Some have argued that the Church’s temporary suspension of public masses in many regions of the world for the sake of public health concerns is unethical.

They give several reasons. Some say that it violates basic principles of natural law, since the Church is instituted by God to maintain public worship of God for the good of society. Others claim that it contravenes the Church’s respect for the divine institution of the sacraments, which the clergy have an obligation to celebrate for the good of the Christian faithful. Relatedly, some argue that the faithful have a right to the sacraments in the current circumstances and that their canonical rights are being neglected.

These are all significant concerns. In this essay, I offer some theological reflections in answer to them. I proceed in two parts: First, I consider the natural law and the relation of the Church and the state in matters of natural right. Second, I address the teaching that the sacraments are of divine right.

What Does the State Owe the Church? And What Do Members of the Church Owe the State?

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We should first briefly recall the reasons why any modern national government is obliged by natural law to respect the rights of the religious freedom of the Church.

Human beings have a natural inclination, obligation, and right to seek the truth about God and to adhere to that truth when they find it. Since they do this collectively, as social animals, they also have the right to communicate religious truth to one another corporately and to worship God collectively.

This acknowledgement of religious practice does not harm the state. On the contrary, it helps to sustain its well-being. The Church contributes to a set of natural goods that the state either presupposes—such as healthy family life, which the state needs to survive—or can use assistance with—such as the cultivation of virtuous action, observance of the natural law, just defense of the country, education, heathcare, and the arts. Moreover, the Church provides an orientation toward a transcendent end of life with God that no government can provide. This animates society with a spirit of hope in the future, in view of eternal life. The Church’s natural law teaching also sheds light on just and unjust practices, and it can help in public debate to safeguard the most vulnerable. Consequently, it is unrealistic, unreasonable, and unjust for any government to seek to suppress Christian religious belief and practice so long as the latter accords with the precepts of the natural law.

All this being said, members of the Church also owe something to the state. Human government is that instrument or collective set of offices and agencies that seeks to maintain the common good of human political and social life at a variety of levels: public health, a functional economy, protection against crime and violence, public utilities, education, social services, defense of the society, and so on. The list is long. To the extent that public officials have obligations to seek justice and social flourishing, members of the Church are called upon to identify realistic political ideals and name unjust abuses. But they are also called upon to respect the natural goods that the state rightly seeks to defend and promote, and to cooperate in reasonable ways with the authorities of the state when these goods are under assault and have to be protected.

What Happens When Governments and Churches Disagree?

Conflicts arise when there are substantive disagreements about the content of the natural law in public society. For example, the Church has an obligation to promote a culture of the defense of unborn human life, especially in those nations where members of the government fail to acknowledge the dignity of human beings from conception to natural death. Any civil law that is defective on this point constitutes a form of grave injustice. Much more rarely, religious practices can become a genuine threat to public safety. In these cases, there are grounds for the state to act against the self-perceived interests of religious groups. There are clear and non-controversial examples: the state can act directly against those who engage in religiously motivated terrorism, and it can seek to shut down religious zealots who might entice their practitioners to acts of collective suicide (such as Jim Jones).

In more subtle and complex cases, the state should engage with religious leaders to invite religious organizations to temper their behavior voluntarily. If a nuclear power plant were to destabilize in a populated area and emit lethal doses of radiation within a multi-mile radius, for example, the state would be well within its rights to ask the local bishop to cancel the celebration of public masses in that region, even for a prolonged period of time. Analogous rules apply in regions of active warfare and in places that are subject to intensive outbreaks of epidemics. The state can have a reasonable vested interest to protect the lives of citizens by asking for a period of quarantine. By asking people to shelter in place for a sustained but limited period of time (four to twelve weeks, for example) the state can seek to limit the spread of a deadly disease that is likely to kill tens of thousands of people.

One can certainly debate the scientific warrant of a quarantine, its effectiveness in a given region or country, its proportionate value in the face of its economic consequences, and its psychological effects on citizens. My point here is not to defend the practice on public policy grounds. Health specialists, economists, ethicists, and policymakers should continue to debate and assess these matters for the good of all. My point is simply to underscore that the state may legitimately request Catholic Christians to undertake such a quarantine in accord with the principles of the natural law. There is nothing illegitimate about it per se if it falls within certain parameters of temporary and just use, nor is it rare historically.

