How can the Church seek to provide sacramental care to the most people, especially those most in need, in the best possible way in our current conditions? In what follows I’d like to offer some prudential reflections, open to debate, but construed in light of the Church’s traditional sacramental and pastoral practices.
A first priority would seem to be the sick and the dying. Those who have greatest need of the sacraments and the personal presence of a priest are those who are most threatened by grave illness and death. Consequently, pastoral care for such persons is an obvious priority, since their consolation and salvation are at stake. Those who don’t have COVID-19 should continue to be served as generously as possible. Where such pastoral care is aimed specifically at COVID-19 patients, particular parameters should be identified.
I agree with those who appeal to the examples of Sts. Charles Borromeo and Damien Molokai to argue that the clergy and religious of the Catholic Church can and should rise to the occasion in our current circumstances so as to minister, where it is possible, to people who are dying from the virus, even at real risk to themselves. They must do so freely, and not under compulsion, and only if they do so in safe ways, in discussion with their superiors. My suspicion, however, is that where they are offered such an opportunity by their bishops, many younger priests and some older ones will freely embrace it. Presuming they have the requisite prudence, it is clearly laudable and noble to facilitate such engagement. It can exemplify conformity to Christ in its sacrificial dimensions. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The condition for doing this reasonably, however, is simply to do so without infecting others heedlessly. Therefore, those bishops who have assembled teams of priests to minister to the sick and provided them with quarantined lodging are showing an appreciable balance of prudence and charity, for the common good of all. If this crisis endures, it is reasonable to try to think about what set of best practices can be developed that will assure the maximum pastoral outreach to as many as possible, allied with respect for public safety.
The second priority concerns the forgiveness of sins and the sacrament of reconciliation. Here we should not minimize the importance of the interior life of faith, hope, and charity apart from the sacrament. Christians who through no fault of their own have no immediate access to a priest can rely on the practices of a good examination of conscience, attempts to make an act of perfect contrition, the practice of spiritual communion, and the observance of apostolic indulgences. Medieval theologians like Aquinas commonly pointed out that many who seek reconciliation with God do so involuntarily, without access to the sacraments, and noted that if they do so with a spiritual desire for confession, communion, and penance, they can be united to the visible Church invisibly, including in her sacramental dimension. The conditions recently promulgated by the Apostolic Penitentiary for a plenary indulgence include the recitation of the Divine Mercy chaplet: “Eternal Father I offer you the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son.” The language here recalls Trent’s description of the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the sacrifice of the mass and so the new decree reiterates the classical teachings of the Church. We can unite ourselves effectively to the mystical body of the Church through such practices.
This all being said, it is also traditional teaching that sacramental confession adds an additional certitude of the forgiveness of serious sin to any attempt at an act of perfect contrition, which is no trivial consolation. And it is commonly believed by sacramental theologians that the sacrament itself is more likely to assure an intensification of grace in the order of penance, the strengthening of the will in the love of God, and an experience of consolation. Christians always stand in need of such grace, but especially in the midst of a tribulation. Confession is a fundamental good of the spiritual life necessary to all both in the short and the long term. In addition, it would seem likely that there are ways for priests who are at least risk to practice this sacrament under relatively safe conditions for themselves and others, making use of physical barriers and spatial distancing. As long as the crisis continues, the Church should seek all possible ways to make the sacrament more readily available in accord with prudent measures to protect public health.
The third priority concerns public access to the Eucharist. It is important to keep churches open when possible, so as to provide close access to the Eucharistic real presence. In Rome this practice has allowed the faithful to have access to the blessed sacrament during the day, for personal prayer. Some parishes are providing for the possibility of prolonged Eucharistic adoration. They do so by insisting on limited numbers of persons in Church at a given time, for limited times, and with spatial distancing. Of course, there are greater risks entailed if this practice leads to crowded churches, but to the extent that local churches can assure the possibility of open churches and reasonable conduct, they do a great service to those who would wish to find consolation in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
The final priority is the contested topic of the eventual reopening of public masses. I am neither a pastor nor a public health official so I will delimit myself here to a few general observations.
Our most authoritative tradition of moral reasoning is probabiliorist. In this approach, one seeks to acknowledge the diverse mandates of competing public authorities in a harmonious way, in accord with an ordered sense of the hierarchy of goods. If legitimate authorities and public health officials ask the Church to engage in a practice of quarantine for a limited time, and for a serious and warranted reason, it is reasonable to try to obey them, while harmonizing their requests with the aims and obligations of the gospel, the practice of charity, and the sacramental life of the Church.
