Easter without Mass? Of course not! Mass will be said, and my family and I will prayerfully hear it said. But though we are not under sentence of excommunication, we will be forbidden to hear it said in person. Forbidden by the government—and by the Church itself—to take part in it.
Forbidding by the former is something Christians have experienced many times throughout the centuries, though we ourselves have not experienced it. Forbidding by the latter is unprecedented, as far as I know. The plague confronting us, on the other hand, is far from unprecedented. Though dangerous, the current coronavirus is not Ebola or the Black Death. It’s not even polio, which came to my house when I was a lad and afflicted my father. Thus far, thanks be to God, it’s not as deadly a killer as the Spanish flu. So let’s dispense with talk of an unprecedented situation, unless by “unprecedented” we mean the general closure of churches, even at Easter, on a scale never seen before.
I want to question this closure. More specifically, I want to question the fashion in which it has been done. For in the Church we are obligated to think and act in a manner proper to the Church. We cannot simply conform to the decisions of public officials where those decisions touch, advertently or inadvertently, on the mandate of the Church or on the essential conduct of its mission. The Church takes its marching orders from much higher up.
Our Commander-in-Chief, to be sure, leaves many things to what the military would call Auftragstaktik or “mission command.” Local judgments must be made by those in charge locally. I understand that, and I have a modest grasp of the grave challenges our bishops face in taking decisions in a timely way. It’s their call, in any case, not mine; and my own family is divided in its thinking about what the best tactics might be. The wisdom and the rectitude of closing churches and withdrawing sacramental ministries during a time of suffering and death is not fully apparent to me, however.
The approach of the Triduum and of Easter, the Church’s highest holy day, highlights the problem. The bishops themselves must feel keenly the sad prospect of celebrating Easter without the faithful gathered round. So let’s review the case for that, which seems to rest on three considerations: first, concern for the temporal well-being of the faithful and their neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable among them, and of our aging (and already scarce) clergy, who are themselves among the vulnerable; second, concern for the efficiency of the government’s pandemic strategy, a concern strengthened by recognition of the impracticality of many of the measures suggested for risk mitigation should the faithful attend Mass; third, concern for civil law and a worry that failure to comply and to cooperate fully will leave the churches open to serious recriminations and indeed to punitive legal sanctions.
And what of the opposite case, the case for allowing the faithful to attend, especially on Easter, albeit under strict protocols? That seems to rest on the following: first, concern that temporal well-being remain subordinate to eternal well-being, for which the reception of sacraments is conducive and, though not always necessary, sometimes necessary; second, concern that governments not be allowed to dictate to the Church whether or how its gospel is preached and its sacraments dispensed, as if civil government were the higher authority; third, concern that the cancellations are for naught, since the faithful and their neighbors are already put at a similar level of temporal risk through the daily “liturgies” of seeking bodily sustenance and conducting necessary business in service of others.
Merely listing these reasons (or others like them) does not lead us directly to some obviously secure conclusion; nor does it eliminate the need for prudential judgment, in a particular diocese at a particular moment, in the application of any conclusion reached. On the latter especially I cannot presume to comment. I do want to ask, however, whether bishops, considered separately or together with the bishop of Rome, actually have any authority, prudential or otherwise, to rule that communicate members of their flock should be denied access to Masses being celebrated in their ordinary times and places. Whence would they derive that authority?
Even the canonists are not all of a mind on this. The claim that bishops do have such authority strikes me as theologically dubious. It is one thing to require extraordinary measures in the conduct of a Mass, or indeed to offer general dispensation to absentees, accompanied by grave pastoral advice that one should exercise caution when deciding to attend—as might be done in China or North Korea, say, or under any overtly hostile regime. It is quite another thing to tell the faithful they may not attend, or to accede to government orders to that effect.
This is not China or North Korea, of course. We do not yet live under a wicked tyranny. The wrath of Wuhan is a far more modest problem than that, and one we may hope is short-lived. And yes, we may and must take all requisite steps to help it pass as quickly as possible. But what, ecclesially speaking, are the requisite steps? While paying due attention to medical and political authorities, how shall we see to it that nothing is regarded as requisite that compromises the basic mission of the Church? How shall we see that the gospel and the sacraments and the works of charity at the heart of that mission remain our priority in all circumstances, however adapted to circumstance?
What, in brief, is the proper ground of the present ban on lay attendance at the Easter liturgies? Epidemiological concerns I understand. Political and legal concerns I understand. Concern for the vulnerable I understand. But all this must be subordinate to evangelical concerns, and be seen to be subordinate. If we do not forbid the presence of the laity at Mass because of fear of men, should we do so for fear of a virus?
The question before us must have a theological answer—not merely a prudential one. And whatever the best theological answer is, we will not arrive at it by urging people to remember that divine providence is in the business of bringing good out of evil; or that we ourselves should bring good out of evil through our spiritual fasts and through patience and generosity in other hardships we may be enduring. That is perfectly sound advice, which many bishops and priests are giving and many lay faithful taking to heart. We should indeed cooperate with Providence in such a fashion and so become provident ourselves. But that does not answer the question; rather, it begs the question.
