ROME – Today marks Day 42 without public Mass here in Italy, part of a nationwide coronavirus quarantine. As the infection rate continues to decline there’s been speculation about a ripresa, meaning a gradual return to normality, and as part of that scenario, the Italian bishops are in talks with the government as to when liturgical life can restart.
Tensions around the shutdown are being felt all over the world, from Germany, where Catholic bishops are protesting a decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep a ban on religious services in place while reopening thousands of shops, to the US, where the Kansas governor is in a court battle over limits on church gatherings and where Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has decided to lift the suspension of public Masses on his own.
One unsettled dimension of this debate is the attitude of Pope Francis. As time has gone on, he’s sent signals which, paradoxically, have emboldened both supporters of government-imposed restrictions and critics.
On the one hand, Francis has set an example by livestreaming his daily Mass without faithful present, clearly practicing social distancing. Francis also has applauded priests who’ve found creative ways to reach people through digital means, by celebrating Mass on rooftops or terraces for whole neighborhoods, and so on, which implies the proper response isn’t to defy the restrictions but to work within them.
Yet it was also Francis who cajoled Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, his Vicar of Rome, into reopening parishes for private prayer less than 24 hours after De Donatis had announced they would be closed. (De Donatis himself would later test positive for the virus and receive treatment at Rome’s Gemelli hospital before continuing his recovery at home.)
On Friday, Francis also used his morning Mass to call liturgies without people present “dangerous.”
Such measures, the pope said, are part of “this difficult moment,” but they can’t lead to turning “the Church, the sacraments and the people” into a virtual reality exercise. Current restrictions, the pope said, are intended “to exit from this tunnel, not to stay this way,” because the Church is based on “concrete familiarity with the people.”
“This isn’t the Church,” he said, referring to the quarantine. “This is the Church in a difficult situation.”
Perhaps one reason that both Catholics who accept the limits, and those who chafe against them, feel the pope understands them, is because the situation involves two core values for the pontiff that don’t always sit well together.
On the one hand, Francis believes that in confronting complex and shared problems, the Church needs be in dialogue with, and to learn from, the human sciences. In Laudato si, his 2015 encyclical on the environment, he cited a “very solid scientific consensus” pointing towards global warming as part of his case for “care for our common home.”
For the last five years, Francis has done battle against eco-skeptics and climate change deniers, including some inside his own flock, insisting that recommendations of the scientific community must be taken seriously. It would thus be ironic if, facing another great common challenge in the coronavirus pandemic, the pope appeared to minimize the warnings of epidemiologists and public health experts.
In a sense, climate debates have created a template for the politics of the coronavirus, since it’s often conservatives (including Catholics) already skeptical of “big government” and “fake science” who tend to be most leery of state-imposed quarantines that come with a scientific imprimatur. Instinctively it’s not a viewpoint for which Francis ever has had a great deal of sympathy, which may account for the fact that he’s largely backed the line of the Italian bishops of compliance with government decrees.
On the other hand, Francis is equally dedicated to a Church close to its people, one which gets out of the sacristy and into the street. He’s also a determined foe of clericalism, and he may see a risk of revived clerical elitism in the fact that Mass is being celebrated without faithful all over the world.
Earlier this month, an interesting piece in that regard was published by Italian Catholic journalist Riccardo Cristiano, a key Francis supporter, titled “Priests and That Temptation in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Cristiano was critical of a document issued by the bishops’ conference of the Italian region of Umbria, presented as a pastoral message on the suspension of public Masses.
In it, the bishops wrote: “The assembly participates in the celebration but is not the constitutive protagonist of the sacramental act, which is instead the ordained minister, whether priest or bishop.”
Probably the message was intended simply to reassure people that the livestreamed Masses they’re watching remain valid, but Cristiano detected something alarming.
“This painful predicament can reawaken the desire [among clergy] to be the Church all by themselves, which is a deep drive and a challenge that the coronavirus poses to many priests,” he wrote. “It’s a risk much more important than a document which, perhaps, not even all of its signatories actually read: Clericalism.”
That’s probably a concern that resonates with Francis too.
Of course, the pope hardly would be the only Catholic ambivalent about the present state of things, accepting the importance of defending life and health but also concerned about treating religious practice as inessential and dispensable.
Yet for Francis, given the way the situation pits two signature causes against one another, it may be especially agonizing – which might explain both his grudging tolerance, and also his evident impatience.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.