ROME – From the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns, there’s been a vigorous discussion about the church/state implications of governments determining which religious practices are acceptable and which aren’t, and whether such measures, albeit often for the noblest of motives, set troubling precedents for religious freedom.

It was undeniably a bit jarring, for instance, to read a recent protocol issued by Italy’s Interior Ministry authorizing public Mass to resume May 18, which contained highly specific directives barring holy water in the entrances to churches and suppressing the Sign of Peace. Granted, those measures were agreed upon with Italy’s Catholic bishops, and they’re obviously comprehensible given the circumstances. Still, many observers can’t help worrying about government decrees regulating religious life at such a micro-level.

Is it possible, however, that the coronavirus’s real winner in terms of control over religion isn’t so much Big Brother but Henry David Thoreau? Or, to frame the question differently, is the real threat to Catholicism amid the coronavirus less constitutional and legal than ecclesiological?

At least one expert on constitutional law and church/state relations in the States believes it’s something worth thinking about.

“The premise is that we have to have all kinds of things that are open, so you’re allowed to go to Walmart and Target and Home Depot and Loewe’s, but church is unessential, so we can open up the mall so long as we tell people to wash their hands and wear a mask but church isn’t important enough to take that risk,” said Rick Garnett, director of the Program on Church, State and Society at the University of Notre Dame.

“If that takes hold, I do think that’s dangerous, and not only for regulatory reasons but really for deeper cultural ones,” Garnett said.

“The idea is that it’s no big deal, it’s really no big loss, if people can’t go to church. It’s the Thoreau version of private, individualistic religion,” Garnett said. “If this is what makes that actually take hold in the culture, as opposed to the necessity of gathering in person and having a common sacramental life, that would be a big change.”

Thoreau was born and baptized a Unitarian in New England but famously went on to reject all ecclesiastical institutions and authority, believing the evolved mind isn’t bound by any creedal “ligatures” but rather follows its own “genuine genius.”

Perhaps thinking in part of Thoreau, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once memorably asserted that American Catholics may be denominationally Catholic but they’re culturally Protestant, because Catholicism’s communitarian and hierarchical nature doesn’t sit well with the country’s anti-institutional, libertarian spirit, famously expressed by the American transcendentalist in his musings on Walden Pond.

Garnett fears all that may have been given a massive turbocharge by the coronavirus.

“If I were one of the Catholic bishops, and not to be un-ecumenical about it, but I would worry that some kind of Protestant understanding takes hold about religious faith – which says of course this isn’t a burden on your religious faith, you can just pray at home,” he said.

In turn, he’s concerned about the impact of such an understanding on pastoral life.

“Are American Catholics going to get up and go to Mass once we’re allowed to have in-person services again, after they’ve been told for two months that it’s not as important as going to Walmart?” he asked.

On the legal side Garnett actually sees a mixed bag, arguing that the crisis has generated not only new restrictions but also new examples of church/state collaboration.

“In this big federal bailout that was rushed through a month ago, the Paycheck Protection Program, there’s a lot of allowance for religious institutions and even religious ministers to benefit,” he said.

“If we were in less challenging times, you’d be seeing the ACLU filing all kinds of lawsuits against letting public funds go to religious schools and hospitals, or even churches,” Garnett said. “But that appears to be happening. Looking a year or so down the road, we may get used to the idea that it’s perfectly appropriate for the government to let religious institutions participate in these support and bailout programs.”

“If that does happen, it will be a significant change from the standard separationist line in the 1970s and 80s,” Garnett said.

“In other words, the legal picture isn’t just about whether we can have drive-in churches,” he said. “There’s a lot else going on.”

Garnett said he is worried about the future of Catholic institutions, especially parochial schools, but not because of government intrusions – actually, he said, prior to the coronavirus the trend lines had been encouraging in terms of expanded openness to measures such as vouchers and school choice programs – but because many parents won’t be able to afford tuition, and cash-starved city and state governments will be less inclined to allocate funds.

Yet he thinks the deepest worry is cultural.

“If I were a bishop and I had my shepherd/evangelist hat on, I would be really thinking hard and talking to my priests and discussing strategies to push back against the possibility of a cultural shift that just accepts a radical privatization of religion.”

“We need to make sure the discussions about which regulations are appropriate take account of the fact that for not just Catholics, but certainly for Jews and others, a regulation of in-person gatherings and practices really is a burden on the freedom of religion,” Garnett said.

Ultimately, he believes that’s a battle that may be fought out in courtrooms but won’t be decided there.

“You worry about it taking hold that the sacraments are no big deal,” Garnett said. “That’s a concern I have, wholly and apart from the legal and regulatory implications.”

“It’s about what happens in the American Catholic soul,” he said.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.