Let’s return, then, to the answers being proffered, putting them a bit more theologically.
The one goes like this: It is right that we are told to stay home. We seek eternal goods before temporal, yes. We prioritize the soul over the body, yes, though as people of Easter faith we believe that salvation is also bodily. But we can seek eternal goods, pro tempore, by way of spiritual rather than actual communion in the ongoing oblations conducted by the clergy. That way we can also preserve more effectively basic temporal goods such as life and health and avoid a fight with the authorities at a time when we must surely work with them, not against them. We do not have to deny the faith to achieve this, and what we are achieving is also affirmed by the faith. So let us bear it for the time being, for the sake of the vulnerable.
The other goes something like this: The temporal goods of life and health, even public health, do not override the mandate of the Church to offer sacrifice and oblation in every place. Nor do they trump the right, and normally the duty, of the faithful to participate in that offering in person. (Spiritual communion is for those who can’t be present, not for those who can.) Advice from a concerned father-in-God to pray at home is one thing; locking the church doors before saying Mass is another. Moreover, the synaxis or “coming together upon one place”—particularly at Easter, which of all liturgies most clearly anticipates the final gathering to Christ at the parousia—is not fulfilled by the clergy alone. We should not thus divide between clergy and laity in the one royal priesthood of Christ. Nor should we divide body from soul by relying on remote participation through technological means, as if virtual reality (the putative “connectivity” that is the true and worrisome social distancing of our day) were any substitute for real reality. Coming together for the Great Thanksgiving is not incidental to our identity in Christ; it is fundamental.
To be honest, I am still torn between these views, though you can see which way I lean.
The second view, I concede, can appear idealistic, even reckless. But it also appears to be sober-minded, putting first things first. It does not deny that extraordinary measures are called for, measures aimed at the safety of those who choose to come to Mass and the safety of those to whom they will return; measures aimed also at the safety of priests, whose work it sees as still more important than the work of those brave and devoted medical folk who also put themselves and their loved ones in harm’s way.
The first view, on the other hand, has been badly undermined by bishops who have pressed its logic to the extreme, even to “temporarily suspending” the last rites. What irony is in that turn of phrase. And what could be more telling of misplaced priorities, of getting things upside down and backward? Risk mitigation seems here to mean risk elimination, and the risks in question have to do only with the goods of this world. They occlude altogether, even at the point of death, the goods of the world to come. And thus the faith is denied.
Some will say by way of rejoinder that such bishops are rare and that they have badly distorted the first view. Fair enough. But I have yet to learn how asking everyone to remain at home at Easter—nay, demanding that everyone stay home at Easter—is an extraordinary measure proper to the Church. Does it not bring the leiturgia—the work of the people in glorifying God with and through the crucified and risen One by coming together in his very presence—to a halt in the Church militant? Is that proper? Can it be proper? On what grounds is Easter—Easter! the one feast for which all were asked to prepare even in the days of yore when the laity did not receive Communion regularly—to be privatized? On the grounds of a general panic about a threatening flu? On the grounds that the state has decided to close churches while leaving hardware stores open? On the grounds that some of the clergy are fearful to carry on?
Did I say “hardware stores”? Since context really does matter to the prudential application of any principled judgment, let us recall this about ourselves: Worldwide we have been killing more fetuses per diem, by a factor of four or five, than COVID-19 has killed to date. This deliberate cull of helpless humans is lauded and funded by the powers-that-be, with the support of many citizens, despite the fact that abortion, together with contraception, has led not to a stronger but to an aging and hence more vulnerable population. The abortion mills are nonetheless regarded in a good many jurisdictions as an essential service, and kept open along with the hardware stores. But churches? Churches are told they must close, lest they aid COVID. And some churches have even closed themselves, lest a few of their more foolhardy flock venture out and contract COVID there. God forbid that going to church, to the altars of the martyrs, should ever be a factor in the timing of anyone’s death.
One might be forgiven for wondering how it is that these churches have acted so promptly and decisively against a rogue virus that attacks the body alone, after having contented themselves for so long with only the most feeble resistance to the far deadlier pestilences of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia—to name three icons of a society that prefers temporal to eternal goods—which attack both body and soul. One might even be forgiven for wondering whether these churches are not so much displaying simple good sense during a plague as revealing what really matters to them.
I fear that sounds too harsh and indeed uncharitable. This is Lent, after all, with Easter just around the corner. But then I recall that we can’t go round the corner for confession or to celebrate Easter. The doors will be locked and the parking lot (which might have been pressed into service for an outdoor Mass that both respects and defies “social distancing”) will be empty, even emptier than those on the streets of the city of man. And my brethren will be at home looking at their screens. Let us hope that they will be seeing and “hearing” Mass, and that what they hear will truly feed their minds, their hearts, and their souls while they follow orders to protect their bodies.
Be that as it may, how they will in that way give common witness to the Resurrection and the Life remains obscure. In any case, they will go down in history as belonging to the generation that managed to cancel Easter. What generation, I wonder, will follow that?
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of Theological Negotiations.