Over the last 2,000 years, we have faced many different plagues and crises. The Church has responded to them in various ways, based on the needs of the people and the knowledge of science at the time. As our knowledge of science and medicine have progressed, experts have recommended precautions to prevent the spread of disease. Historically, the Church has accepted these recommendations whenever they were morally acceptable. Recommendations that were intrinsically evil were rejected.
Unfortunately, certain Catholics today have reacted with hostility to the Church’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak and to laws establishing quarantine. They argue that, in past centuries, the Church did not suspend public Masses or close churches. Therefore, the Church today should not close them. They draw attention to the fact that “only” 8000 people have died (as of the time I write this).
These arguments overlook some crucial concerns. For example, in the influenza epidemic of 1918, fifty million people died and one-third of the world population is believed to have been infected. Like today, there was no vaccine, so the governments of the time did what they are doing now: encouraging social isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and imposing limitations on public gatherings. In 1918, the Church cooperated with these restrictions. We could also look at the Black Death of the 14th century that killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people, where people did not know about germs and how they spread. People at the time did not know about effective methods to prevent the spread of disease, and many died.
The Catholics criticizing the Church’s response to the current pandemic believe we should continue Medieval practices, such as keeping the churches open, that were used during past plagues. I would suggest that they’re misinterpreting a lack of knowledge in the past for trust in God, arguing that we don’t have as much faith today. They need to ask themselves whether the popes and bishops of the Middle Ages would have carried out the same policies if they understood infectious diseases as we do today.
I don’t say this to blame the Church. Understanding germs certainly would have been impossible before the invention of the microscope (~1590 AD). Some try to bash the Church as being “anti-science” and therefore to blame for past epidemics. That’s bad history. The science§ of the time—regardless of the culture—didn’t know how diseases were spread. Scientists could only reason that because of the unhealthiness in certain areas, phenomena associated with those areas (like “the air”) were the cause. These theories could limit some bad effects (such as, “don’t live in a marsh”) but not all of them (like “don’t spread germs”) since they hadn’t been discovered yet.
Today, both Church and state know much more about germ theory than they did in the 14th century. As a result, they are implementing public health policies that would have been inconceivable then. Social distancing, quarantines, and restricting large gatherings (including suspending public Masses) are part of this.
Yes, keeping the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day is important. But in a serious situation, a bishop can implement a policy that suits the needs of his diocese, dispensing the people from their obligation to attend Mass. We’re still obliged to keep the Lord’s Day holy. But we must not endanger others in doing so.
It’s true that COVID-19 hasn’t yet killed as many people as the flu. But it would be a false analogy to argue that, because of this, we don’t need to do anything different. COVID-19 spreads more quickly than the flu and can be spread by people before they have symptoms. If you go to Mass and don’t know you are infected, you can spread the virus to others. Then they can go off to spread it to their families before detecting the symptoms in themselves.
Depending on how close together people live in a diocese, the pandemic can have a greater or lesser impact and the diocesan restrictions can vary. This doesn’t mean that the bishop of a diocese that issues less serious restrictions is “holier” or “has more faith” than the bishop that decides to implement more restrictions.
The grumbling against the bishops within the Church today reminds me of the criticism against the Church concerning previous contagions.
Occasionally, critics have blamed the Church for past epidemics. For example, many say the Church is “to blame” for the AIDS crisis in Africa because of her condemnation of contraception. Such critics overlook the fact that, as with COVID-19, modification of behavior can help prevent the spread of disease more effectively than risky behavior. Those who are infected and still choose to have sexual intercourse effectively refuse to modify their behavior to prevent contagion. Perhaps they do not realize the selfishness of such behavior, and can’t conceive of living any other way. But this is another example where critics want the Church to accommodate them.
Catholics who are angry with their bishops or the pope over restrictions on public Masses are behaving in a similar way. Such people want the Church to accommodate how they want to live, even though it might do harm to themselves and others.
We need to practice prudence. We also must recognize that our bishop has the authority to close churches and suspend public Masses for the welfare of his people.
Certainly, we must still keep Sunday holy, even when we cannot attend Mass. We have the Bible, the Missal, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours app, televised Mass, and other ways to worship until we are free of this pandemic and can go to Mass again.
Yes, most of us are unable to physically receive the Eucharist under these circumstances. And that is a painful loss. But this is also an opportunity to remember that there are many in the Church who are also unable to attend Mass due to age, infirmity, or lack of priests. We must pray for the grace to go forward until we are delivered from this pandemic.
(§) And it was science in the sense of observation of cause and effect, drawing conclusions. But people forget that the technology we take for granted—or even now consider obsolete—did not even exist yet and so, the science of the time could not be as effective.
An earlier version of this piece, “Reflecting on Critics of the Church Dispensations Over COVID-19 and the Mass“ appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
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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/.