing needed for COVID-19 response...healthcare providers...Hospital and laboratory personnel...public health [workers]...cybersecurity functions at healthcare and public health facilities...workers performing security, incident management...pharmacy employees...disposal of human remains...fire and rescue services, workers supporting groceries...food manufacturer employees...farmers... workers supporting the energy sector...water and waste...transportation and logistics” and all the rest.

There are dozens, all listed, of services that cannot cease operations during a national crisis. These are workers, operations, and activities needed to combat the threat and without which the community would be seriously in danger of a breakdown.

The association of the faithful in a Church does not exist in society to provide personnel to deal with a national emergency. The faithful congregating are obviously non-essential personnel to the managing of a national medical emergency. You receiving communion is not a national essential function to dealing with a health crisis emergency.

Dealing with national emergencies is not the reason people go to church. They can still worship and contribute spiritually outside of the church, as the ordinance states.

Finally, the bishop believes the Eucharist to be God Himself, so even the comparison to any created good is an absurd question. God is not within the categories of created reality. God is infinite perfection and is therefore not more important than the Walmart, or the Big Mac, in the bishop’s example. God is essentially, by nature, without comparison. He is not more important than other created or manufactured realities. He literally sustains in being all that is. He is not one more thing in the universe; He is not at the top of the list by comparison to other existing things or beings. He is literally the beginning and the end. God is beyond any comparison. Not just better than all else. He is, by nature, incomparable. 

To imagine that the governor during this pandemic was putting on her theological-metaphysical hat, to tell us what is the meaning of life and what matters in that pursuit, is beyond absurd. To imagine that what embassies, governments, corporations, and others have in mind when they use the designation "essential" and "non-essential personnel" is a theological-philosophical classification of what matters, is unbelievably flawed reasoning. 

Fr. Marcel Guarnizo, is a philosopher and theologian involved in public discourse on economics, philosophy, ethics and theology.

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