A few days before Cardinal Dolan cancelled all public Masses in New York, I urged my wife not to take our children to church. I had gone to Mass earlier that morning at our local parish. As always, it was packed. For weeks, offices had been installing hand sanitizer dispensers. People had been pressing elevator buttons with their elbows and avoiding public transit. But at church no steps had been taken. It was impossible to avoid standing shoulder-to-shoulder and shaking hands.
Now many churches have gone from conducting Masses as if nothing were amiss to holding no Masses at all. As people crowd supermarkets and big-box stores, churches are closed. In the archdiocese of Newark, Cardinal Joseph Tobin has forbidden Catholics from entering their churches to pray. He has banned the sacraments of baptism and confession except in emergencies. Family members are not allowed to attend burials.
Similar restrictions have been put in place elsewhere. In Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich has decreed that priests may not perform emergency baptisms without permission, despite the fact that canon law gives every Catholic—even a layman—the right to baptize in case of emergency.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, said, “It’s not essential for people to travel to go to church in order to pray. We have to learn more and more that our prayer is rooted in our hearts and can be shared with our families.”
Judging by the response of many religious leaders, church is a non-essential service. We are capable of taking prudent measures to keep our supermarkets open, but not our sanctuaries.
Coronavirus has shown what we value. In Pennsylvania, beer distrubutors are deemed essential. In San Francisco and New York, cannabis dispensaries are. The rules vary by jurisdiction, but they all aim at one overriding goal: the preservation of physical health.
Important as health is, things begin to look strange when it is valued above all else. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes announced the supreme modern value: “the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life.” This absolute prioritization of physical health ran counter to the Christian ethic, but it proved to be widely appealing. In due course, it became a hallmark of liberal societies.
Without reading him, we are faithful to Descartes. Because we value health above all, we subordinate the spiritual to the temporal. A few men have noted the resulting absurdities. One is Giorgio Agamben, who pointedly observed, “The dead—our dead—do not have a right to a funeral and it is not clear what will happen to the bodies of our loved ones. Our neighbor has been cancelled and it is curious that churches remain silent on the subject.”
A similar critique has been offered by R. R. Reno, the editor of this magazine. He has argued that physical life and health are not the highest values—causing some to claim that he is not pro-life. Similar criticisms were made of pro-lifers during the embryonic stem cell debate. Then, too, Catholics were seen as hypocrites who claimed to be pro-life while standing in the way of an urgent matter of public health. Then, too, they were seen as leaning too heavily on a distinction between directly killing and failing to prevent death.
Because health really is valuable, it is easy to understand the spate of rash closings. But Christian leaders who have shut their churches should follow the example of Pope Francis, who reversed a decision to close the churches of Rome. “Drastic measures are not always good,” Francis said. He urged pastors to “not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone . . . so that the people of God will feel accompanied by their pastors, comforted by the Word of God, by the sacraments, and by prayer.” The pope’s secretary warned that if the Church abandons the people in this crisis, the people will abandon it.
Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life. Like grocery stores, churches can be kept open in a manner consistent with public health. Drive-up confessions, in which the priest is kept at a safe distance from the penitent, are already occurring. Masses can be conducted in a way that keeps congregants six feet apart—more social distancing than one sees in the supermarket, or on the subway or sidewalk. Just as priests serving under St. Charles Borromeo once held their fingers in flame after giving the eucharist to the sick, priests today can use hand sanitizer before and after administering the sacrament.
Because of coronavirus, my wife and I baptized our infant son with only the godparents and the clergyman present. The parish at which it would have been logical to baptize him turned us away. But another said it would take us. Hand sanitizer had been placed at the entrance. We refrained from shaking the cleric’s hand. The only audience for the ceremony was a man at the far end of the church, kneeling alone in a pew. I was grateful that the church showed concern for us physically. And more grateful still that it did not abandon us spiritually.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.