The other day I was told about one of my former RCIA candidates who was received into the Church a few years ago. He and his wife have a baby, and they had hoped to have their child baptized on Easter Sunday. Obviously, the pandemic threw off those plans. I’m not going to play the “Shoulda, woulda, coulda” game. I don’t know the policies of their diocese, or the exact age of their baby. I don’t know if their diocese has suspended all sacraments, or whether they can still be celebrated in private without a crowd. Only a fool would presume to pass judgment on something like this without knowing all the details. I will neither judge them for not having their baby baptized earlier, nor will I judge their bishop for implementing policies in the diocese that have forced the baptism to be postponed.
While this anecdote might not be completely analogous to the central topic of this article, it was on my mind when I saw the news about an “Open Letter”† to the bishops. This initiative, called We Are An Easter People, petitions the U.S. bishops to increase access to the sacraments during this time and asks them to demand that civil authorities recognize religious gatherings as “essential services.”
I completely support the Church attempting to find ways to increase access to sacraments that are valid while avoiding the spread of contagion. I also support clarity and transparency from the Church in communicating to the people what methods and practices should be used when they are celebrated. But I have some concerns with this letter.
First of all, as polite as the language might be, I find that it treats the bishops as if they’ve been apathetic about these questions this whole time. The letter opens with the words, “Bishops, we your faithful flock, implore you to do everything you can to make the sacraments more available to us during this crisis.” I imagine the bishops are concerned with the good of the people, including their spiritual needs, and are trying to get as much done as possible. Because it does not acknowledge that the bishops share their concerns or are already trying to make the right decisions for their flocks, this letter could lead some bishops to think, “Gee, ya think? Brilliant strategy, Napoleon!”
If the bishops are trying to do something already, insisting that they start doing something isn’t helping.
Another concern I have is that they seem to treat this as something where a uniform policy is feasible. The problem is, the United StatesΩ is a nation with differing levels of population density spread out over 3.797 million square miles. If you live in a rural area, the danger might seem slight (in my county, we have had seven cases and one death). In a dense urban environment, the danger is more immediate.
Bishops need to consider how many priests are available in their dioceses and determine how much each priest can do. In rural parishes, the number of people may be fewer but each priest may have a large area to cover. In urban areas, where the population is dense and the pandemic can spread more quickly, the needs, logistics, and dangers might be more than we can imagine.
Finally, I have a serious problem with the approach of “demanding” things in this manner. Yes, the bishops are servants in the sense of Christ washing the feet of his disciples (cf. John 13:14-17). But whenever we make our spiritual needs and wants known, we must do so with respect. This is something people often forget when citing Canon 212:
CAN. 212 §1.† Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.
- 2.† The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
- 3.† According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.(emphasis added)
Making demands that sound like imperatives or imply that the bishops have been apathetically sitting around doing nothing to address these needs does not strike me as showing reverence, attention, and respect for dignity of persons.
Does that mean I think everything is fine as it is? That we should just “shut up and go along” with all of these directives? Not necessarily. I do think we need the sacraments as much as possible, and I dislike being unable to go to Mass. But we do need to ask ourselves what is the most prudent approach right now. We should consider the resources and responsibilities of the bishops who are the shepherds of their dioceses. Before requesting—not demanding—anything, we should determine whether what we want is feasible, both sacramentally and in terms of the safety and public health of the community.
The sacraments are extremely important for us. Mass is important for us. When we can take part in them, we should avail ourselves of them as frequently as possible. But there are times when they may not always be available to us. The countries that suffered religious persecution throughout history are an obvious example. War and disease have also caused major disruptions to the availability of the sacraments.
This is not to say, “We’re not suffering X, so we should just shut up about Y.” That would be the fallacy of relative privation. Our hardships are real, and they are new to us in the West. It isn’t wrong to want them resolved. But it is wrong to demand resolutions in ways that express uninformed assumptions and cannot be reasonably granted under the conditions of the situation.
We must remember that when we cannot receive the sacraments under the terms according to which we are familiar, that does not cut us off from the Church. We are still the body of Christ, we can still pray for each other, we can still interact with each other (albeit in different ways), and we can still observe the Mass. Certainly it would be laudable for members of the faithful with practical ideas of ways to improve the sacramental life in this time of pandemic to step forward.Σ We all should pray for the Lord to guide the Pope and the bishops on how best to shepherd us at this time.
In expressing our wants and needs, let us keep these things in mind. We’re still Catholics, even though we can’t receive the sacraments under these circumstances. Let us humbly accept what we must and change what we can (to paraphrase the old Serenity prayer), but let us do so in The Lord.
(†) I generally dislike the concept of the “open letter.” It strikes me as a way to “politely” attack someone. My general distaste may have influenced my views on this letter.
(Ω) I write as an American responding to an action by other American Catholics. My thoughts might be relevant to Catholics elsewhere in the world, but different systems of governing and the population density in different nations may make my thoughts irrelevant in other countries.
(Σ) It would be infinitely superior to “the bishops must do…”
Image: Adobe Stock.
An earlier version of this piece, “Apart From The Sacraments, But Still A Part Of The Church,“ appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.