Were some political leaders to try to exploit such measures to seek to suppress public Christian practice permanently, or to inhibit it for an unwarranted or arbitrary period of time, it would then be incumbent upon the Church to push back in defense of her proper religious freedoms, including through instruments of civic justice such as the judiciary. But this possibility—which is all too real in some places—is not a reason per se to claim that a given state’s request for a temporary quarantine is inherently unjust.

The Church should cooperate with the state to protect its citizens and work reasonably with those in government who seek to do so. Furthermore, if the lives of many citizens really are at stake, then it can become incumbent on Christian citizens to observe protocols for the common good of others. Again, the conditional “if” matters: intelligent people can disagree about prudential questions. But what my claim implies is that those who observe the requests of the state may be acting in accord with a well-formed Catholic conscience. They can obey the state and argue defensibly that they are doing so in accord with Catholic social teaching in this particular case.

The Sacraments Are of Divine Right. How Does That Affect the Question?

The Catholic Church teaches that the seven sacraments are instruments of grace instituted by Christ Himself (in explicit or implicit ways) and handed on by the apostolic community to the early Church. Consequently, the celebration and use of these sacraments in the Church is of “divine right,” meaning they come from God and cannot be abrogated or altered essentially by any human power, including ecclesiastical authorities. The bishops, as successors of the apostles, serve and administer the sacraments. They can teach authoritatively about what these same sacraments accomplish and can formulate rituals for their celebration, but they cannot change or alter the reality of the sacraments as such. All of this is expressed doctrinally in longstanding Catholic teaching.

One dimension of divine right worth underscoring pertains to the episcopacy. The bishops are by divine right the successors of the apostles. Accordingly, in virtue of their consecration and their communion with the Petrine See, they receive juridical authority over the exercise and use of the sacraments. They do not possess this authority merely by sociological convention or ecclesial right, but by divine right. It follows that they must carefully exercise their responsibility to oversee the application and use of the sacraments in accord with the intentions of Christ Himself and the teachings of the Church in many complex contingent circumstances.

Likewise, the faithful (i.e., baptized Catholics) possess the moral right and privilege of access to the sacraments, including confession, communion, marriage (in which they are the celebrants in the West), anointing of the sick, and the right to have their children baptized. Priests, by virtue of their ordination and ecclesial mandate, also have the right to celebrate the sacraments and to conduct the care of souls as regulated by the Church and in communion with their bishops. None of this means that the people in question act impeccably or infallibly. Nor are such rights always and everywhere absolute; they too are subject to limits. But such rights are enshrined in canon law to protect persons from undue forms of injustice by one another and by external forces (including the state). Bishops and priests are not meant to impede the celebration or reception of the sacraments by one another or by the laity except for just and serious reasons.

Moreover, whether acknowledged or not by the state, the sacraments constitute the greatest good of public civil society. The sacrifice of the Mass is, in some real sense, the heart of human society, the place where it is most intensively oriented toward the absolute mystery of God. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the source of the most basic spiritual sustenance of mankind and its greatest spiritual consolation. It sustains the Church collectively and each Christian individually. Confession, meanwhile, is the most essential means for human beings to effectively and with certitude arrive at true reconciliation with God and obtain peace in the face of their sinfulness and mortality. We could continue such a litany, but the point is that the sacraments are the supreme means for human persons to encounter God and to achieve a stable orientation toward the highest supernatural goods.

Yet all this being said, no one has a right to all the sacraments at any time or any place that they choose. A mother does not have the right to have her child baptized on Christmas morning; and a couple does not have a right to be married on Good Friday. Rather, the celebration and reception of the sacraments must take place under the local bishop’s jurisdiction and in accordance with the tradition and law of the Church.

What Reasons Could Justify Suspending Access to the Sacraments?

There can be good reasons for bishops and priests to suspend ordinary public access to the sacraments to a given person or populace in a given context. One of these is malfeasance. A cleric who is culpable of grave misconduct and who causes public scandal may be rightly suspended by the Holy See from exercising the functions of the clerical state. He does not enjoy an open-ended right to carry out priestly functions due solely to the fact that the sacrament of holy orders is of divine right. In fact, we sometimes worry about whether the hierarchy has used its authority swiftly and vigorously enough in certain contexts to defend the good of the Church and to protect the faithful.

