On April 15, Peter Baldacchino, bishop of Las Cruces, New Mexico, became the first American bishop to lift a ban on public attendance at Mass. The New Mexico governor continues to ban gatherings of more than five people. Though Baldacchino objects to this limit, he is requiring priests to observe it. Priests are also authorized to resume weddings and funerals, again while conforming to state regulations.
In an interview with Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency, Baldacchino said that he was inspired by Pope Francis: The pope has spoken “about how drastic measures are not always good. He opened the churches of Rome—in a safe way, of course—and warned us that we must remain very close to the Lord’s flock at this time. We cannot wall ourselves off.”
“We have our priorities totally upside down,” Baldacchino told Condon. “Here in New Mexico, you can buy all the liquor you want, this is essential and worth the risks. You can buy marijuana, this is an essential service and the risks are tolerated. But the Eucharist—the summit of our Christian life, the sacrament of our salvation—this is not worth any risk, it’s too dangerous. We take risks to buy destructive things and call it essential while denying ourselves the true medicine. The BigMac and MillerLite, essential, the Body of Christ, not so much.”
Bishop Baldacchino’s demonstration of prudent, decisive leadership marks an important step forward for the Catholic Church, which needs to lead our society back to normalcy. Other bishops should follow suit.
We are living under unprecedented measures of social control. They entail the suspension of public worship, deaths without last rites, burials without funerals. The corporal works of mercy are de facto banned by civil authorities, and certainly by the virtue police who patrol social media.
Meanwhile, when asked about a Tinder-arranged hookup, the nation’s medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, opined: “If you’re willing to take a risk—and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks—you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of interaction that you want to have.”
We can go to the liquor store and transact for a bottle of Jack Daniels. Depending on our tolerance for risk, we can arrange with strangers for a sexual encounter. But it horrifies the consciences of the Great and the Good that a priest should administer communion.
Three weeks ago, we were told that dramatic action was needed in order to “flatten the curve” and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. The curve was flattened (narrowly) in New York City, where hospitalizations and deaths have fallen in recent days. Now we are told that the lockdown must continue in order to prevent the spread of the disease. This is an entirely different and elusive goal—one that justifies unlimited measures of social control, given the nature of the disease.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “If such an ultimate end of an individual man or a multitude were a corporeal one, namely, life and health of body, to govern would then be a physician’s charge.” Our society is now organizing itself around bodily survival as the singular good, to which we seem willing to sacrifice everything else. How many people need to die alone before we take a more measured course? How many people must be buried without funerals?
Christians should be taking the lead. We know that though bodily health and physical survival are great goods, they exist within a hierarchy of goods. In a time of medical emergency, we acknowledge the need to give temporary priority to health. But from the very beginning of such an emergency, Christians should be insisting that physical health must not be pursued to the exclusion of spiritual health.
Bishop Baldacchino is a good shepherd to his flock. He is also an example to public leaders in all spheres. We all must press for a prudent return to a way of life that honors all human goods, and honors them in their proper order. We need to go to funerals, attend weddings, share joys with friends in person, and console them when they cry on our shoulders. The suspension of these goods needs to be as short as possible. And the burden of proof must fall on those urging that we continue to make health our singular priority.
Following Bishop Baldacchino’s lead will require showing the courage he has shown. The present atmosphere is one of censorship and intimidation. This punitive mentality is encouraged by propaganda warning that the slightest deviation from the most extreme public health measures will “cause death.” And it is inflamed by fear over the possibility of our own deaths.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently observed that the emerging practice of cremating bodies without a funeral ceremony indicates that we are falling back into barbarism. This is hyperbole, but he has a point that’s worth pondering. We must not relinquish all properly human concerns, and fix only on the elemental struggle to survive. “It is curious that churches remain silent,” Agamben rued. In Las Cruces, the Church is silent no more.
The first four faithful Catholics who gathered with a priest to celebrate the Mass in the diocese of Las Cruces demonstrated by their actions that they wish to live in the fullness of their humanity rather than solely in accord with concerns about physical survival. May their witness be contagious.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.