Cancelling church services is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death. This does not mean carelessness about our health, nor does it mean indifference to the health of others. Instead, it means that as Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.
The coronavirus pandemic is serious. Perhaps political leaders are correct to take stern measures to slow the spread of the virus. (Although I am increasingly convinced that we may look back and judge the shutdown of the global economy an ill-advised course of action, no matter how dangerous the virus is for those vulnerable to complications.) Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.
Closing churches and cancelling services betrays this duty of spiritual care. Many are speaking of death and disaster. Social media whips up fear. Stern faces on TV tell us how many people are infected. Cancellations cascade into our inboxes. In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.
I was shocked to learn that entire dioceses have suspended public celebration of the Eucharist. Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, suspended public Masses through Holy Week, effectively cancelling Easter for most Catholics under his care. To this point, the Archbishop of New York has not gone so far, but he has also suspended public Masses for the time being—hoping, perhaps, that the all-clear signal will be sounded before Easter.
Public Masses have been cancelled in Rome and the church doors barred. Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Vicar of Rome, justified his decision to close churches as a spiritual mandate: “There is first the spiritual need of charity in caring for our brothers.” But this is not correct. The first commandment is to love the Lord our God. The first spiritual need of charity is to grow in our love for God, for only then will we have the firm foundation on which to endure the sacrifices and responsibilities that come with loving our brothers.
Pope Francis demurred from this decision, and rightly so: “Drastic measures aren’t always good.” The churches in Rome have reopened, although public Masses remain suspended through the end of the month.
Closing churches is utterly unnecessary. People can gather to pray before the reserved sacrament while maintaining the “social distancing” advised by public health experts. Modest-sized Masses can be conducted in ways that do not irresponsibly risk spreading the virus. The same holds for baptisms and funerals. In some circumstances, pastors can limit attendance to immediate family. But simply suspending the sacraments suggests that the Church lives in accord with the world’s priorities.
In Little Rock, the diocesan chancellor intoned that suspension of public Masses “is a preventative measure for our more vulnerable populations.” The sentiment is fitting, but the practical judgment wrongheaded. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles took the correct approach. He lifted the Sunday obligation for Catholics in his archdiocese. Elderly people and those with medical conditions need to be cautious. Church leaders are wise to give the faithful full scope for prudent judgment about risk, not just to oneself, but to others as well. Some will say, “But the pious elderly will be tempted to come nonetheless, so we have to institute a blanket suspension of the Mass.” This is a damaging spiritual paternalism. I guarantee you that most Catholics over eighty have a far better sense of what’s best for their physical and spiritual welfare than a nervous diocesan chancellor worried about the “image problems” that might arise if a coronavirus hot spot is traced to a parish or church activity.
In truth, I am demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to what Ephraim Radner calls “the Time of the Virus.” Those of us who live in densely populated areas are aware of the intense anxiety and fear that has become pervasive. The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear.
It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways. In a time of pandemic—a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment, and death—churches must not join the stampede of fear.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.