Catholics tend to resist change. As members of an institution lasting two millennia, we’re often inclined to focus on the need for continuity and consistency in our faith. This focus, while at times ensuring faithfulness to the Gospel, can also cause an inability to address problems in Catholic culture and institutions. My active involvement in responding to the clergy abuse crises and coming to know people who have experienced abuse in the Church have allowed me to better understand the ways in which pious rhetoric can be used to dismiss, pressure, and harm vulnerable persons (even if unintentionally). I worry that this is happening now in Catholic responses to our global pandemic.
As the pandemic was spreading and becoming more serious, my Archdiocese shared with pastors a coming suspension of public masses. One parish responded by sharing the following:
In a time where every public health expert is saying that congregating in groups puts the public (and especially the elderly) in danger, this parish puts out a plea for its members to all attend Mass together. Because all public Masses will be suspended, it pressures parishioners into creating the very danger that the Archdiocese is trying to prevent. It might have said, “Parishioners are welcome to come to 8am Mass tomorrow and must practice social distancing if attending. Masses thereafter will be suspended for at least two weeks.” Instead, it implores everyone able to join in ALL CAPS and calls it a “last Mass and chance we have to receive Our Lord for a long time.” This message both opposes the guidance of public health experts and undermines the very goal of the Archdiocese: to protect the vulnerable. For clergy abuse survivors and those involved in issues related to clergy abuse, this is all very familiar. Harm can come not only from malice. It can also come from misguided attempts to help. In order to attend to a perceived spiritual need, this parish encourages risk to the community.
Like the clergy abuse crisis, this global health crisis may require that Catholics probe into what it really means to be a Eucharistic community. A fundamental paradigm shift and a reacquaintance with history may be required. We need to remember that receiving the Eucharist regularly was not the norm for much of Catholic history. And many medieval theologians talk just as deeply about receiving Christ as bread in the Scriptures as they do in the Eucharist. I highly recommend Ann Astell’s book Eating Beauty, where she examines how St. Bernard “eats the sacred Scriptures as if they were the Eucharist.” The last time you attended Mass was not your “last chance to receive Our Lord.”
But we don’t learn. One reason why the clergy abuse crisis has plagued the Church in waves, with insufficient changes resulting in more abuse and cover-up, is because Catholics have consistently refused to let go of a paradigm in the Church, where piety is substituted for the findings and guidance of the secular sciences, where we mistake current ecclesial practice for universal and historic obligation, where religious leaders receive excessive deference, where “the institution” and its reputation and identity (as well as those of its leaders) is protected over the hard truth, and where organizational and personnel structures never really change. There has been a desire to protect our personal narratives of what it means for the Church to be the Church over the needs of the vulnerable, to prioritize a public image to avoid “scandal,” and to have continuity in parish life over critiquing or investigating the actions (or inactions) of pastors. The crisis continues because we fail to really shift our thinking about what it means for the Church to be the Church.
The Catholic means of resisting change are consistent across crises. As with the clergy abuse crisis, some Catholics have fought change to our routines and expectations during this pandemic by (1) downplaying its severity, (2) arguing that the media, state agencies, and secular experts are primarily pursuing an ideological agenda, and (3) arguing for “spiritual” stability over physical and emotional safety and wellbeing (more on this below). We’ve been here before. If you want to know how your pastors might have responded in the clergy abuse crisis, you can observe how they are responding to a global pandemic. The same can be said of the laity.
Among the platitudes propping up the Catholic rejection of public health consensus is the belief that times of crisis require heroic actions, and that priests celebrating public Masses and going out among the laity will inspire non-Catholics by their willingness to put themselves in danger. One might be mindful of Saint Damien of Molokai who went to live and minister in a leper colony and eventually died of leprosy himself, or of St. Charles Borromeo who visited and ministered to the plague-stricken in Milan. These men ought to be praised for their willingness to put themselves in danger out of love for their people.