Other cases are easy to identify: the suspension of communion for those who maintain erroneous ideas about the faith, politicians who publicly and obstinately disavow the natural law, parishes that go into strange schisms, couples who want to be married but refuse to promise lifelong commitment or who want their child baptized but refuse to raise the child in the Church. The list goes on, but the idea is clear enough. The divine institution of the sacraments exists in an inescapably ecclesial mode, which is inseparable from episcopal oversight.

Does any of this apply in a pandemic? The examples given above are primarily about moral obstacles, not external factors beyond our control. Yet one can think here again of my Chernobyl example. A bishop could rightly suspend the celebration of the sacrifice of the mass in a given time and place for reasons of public safety in the case of a dangerous radiation leak. This suspension would not constitute an intrinsically evil act, nor does it violate the principles of canon law. In fact, it would be an obviously prudent thing to do. Likewise, in a region consumed by active warfare, the clergy could maximize the safety of the faithful by suspending public masses in Church buildings for a given period of time.

The case of a pandemic is analogous, although there are also special circumstances that apply. A viral disease that spreads by means of proximity can infect a sacramental minister, who may then transmit it to many others, even while being asymptomatic. The gathering of large groups for sustained periods of time enhances the probability of contagion passing from family to family (and this is arguably quite different from a person going into a store alone for a shorter period of time). Older and vulnerable people are likely to be present alongside asymptomatic infected people at a large Sunday mass. All of this can prolong the time the illness persists in a given locale instead of decreasing its spread through a short-term quarantine.

Are Bishops Choosing the Good of the Body over the Good of the Soul?

But why shouldn’t Christians continue to meet openly in a pandemic precisely as a witness to the faith? After all, such an act could show that Christians seek primarily the good of the soul rather than the goods of the body. Failure to do so could even suggest an implicit lack of trust in God.

However well-intentioned such objections are, they are not well-grounded in the Church’s theological tradition. This tradition maintains that the sacramental economy of grace is meant to operate in harmony with the natural law, not over or against it. There is a coherence to grace and nature, not an opposition.

In accordance with the natural law, human beings should seek to preserve their bodily life from harm. Consequently, in a context where sacramental practice is likely to directly endanger the health of persons, the Church ought not to require it. Individual Catholics can choose to embrace this kind of activity freely, of course. Think, for example, of the priest who brings communion to the dying on an active battlefield or who ministers actively to patients with COVID-19. Such action is not only licit but laudable and beautiful. The Church should make room for such behavior since it epitomizes the life of Christian charity in the gift of one’s self for others. Yet actions such as these should be done freely and without unnecessarily harming others.

Furthermore, when circumstances warrant it, the Church can temporarily suspend the public exercise of Christian worship and the celebration of the sacraments—not to invert the hierarchy of values but to cooperate in a collective exercise designed to protect human lives. The principle that spiritual goods are higher than material ones does not resolve all factors that go into practical and prudential decision-making. A person can remain in a state of grace for two weeks without receiving communion. He cannot preserve his bodily life for two weeks without eating. Faced with a stark alternative between the two over that period of time, it is defensible to choose the latter option. In some ways, the graced soul is more durable than the material body. Most people in the Middle Ages—who only received communion a few times a year—understood this perfectly well.

The arguments given above are not being presented in defense of every decision being made in every diocese with respect to the public celebration of the sacraments. They are not even intended to defend the widespread current policy of the suspension of public masses as necessarily the best one, let alone as one that cannot be questioned. In fact, precisely because the policy is based on a prudential decision in a complex context it is very difficult to say with certitude what “must” be best. Rather, epistemic humility is in order for all of us. My arguments here are intended to defend the current policy as a defensibly prudent course of action that can be undertaken in charity with concern for the good of public safety, for a limited period of time, and without violating any norms of the natural law, the divine right of the sacramental economy, or the just provisions of canon law. The bishops of the Catholic Church have the inalienable responsibility to make prudential contingent decisions of precisely this kind for the good of all. If the policy is theologically and ethically defensible, it is also reasonable for Catholic clergy and laity to obey them and to extend to bishops the benefit of good will in the exercise of their ministry and to work with them constructively. After all, it is especially incumbent upon us in a time of pandemic to seek to uphold the communion of the Church in charity as a witness to the primacy of Christ and as a means to our own deeper union with God.

