This essay is part of a series concerning the Coronavirus pandemic. Read more from the collection here.
How should Christians respond to a national crisis like COVID-19?
Some Protestant pastors are now openly defying the government’s shutdown orders. Many Catholics are clamoring for bishops to restore public attendance at Mass, lest they teach their flock through their actions that the life of the body is more important than the life of the soul.
Let me beg to differ. And I do mean beg, because the stakes are high. And this epidemic may not be the last one.
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
Let’s begin with the obvious: religious gatherings of various kinds have already been inadvertent super-spreaders of the virus. In New Rochelle, one man attending a shabbat service, a bat mitzvah, and a funeral spread coronavirus to at least five hundred people and probably more. A funeral in Albany, Georgia infected the whole town. On Friday, April 3, Sacramento County officials reported they have identified one evangelical church that has a cluster of seventy-one positive cases.
Many of these gatherings took place before coronavirus became known. Others were held by responsible people who thought they could protect themselves from the novel coronavirus.
In the rural Skagit County north of Seattle, a Presbyterian church choir met to rehearse on March 10. They socially distanced, told sick people to stay home, and had abundant hand sanitizer. By late March, forty-five of the sixty attendees had fallen ill, and two had already died. How many more people did each of these forty-five infect while they were asymptomatic? We will never know. How many of these will die unbaptized? Believers might spare some of their concern for the souls of our neighbors. It turns out that singing is a particularly good spreader of COVID-19. Nobody thought of it at the time. This is a disease with a lot of unknown unknowns.
But it seems that we are all epidemiologists now: theologians, law professors, writers, chant instructors, book editors (to name just a few of the professions of those I know of who are clamoring for the bishops to hold public masses). People design their own foolproof plans to have Mass safely. Unfortunately, this early in a pandemic, there are very few things we know for sure. We only recently learned that the virus may be most infectious when asymptomatic, and that it can last for days on various surfaces (and nobody has tested marble, or wooden pews).
Public health policy is the just and right domain of civil authorities, unless they ask us to deny Christ. Right now, they are simply asking us to stay home for a few weeks or months to reduce the risk to the whole community.
Are Sacraments Really “Non-Essential”?
It is important to remember that the practice of weekly communion is not a Catholic universal, nor is it a necessity for salvation. Canon law requires the faithful to receive the sacrament at least once a year. San Francisco Archbishop Joseph Cordileone, when he barred public masses, made that point clearly: The Mass has not been cancelled. He reminded us that the command to keep the Lord’s Day holy comes straight from God and can never be suspended.
In an emergency, any Catholic parents can baptize their own children. We can join Jesus in heaven even if we do not receive Communion for a few weeks or a few months. Anointing the bodies of the sick is a gift to the dying, but it is not essential to salvation.
If we are going to have a fight with civil authorities or our own bishops, it should be around the sacrament that is essential to our salvation: confession. For many of the dying, access to confession will require the cooperation of civil authorities. How cooperative will they be with a Church creating problems in the midst of a huge national public health and economic crisis?
Are the civil authorities making things worse by dubbing religious services “non-essential”? Yes.
But at the same time, let’s acknowledge these civil authorities are kind of busy right now. They have to figure out how to get ventilators, how to triple hospital beds, what to do with prisoners, how to cut collapsing budgets, how to protect the homeless, how to get people to follow social distancing guidelines, how to protect grocery clerks and first responders, and—in New York City—in which parks to temporarily bury the dead, if it comes to that. The reasonable and charitable thing to do in the middle of a vast national emergency is to cut the government some slack on inappropriate language. The one thing obviously true is that this shutdown is manifestly not a deliberate attempt by the government to harm churches.
Is it possible that the lockdown of America is worse than letting a pandemic run its course? Of course, it’s possible. Leaders are making momentous decisions without enough real information. Our leaders may in fact be wrong. The economy is also a source of life. The cure shouldn’t be worse than the disease. But an epidemic requires a communal response. Someone has to lead.
Is Suspending Church Services Really Unprecedented?
I’m also struck by how few of the most discontented Catholics seem to know the historical record on how the bishops have responded in the past. Douglas Farrow writes, for example, about “Easter Without Mass”:
But though we are not under sentence of excommunication, we will be forbidden to hear [mass] said in person. Forbidden by the government—and by the Church itself—to take part in it.
Forbidding by the former is something Christians have experienced many times throughout the centuries, though we ourselves have not experienced it. Forbidding by the latter is unprecedented, as far as I know.
With all due respect to Professor Farrow, whom I admire greatly, he could have known more, if he had merely googled what Catholic bishops did during the Spanish Flu of 1918.
The answer? They closed churches. And then they called Catholics to sacrifice and serve their neighbors.