Today’s situation is different. Just as the development of biotechnology has solidified the Church’s position that human life (body and soul) does begin at conception (rather than, as Aquinas believed, at some moment of “ensoulment” after conception), our understanding of how viruses spread now shows us that the self-proclaimed Charles Borromeos of today are likely to increase the number of virus cases and deaths exponentially. Already, media outlets are reporting on (non-Catholic) Christian churches hiding coronavirus cases among staff in order to continue public services. Many want to publicly demonstrate that they (and their religious institutions) are stronger than the virus. In Kentucky, a group of young adults hosted a party in order to demonstrate their autonomy and strength in defiance of coronavirus regulations; soon after, one attendee tested positive. Clergy going out among the laity risk being remembered for similar pride, more for martyrdom complexes than for martyrdom, more for spreading a disease than for spreading the Faith. They risk having deaths blamed on them and their Church. They risk this blame being appropriate. Public health experts have already told us the heroic action required to save lives in this trying time: staying home, distancing, no large gatherings. We as a Church risk demonstrating to the public that this request is just too much for us.
We also risk misrepresenting the theological and anthropological position of the Church, simply so that we can underline our opposition to “the culture.” As happened in the clergy abuse crisis again and again, our desire to maintain our own images of the Church and our opposition to “secular culture” can cloud our theological and canonical judgment. In First Things, Rusty Reno calls the cancellation of Masses in order to protect the lives of the vulnerable an “underlining… [of] the irrelevance of institutional Christianity.” He argues that suspending Masses to save lives reinforces a proposition that “life in this world is the only thing that matters,” goading on other Catholics who argue that Mass suspensions arise from a lack of care about souls. In doing so, they all ironically set the stage for the sort of dualism that drove the sexual revolution, the dualism that says: what I do and what happens with my body and the bodies of others doesn’t really matter, as long as I feel or believe a certain way.
On the contrary, it is Christianity that advocates the inherent worth of the body and its life on this earth. The suffering, death, and resurrection of our embodied Lord is of infinite consequence. It is precisely this consequence that says the body in this earthly life is too valuable, too important to merely use without care. The problem with both the sexual revolution and those Catholics tending towards dualism is that they don’t love the body enough. Life in this world is not the only thing that matters. But life in this world is of infinite consequence. And our bodies and the bodies of our neighbors are of infinite worth. We will not bring our economy into eternity. But, as we know from Christ, we will bring our bodies.
I do not believe that all ecclesial activities must or should be shut down. The Church must continue. Now is a time for creativity in our ministry. However, all activities should be informed by expert guidance and best practices. I strongly recommend that dioceses and the USCCB engage public health experts to consult on this matter. Hold priests accountable for violating public safety orders that protect the vulnerable. Now is a time for humility and a willingness to adjust our expectations. Secular experts do not have all the answers, and they cannot rule the Church. But these experts tend to have the best answers within their realm of knowledge; they do not operate or predict based on perfect data, but they operate and predict based on the best available data. If we reject the data, we should keep in mind that our rejection is of the best that is available to us.
While faith perfects reason, faith doesn’t substitute for reason or cover over the damage we cause from our misuse of it. Grace can be dispensed through a holy water font. But we can’t be so naive as to believe grace will be our viral disinfectant when we dip our hands into it. Doing so would be to follow the guidance of Satan in Matthew 4. We tempt God only to our peril, and to the peril of our communities.
Other Views on Catholicism and the Pandemic
- Under Thy Roof: Cancelling Mass for Outbreaks, A History
- Felix de St. Vincent: Coronavirus and Public Masses, An Integralist Perspective
- Tim O’Malley: The Church’s Response is Saying ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion
- Leonard DeLorenzo: The Sacrifices We Make: What it means to be a Christian under lockdown
- Nicholas Frankovich: Prolife, or not, in a pandemic
- Ed Condon and JD Flynn: The sacramental shutdown, coronavirus, and canon law
- Taylor Patrick O’Neill: Why Cancelling Public Masses is the Right Spiritual Decision for the Faithful
- John Zmirak: In time of plague, maybe don’t go to church or the movies or restaurants
- Fr. Andrew Younan: Coronavirus, communion in the hand, and calming down
- Ed Peters: Canonical deep breath time
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.