Appendix on Historical Precedents

While I am not an academic Church historian, I’ve attempted with the help of others to provide a brief list of some noteworthy historical precedents in this domain.

  1. The historical example of St. Charles Borromeo has received a great deal of attention in recent discussions about the Church’s response to the coronavirus. It is worth noting that cooperation between St. Charles and the city government of Milan was generally very close during the plague that struck Milan around 1576. Indeed, some health regulations were promulgated jointly by both the city government and the Cardinal together. (See S. Cohen, Cultures of Plague, pp. 288–89.) This is important to grasp, because when quarantines were promulgated in the city that restricted people to their homes, they were also being restricted from going to churches. Such quarantines were part of a cooperative effort to control the spread of the contagion. A general quarantine (like the one in October 1576) meant that almost no one could go to church, except the clergy who already lived there.
  1. St. Charles himself clearly had a personal interest in medicine, as has been documented in various places, e.g., L. Belloni, “Carlo Borromeo e la storia della medicina,” in San Carlo e il suo tempo (Rome, 1986), I: pp. 165–177. It is clear that during the plague he took seriously the advice of doctors and was not the kind of leader who saw this as a conflict between faith and medicine.
  1. As has been pointed out, St. Charles organized outdoor processions and Masses on the corners of streets, etc., which the laity could watch from their windows. These were commemorated with “Plague Crosses” that were later erected and are still visible in Milan today. Already at that time doctors understood that enclosed spaces increased the risk of contagion and thus they favored outdoor activities over gatherings indoors. But, significantly, the number of laity who were permitted to attend outdoor processions were often strictly limited in number. Indeed, Borromeo threatened others who left their houses to join processions with severe penalties. There are records of the city ordinances for some of these processions, like the one held on 18 January 1577. On that occasion, it seems only one lay person from each parish was permitted to join the procession, and there were rules about keeping appropriate distances. (See S. Cohen, Cultures of Plague, p. 342 n. 113.)
  1. A short article from the Vatican News is helpful in this regard since it recently highlighted the steps taken not only by St. Charles Borromeo in 1576–77 but also by Pope Alexander VII during the later plague of 1656. The article affirms Borromeo’s support for a general quarantine that limited all public activities, including travel to churches.
  1. Rather earlier in 1497 a plague hit the city of Venice very hard. Once the secular authorities started to realize that gatherings in churches might be spreading it, they decided to temporarily close the churches. A Franciscan friar with the Observant Movement, who clearly was no laxist, preached before the Doge of Venice on Christmas that year and noted: “Gentlemen, you are closing the churches for fear of the plague, and you are wise to do so.” He went on to add that serious moral reform was also especially needed if one wanted to appease God during the plague. But he upheld that both were appropriate. (See S. Watts, Epidemics and History, p. 11.)
  1. Of course, there were always exceptions and cases of friction or conflict, usually with local clergy trying to get around the rules. To give one example, during the 1656 plague in Rome: “Even when the authorities imposed strict regulations on [gatherings for devotional] cults, this did not always prevent some of the clergy from attempting to flout the rules, as happened in Rome in summer 1656 after churches had been closed in order to prevent access to a number of votive images, which had become the focus of popular devotion during the plague. When the Clerics Regular of the Mother of God continued to keep open the church door of their convent of S. Maria in Portico, the secular and religious authorities combined to take drastic action. The Pope, Alexander VII, suppressed the convent, removing the image and the clerics to another church, and had the church rebuilt. . . . The relic was [then] placed in a new location and was enclosed in a large sculptural frame designed by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi to prevent the public’s physical contact with the object of their adoration.” (J. Henderson, Florence Under Siege, 154–55.)
  1. Along the same lines, one can find many examples in the medieval and early modern period when civil and religious authorities worked together to try to balance the faithful’s desire for access to sacred places with concerns for public safety. Often outdoor events were favored (e.g., processions), while gathering indoors were restricted by both Church and state. This cooperative pattern was mostly the norm. More generally there really isn’t any historical question that churches were sometimes temporarily closed during epidemics. Historians familiar with plagues can give examples of this, whether in the Middle Ages during the Black Death, or during the various plagues of 16th and 17th centuries, or during more recent epidemics such as the various outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the 19th century or the 1918 Spanish Flu. Quarantines effecting the temporary suspension of public masses were widespread in the United States in the latter epidemic.