In Philadelphia, for example, on October 3, 1918, the Board of Health ordered all schools and worship services to close “until further notice.” Archbishop Dennis Dougherty didn’t rebel or complain. Instead, he offered the use of archdiocesan buildings as temporary hospitals and called all priests, non-cloistered nuns, and members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to aid flu victims. An Immaculate Heart of Mary nun recalled entering houses and finding entire families sick in bed together with no one to care for them. According to the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,
When this happened the sisters would bathe the sick, clean the house and then prepare food and medicine for the sick. Sisters working in the hospitals, despite a lack of experience, were tasked with mixing medicines as well as taking temperatures and feeding the sick. Many sisters worked 12 hours shifts, with one stating that “through this experience I have learned to appreciate my vocation to the religious life more than ever before.”
Similarly, in Washington DC, when the health commissioner ordered churches shut down, Protestant ministers met and unanimously voted to comply. A Presbyterian Church advised its flock,
Inasmuch as it has seemed wise to the Commissioners of the District, after careful consideration of the question, to prohibit the gathering of the people on Sunday in their accustomed places of worship, may I suggest that at the usual hour of morning service you gather in your homes and unite in common prayer to the God of Nations and of families, that He will guide us in all wisdom in this time of trial, that our physicians and public officers may be led in their performance of duty and be strengthened by divine help, that the people may be wise and courageous, each in his place. Let us never forget that “Help cometh from the lord which made heaven and earth.” Behold He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Minnesota’s Bethel University, recently put together a series of newspaper clippings from the many cities where churches shut down in response to the Spanish Flu. The front page of the Boston Globe on March 29, 1918, for example, called this the “quietest Sunday Boston ever saw,” with worship services and public gatherings cancelled, quipping that such a Sabbath hadn’t been seen since Puritan days.
Christians Are Called to Serve Relentlessly and Sacrificially
Now would be a good time to reconsider St. Charles Borromeo’s example during the Plague of 1576, which many Catholics on my Twitter feed circulate as they urge bishops (or even priests!) to rebel. When the civil authorities fled at the height of the plague, St. Charles Borromeo stayed in the city, where he ministered to the sick and the dying, helping those in want. He shut down Milan’s churches. And then he set up a handful of altars outdoors, to say Mass. He did this so people could see that the Mass had not been suspended. The great sacrifice was still taking place. We Catholic laity can see it now too, through the miracle of livestreaming.
St. Charles Borromeo also gave his fortune to feed the famished and imposed severe penances upon himself. So, let me ask those Christians agitating for rebellion: Have you done that yet? Have you cashed in your IRA and given it to the poor? Or are you just tweeting your dissatisfaction with being required to fast from the Eucharist? St. Charles Borromeo was revered and won souls for Christ because he sacrificed for others.
The classic Christian response to plagues and pestilence is not to stand on our rights and complain, but to serve relentlessly and sacrificially. The spirit of whining is not the Spirit of Christ.
I too am frustrated that the Catholic Church is not more visibly central in this crisis. We no longer can send sisters to the slums to care for the poor, because medical professionals handle health, and the government sends stimulus checks. Catholic Relief Services focuses overseas. We have no Samaritan’s Purse to set up field hospitals in Central Park. American Catholics might spare some energy for figuring out how we can help in times of crisis in visible ways in the future.
Still, when I hear the dissatisfaction of many Catholics, it sounds very self-focused: me, me, me, and my spiritual needs. In the back of my head, a few lines from W. H. Auden keep humming:
And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
To focus on the self, rather than others, is the basic orientation of sin.
What Kind of Witness Are We Giving?
I am astonished by how many people think a deadly pandemic is the right time to foment the spirit of rebellion and pick a fight with the government over what many will inevitably see as our right to infect others. That’s what it looks like to our neighbors. They do not see this as a testimony of our unshakable faith, but as evidence of callous unconcern for their lives and the lives of the police, grocery workers, mailmen, health workers, and garbage men with whom we all interact.
The pastor of an Ohio megachurch that persists in hosting services says he’s receiving demonically ugly hate mail, with messages such as “I hate you, I hope your family dies, we’re going to lock you in that church and I hope you all die together.” His more decent neighbors, like Sandra, who is carefully self-isolating at home while watching others flock to church on Sunday, say “I think they should obey the laws of the land, like the way the Bible tells us to,” reports Reuters.
Fighting for religious liberty on what inevitably appears to our neighbors as “the right to infect others” is a fight we are guaranteed to lose. We may also lose fellow citizens’ souls. Our neighbors are understandably revolted by an apparent self-centered focus on our own needs in a time of national crisis.
The Mass has not been canceled. Christ is coming to us every day through the priesthood He created. The great drama of Christ’s sacrifice for us and our Resurrection with Him continues. We lay Catholics are only being asked to temporarily fast from the Eucharist. Many Catholics, in many places, have had to do without a weekly communion for long periods of time. Neither our faith, nor our salvation, nor the centrality of the Eucharist depends on insisting on our “right” to receive communion every Sunday.
The traditional Christian response in an epidemic is clear: Serve. Share. Sacrifice. Pray.
Let’s get to it.