In many ways, we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, a time when a new virus can spawn a worldwide pandemic in 90 days, and a time when we can continually keep up with the spread on our phones. With the endless stream of news and opinions, some are bound to be accurate and a few might actually be true. As Christians we know that God’s love and mercy is the surest reality we can hold on to.
But what are we to make of the bishops shutting down public Masses? People are not allowed to gather in the sanctuary to worship and not allowed to receive Holy Communion directly in the hands or on the tongue, and the loss of this participation in the liturgy is painful for Catholics.
Yet, never have we faced a situation in which radical social restriction could save over a million American lives, reducing the short-term death toll in our country from around 2 million to hopefully under 200,000. Time is critical in a pandemic to slow or stop the exponential explosion of cases. We see almost every aspect of our society scrambling. The medical and financial challenges are beyond immense. Our religious leaders are also working fast to find the best way to promote the common good reasonably.
The Church recognizes the value of traditional approaches. What has the community done in the past? Canon lawyers abide by the axiom, “Custom is the best interpreter of the law.” Unfortunately, in times like ours, there is little custom to fall back on. At no time in history have Catholic bishops prohibited people en masse from attending Holy Mass — but at no time in history have we been in a situation where prudent actions could spare the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.
It is significant that it’s not just a few bishops suspending public Masses but a large number of bishops around the world including Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome. We hear virtually no bishops speaking out against it. Conceivably, a majority of bishops could be wrong. This has happened before. The bishops in England supported King Henry VIII as properly the head of the Church in England. A majority of bishops were Arians in the 4th century. And on that first Holy Thursday, of the twelve new bishops only the youngest stood by Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the reasonable presumption is that the bishops are not wrong in their approach to this pandemic.
Before we look at some common objections to our present situation, a couple points might be offered.
First, a prudential judgement is one that well-formed and well-intended people can differ about. Unlike some matters of justice, there is not only one decision that can be made. Prudence directs us to judge what is the best path in a particular circumstance. Often in reality circumstances are complex and the outcomes are unknowable, so prudence is an essential virtue for practicing justice. Still, our American culture is very legalistic, and we prefer clear black and white solutions. People wish to reduce complex issues down to a simple matter of right and wrong, as this admits to a clear course of action which all reasonable people should recognize. Of course, most of the time a person’s rendering of the situation also reveals bias.
Second, the Holy Mass is not offered principally for the people gathered. The one and eternal offering of Jesus Christ in which we participate in the Holy Mass is offered for the glory of God and the sanctification of man. Weekday Mass, for example, is offered not for the sake of the handful of people who attend but for the glory of God and the sanctification of the world. The Priest stands in persona Christi capitis and the people as part of the Body of Christ, so that in every Mass, Christ the High Priest is present in the head and the body. When there is a “just and reasonable cause” and the priest celebrates the Mass with no one assisting (canon 906), Christ is still fully present. The Church recognizes that such need might occur if the priest is in a situation where he cannot readily find someone to assist, yet he has the obligation to celebrate Mass daily. Certainly the restrictions of this pandemic would also meet the standard for a serious need.
Third, the participation in the Holy Mass is the fullest participation in the Paschal Mystery; all the baptized are joined with Christ and part of His living body. Indeed, all the baptized are continually joined with Christ who eternally is offering himself to the glory of God and the sanctification of man. Spiritual Communion is not just about seeking grace from the Blessed Sacrament; it is about being spiritually joined with Christ in the eternal liturgy, the eternal sacrifice of Calvary.
Last, it is true that at many points thru history Christians have risked their lives to attend Mass. In our present circumstance, however, Christians are being asked to refrain from gathering not primarily for their sake but for the well-being of others. The martyrs chose to heroically risk their lives for the sake of the Gospel. In our present case, we are asked to sacrificially embrace radical social limitations to try and save a million or more American lives. It is not a heroic action for us to endanger others, be it those we live with or strangers in the street.
Some Possible Objections:
It has to be illegal. In considering the matter, Dr. Ed Peter’s makes a great point: “Do not assume that some wrong, even stupid, policies being announced by various levels of Church government are necessarily canonically illegal policies” (“Canonical deep breath time,” March 30, 2020).
God is in control of everything and would not let someone get sick from the Sacred Host. As to the possibility of getting sick from the Blessed Sacrament, one does well to recognize that while Jesus will not make you sick, a pesky virus attached to the Host certainly could make you sick. People with gluten intolerance experience firsthand that one can get sick from a consecrated Host. Chaos, discord, and disease are the effects of the sin of Adam and Eve. God continually works to bring redemption, but he does so without violating or negating our human freedom or human responsibility. Rarely does God extraordinarily manipulate the material world. When He does, we call it a miracle. But we should not put God to the test by demanding a miracle (Allison Tobola Low, “Do Not Put God to the Test, April 2, 2020).
Our right to freedom of religion is being denied. To the extent that the state is prohibiting religious gatherings, there might be an argument to be made here. The pressing need for the common good would possibly justify the short term limitation of rights. But what we see, in fact, is that bishops and other religious leaders are cooperating with the state for the common good by self-restricting the exercise of our religious rights.
The Sacraments are being denied to the people. Historically the denial of Sacraments was recognized as possible for the sake of some common good. Interdiction of a country or area was imposed at times in an attempt to curb injustice. While historically the prudence of this decision has been questioned, it was not considered a violation of justice.
People suffer without the Sacraments. Christians are never without the Sacraments. Baptism is a grace that remains with us, as is Confirmation. The domestic church is founded on the Sacrament of Matrimony. These sacraments, like Holy Orders, are an ongoing lived relationship with God. We live in that grace, which is a sharing in the very life and love which is God.
People need Confession and Anointing of the Sick. This is true, but the right to the sacrament is not absolute. There is no guarantee that we can get the sacrament whenever we want it, nor even whenever we desperately need it, hence the wisdom of living the Christian life well and avoiding sin. Thankfully we know that God does not ask of us the impossible, so the practice of making a good Act of Contrition with a sincere intention to get to Confession when it is reasonably possible will be honored by God.
People need to attend Mass. When there is no Mass available, there is no obligation to attend, and no dispensation is necessary. One is not obligated to that which is practically impossible. The Church generally imposes an obligation to participate in Mass as part of our observance of the Lord’s Day. Early Christians gathered together for the Breaking of the Bread, even before Pentecost.
People need to Receive Holy Communion. While it is a great blessing to be able to receive Holy Communion, it is not necessary for salvation.
Some bishops have given rationales that are unclear, or even unsound. Not infrequently when faced with complex situations, people will give a poor explanation as to the rationale for their decisions. Sometimes bishops try to articulate the situation to imply that justice demands a particular course of action, so they did not really have any choice to make. But however the bishop makes his decision, he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. We may opine that another course of action would be better, but unless we are positive, we owe to the bishop respect and obedience. The exception, of course, is the case of the bishop asking something illegal or immoral, which is to say something basically unjust, not simply possibly imprudent.
There is strength in the diversity of the body. We are called to live in communion as the body of Christ. The Enemy seeks to promote division and discord. In trying times, we do well to focus on love and mercy, and always to remember Jesus’ great prayer, “I pray … that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21).