ROME – Today’s Catholic debate over suspending Masses and closing churches amid the coronavirus is a serious conversation with high stakes, and it’s striking how often people of intelligence and good will, Catholics who take both faith and public health deeply seriously, appear to feel ambivalent about it.
Earlier this week I participated in an online discussion group with Catholics from several different countries, which was ostensibly on a different subject but a good deal of which was devoted to talking about the Church’s evolving response to the crisis. The priest who convened the discussion began by channeling his inner Aquinas, offering a version of omnis virtus in medio consistit.
On one end of the spectrum is what he called “hyper-spiritualized” instincts, such as a pietistic attitude of, “We don’t have to worry about disease, I can’t believe the Lord would let me get it if I’m receiving him in the precious blood.” On the other, he said, are “hyper-materialized responses,” embodied, he argued, in a decision by his local hospital to bar priests from visiting dying patients to bring the viaticum.
“This is a materialist assumption, that the only solace and care a person can have is that which is rendered by doctors, that a person is just physical and nothing more,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous way of approaching the human condition.”
In the end, he seemed to come down on the side of more access rather than less, critical of suspending all public Masses in many places.
“I think after this is over there’s going to be, pardon the expression, a real autopsy to be done, and I don’t think those regions of the world, those bishops’ conferences or bishops of the world, who reacted in a way that tended to close the church are going to fare well,” he said.
“If we send the message that we’re like everybody else in society, that we’re dispensable, then we’re going to be treated that way,” he said.
As the discussion unfolded, a woman teaching at a Catholic university cited an early decision by the Polish bishops to multiply the number of Masses celebrated each Sunday in order to reduce the number of people at any given liturgy, thereby respecting calls for “social distancing.” She contrasted that response with Italy, where the bishops’ conference shut down all public Masses immediately after the government decreed a national lockdown.
“The Mass was just thrown in there with recreation, sports and cultural events,” she said. “I’m concerned there wasn’t a recognition of the faith. It seems to me it’s not respecting the differentiation we need between church and state.”
Another participant pointed out, however, that things have changed dramatically in Poland, as the government has called for limiting any gathering to 5 people, effectively shutting down Mass most places. Even before that March 24 decision, many people were staying home and priests were saying Mass in empty churches.
A canon lawyer from the States piped up in defense of the bishops.
“I think under the circumstances I wouldn’t fault the bishops too much,” he said.
“They’re going to take a drubbing for it, but in their situation, they have to value the natural good that is life. Many of these bishops are part of the pro-life movement. We have to spend all our time talking about how important life is to a society that doesn’t believe it, so if we spin around [and create conditions in which] a bunch of old people are dying, what’s our witness in that situation?”
I was especially struck by a young professor of technology from Milan, the very heart of the crisis in Italy, who acknowledged his own uncertainty.
“We’re allowed to go out shopping to take care of our body, so I think we should be allowed to go to Mass to take care of our soul. I’ve been complaining about that a lot,” he said.
“On the other hand, as long as it’s a public ceremony, it can harm other people [because] it can help spread the virus. It’s the crucial point where my liberty can do harm to other people,” he said. Lombardy, the northern Italian region which has Milan as its capital, to date has lost 4,474 people and has been in lockdown for essentially the entire month of March.
“I must confess, I’m basically lost,” he said.
When such conversations move into the public arena, that kind of nuance and uncertainty often vanish, in part because the only people willing to stake a claim are convinced they know the right answer.
For example, the Italian news agency Corrispondenza Romana, which reflects traditionalist Catholic views of things, recently carried a piece sternly critical of the bishops (and, by implication, the pope).
“In this dramatic hour, unfortunately the Church has chosen to abandon the ‘field hospital’ and to renounce its own mission, silently accepting government directives without even raising its voice and trying to defend its indispensable role,” the piece asserted.
Similarly, Benedictine Father Giulio Meiattini of the Abbey of the Madonna della Scala near Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, was definitive.
“The saddest thing, worrying for the future of humanity, is that the Church itself (or better put, the men of the Church) have forgotten that the grace of God is worth more than the present life,” Meiattini wrote. “The Church is being transformed into a sanitary agency instead of a place of salvation.”
Yet in real life, my experience is that more Catholics are like the young academic from Milan, recognizing the competing values at stake and not envying bishops who have to make virtually unprecedented judgment calls.
Speaking of the guy from Milan, he ended with a line that’s food for thought.
“I don’t underestimate how essential liturgy is for a good Catholic life,” he said, “but more than the lack of liturgical opportunities I’m personally suffering from a resounding silence from the Church and most of our pastors.”
“In a very severe crisis, it seems like the Church has very little to say compared to what any public official is saying right now,” he said. “If all [the Church] has to say concerns the liturgy, we’re losing a huge opportunity.”
Speaking as someone experiencing this pandemic from Italy, it’s a valid reaction. Arguably not since the 19th century risorgimento has there been such a massive national mobilization in Italian life in which the Church wasn’t a prime mover. (In that case it was because the papacy was opposed to Italian unification, as it implied the loss of the Papal States. In this instance, it’s certainly not that the Church is opposed to efforts to resist the virus, simply that it’s not been nearly as ubiquitous as civic leaders.)
Perhaps amid the debate over when and where the Church should close its doors, we also ought to ponder when and where – not to mention how, and with what message – the Church ought to be opening its mouth.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.