At the outset, I should acknowledge the many Catholic priests and bishops who have worked to find creative ways to minister to the laity while following public health guidelines and the direction of their leaders. They should be praised. For example, live-streamed liturgies have been consoling and uplifting. We should be thankful for them.
However, the laity should also be vigilant. Crazy times provoke crazy people. We’ve seen from past crises the extent to which Catholics will go to fight for business as usual in the Church. So among other things, the present crises should be an opportunity for the Catholic laity to evaluate their pastors and Church leaders. As with the clergy abuse crisis, responses from Catholic leaders to our global pandemic allow us to identify portions of Catholicism buttressed by clericalism, a disregard for secular competence, and superstition wrapped up in piety. This post will focus on the last, about which Aquinas has a few opinions.
Happenings in the Church
A few weeks ago, my local Archbishop announced the suspension of all public Masses. Funerals and weddings may occur, as long as they comply with directives provided by the Archdiocese (no more than 10 people, social distancing, encouraging communion on the hand, etc.). The vast majority of priests and laity, while grieved that these changes need to occur, have readily adopted and supported them for the health and well-being of their communities. The same can be said for similar restrictions across the globe.
Some have not. Today, City Pages reported positively on four priests in North Minneapolis driving to Catholics’ homes and providing safe opportunities for worship. It also covered, however, a Twin Cities parish which appeared to be celebrating Mass and distributing communion in violation of both Archdiocesan directives and state orders. In a statement to City Pages, the Archdiocese stated: “No priest in the Archdiocese had the authorization of the Archdiocese to make an exception to that directive.” I personally confirmed that neither the city nor the state had granted an exception to Minnesota’s stay at home order.
Last week, two local seminary professors sent an email to hundreds of priests in my Archdiocese. The professors discussed the suspension of Masses and wrote: “Archbishop Hebda asked for input from the lay faithful in his letter to the archdiocese. It is for this reason that we, with filial respect, petition you to keep the sacramental life available to all the faithful.” An optimistic reading may consider this a request to the Archbishop to change the directives. However, because the letter is addressed directly to the priests (“Dear Reverend Fathers”) and not the Archbishop, a cynical reading may see this as a (veiled) request for priests to defy the directives and continue public Masses.
Calls to defy have been made elsewhere. Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan has said: “If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful.” The editor of First Things, Rusty Reno, has publicly shared his plans to defy the directives of his bishop.
I won’t pit myself against a bishop here. Instead, I’ll pit Aquinas against him and others. Or, rather, I’ll place all this in the context of the Summa, and ask whether the bishop and others have pitted themselves against the Angelic Doctor. Are requests for disobedience (and disobedience itself, whether in letter or in spirit) acts of faith? Or are they advocacy for superstition?
Aquinas on Superstition (ST, II-II, Q. 92-93)
As with all vices, there is something right and something wrong with superstition. Aquinas calls superstition an “immoderate observance of religion.” Superstition “agree[s] with religion in giving worship to God,” but it gives this worship incorrectly. In particular, superstition is an “excess” of religious observance.
Aquinas says there are two types of excess that comprise superstition: worshipping the wrong being, and worshipping the true God in an inappropriate way (eo modo quo non debet). Aquinas draws on Augustine when he discusses the latter. In Contra Mendacium, Augustine writes: “A most pernicious lie is that which is uttered in matters pertaining to Christian religion.” Such a “pernicious lie” can occur in worship. Aquinas says that “if anything false is signified by outward worship, this worship will be pernicious.”
One way the lie can occur is “on the part of the worshipper, and especially in common worship which is offered by ministers impersonating the whole Church.” The lie, says Aquinas, occurs when one “gives worship to God contrary to the manner established by the Church or… according to ecclesiastical custom.” When worship occurs contrary to that established by the competent ecclesiastical authority, the priest-minister becomes an impersonator. He acts as if he were the entirety of the Church, because he has usurped the proper ecclesial authority. He usurps not only his bishop, but all of Christendom. This worship has, as Aquinas says, something “deadly” in it.
When priest-ministers violate ecclesial norms and customs, “all this must be reckoned excessive and superstition; because consisting, as it does, of mere externals, it has no connection with the internal worship of God.” It becomes superstition because it is preoccupied with externals and separated from the ecclesial community.
This particular vice of superstition seems currently most visible in Catholics who insist that Masses be held, whether permitted by the relevant ecclesial authority or not. Violating the directives of a bishop in worship is promoting superstition, a “deadly” and “pernicious lie.” This violation is superstition by definition.
A Catholic Response
Of course, conducting liturgy under the spirit of superstition does not invalidate a Mass on its own. Christ is so humble that He comes down to man even in his errors. And superstition is not a total bar to faith. An improper or insufficiently formed fear of God can develop into holy wonder. Superstitious piety can be the small beginnings of a deep faith. Most of us struggle with superstition in various ways throughout the stages of our faith journeys. Like all vices, superstition can have a way of getting mixed up with our virtues.
But Aquinas gives clarity on some of the most obvious pitfalls when it comes to superstition. This includes violating public ministry limitations given by a bishop or other relevant ecclesial authority, whether the limitations be bars on public ministry because of sexual misconduct or suspensions of public liturgies because of a global pandemic. We should know better. As Father John Echert from my Archdiocese (whose parish held the above-mentioned Masses) has said when speaking of the authority of the Pope, “One thing I learned in the military: a subordinate authority does not have the right to countermand the law of a higher authority.”
I am not here arguing the prudence or imprudence of particular measures when it comes to Catholic ministry and public health guidance. Now is a time for creativity in the Church, for the reservoir of faith and communion filled during less trying times to be opened, for the faith of the Church and the best of contemporary science to act as “two wings on which the human spirit rises” (Fides et Ratio). The worst of times must bring out the best of Christianity.
However, we must also be attentive to the dangers brought about in trying times, such as the tendency to engage in superstition, cults of personality, and the reduction of spiritual health to ritual calculation and transaction. We must forgive one another for failures in these regards. But we should also be accountable for them.
The costs of superstition are high. Not all of my readers will agree, but I believe priests should be subject to serious penalties for violating liturgical restrictions at this time. Priests violating the orders of their dioceses regarding ministry should be banned, at least temporarily, from public ministry because they endanger the faithful in two ways. First, they violate public health guidelines in the midst of a global pandemic expected to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (more than 1000 Americans died today alone). Second, such priests encourage and teach the vice of superstition to the laity. They teach it by both word and deed.
The laity need something else. We need something more. Thank you to the clergy who offer it.
More of my thoughts on Catholicism and COVID-19:
Other relevant articles and opinions:
- Resources on COVID-19 from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
- Resources on COVID-19 from the State of Minnesota
- Fr. Matthew Schneider: Why is public Mass suspended? 4 cases show why
- 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.