The shape this harmonization of goods takes will be highly conditioned by particular circumstances. The Church is an international organization, but the local churches’ responses to the coronavirus are fittingly contextualized by diverse national policies, regional conditions, and temporally evolving circumstances. The prudent calculation on when to re-engage in public masses will fall naturally to bishops working in tandem with both their regional governments and priests and laypeople. Their object will be to consider safe conditions under which to make the public celebration more widely accessible.
In Italy, where the epidemic began earlier than in most places and where a very strict quarantine was kept for eight weeks, the bishops’ conference is already in conversation with the government about reinitiating public masses for small gatherings of the faithful, especially for funeral masses for the families of those who have recently died. More expansions will come if the spread of the disease diminishes. In countries like Austria, which have been far less affected, the restoration of the public celebration of mass might take place more quickly, if the bishops choose to advocate for it.
Questions of duration will be important in this matter, no matter how things evolve. Obviously the Church cannot inhibit the public celebration of the sacraments indefinitely, and no one in the Church wants this. The purpose of a quarantine is to avoid the rapid spread of an illness for a duration of time, so as to establish a manageable situation, and this can include the aim even of reducing the transmission to next to nothing (as has been the goal in Singapore, for example). The fittingness of the goals of quarantine and the efficacy of its methods are legitimate matters of debate. Civil authorities are bound to institute different policies in diverse places, based on differing circumstances and forms of calculation. This means in turn that local bishops will also need to make diverse kinds of provisions. Singapore is not Sweden and Montana is not Manhattan.
But whatever the particular parameters of a given culture and its safety or threat from the virus, the Church’s suspension of public sacramental practice cannot be of indefinite duration. At some point, life will have to go on for everyone with some degree of risk, however marginal. This is true for the Church as well. Widespread sacramental life cannot be reinitiated only when every risk is eliminated, especially if it becomes increasingly apparent that that time will never arrive.
It pertains to the bishops who govern the Church to judge the level of acceptable risk. Doing so responsibly requires consultation with civil authorities, public health officials, their own priests, and each other. The very real health risks posed by the current pandemic must be carefully weighted in this process. Here Church leadership is well within its rights to avoid two very different kinds of pressure. One comes primarily from within, and is constituted by those who would minimize the threat of the pandemic or the legitimate role of public government. The reopening of public sacramental life needs to take account of safety concerns. Another form of pressure, however, will come primarily from outside. In predominant secular regions of the world, some political leaders wish to maintain closure for excessively prolonged periods based on a public atmosphere of anxiety. This could wrongly impede a return to full sacramental life. In such cases, the leadership of the Church is well within its rights to challenge the instincts of civic authorities. (This is happening currently in some parts of Europe, where higher-risk businesses like restaurants and piazzas are being reopened, but churches are asked to remain closed.)
Just as we must guard against a misguided zeal that imprudently and even unjustly allows public masses during times of contagion, so also must we beware of the risks of excessive precaution. The safe and responsible restoration of mass attendance cannot wait for absolutely risk-free conditions, but it should be enacted in a way that is reasonably safe, in light of diverse regional conditions and in conversation with civic authorities. In this matter, the bishops are right to be prudent and proceed with proper deliberation.
Finally, a word about charity. We don’t choose the providential circumstances of our lives. We are drawn into them and invited through them to conform our wills to the will of God, and to confirm our vocation to love in the charity of Christ. Providence encompasses the world of nature and the natural disasters that God permits (or wills). It also encompasses the decisions of others that affect our lives in small or great ways, including those we are subject to. For all Catholics at this time, the absence of an ordinary sacramental life is a heavy burden, for the laity first, but also for religious and the ordained clergy, each in their own ways. We are living through a spiritual trial, and the real absence of the Church’s common sacramental life is a noteworthy dimension of this trial.
But in tribulations like our own we are also invited to discern new invitations from God to grow in trust and in sanctity, even due to the trial and even in response to the decisions of those who have legitimate authority over us, who should be obeyed with goodwill even when or if we loyally disagree with them. I have made clear elsewhere that I think the current safety precautions undertaken by many bishops are entirely reasonable and defensible. My point here is that Catholics are not obliged to believe that such prudential decisions of bishops come from God. (One is free to think that God merely permitted them.) However, we are all obliged to obey them in this legitimate exercise of their authority. More to the point, we are invited to find God’s will and higher calling to sanctity precisely in the midst of such a situation.
The pathway to sanctity is always a pathway of charity, the supernatural love of God and of neighbor, stemming from the heart of Christ. Charity is union with Christ in fortunate and unfortunate circumstances, when sacraments are readily available and when they are not. It moves us to be concerned with the unity of the Church, her fidelity to the truth, and her commitment to love. Charity safeguards the mystical body of Christ from artificial divisions of ideology and schismatic dissent. It is also about friendship even with those we may disagree with, the practice of loyal argument and debate in the search for the truth, and the extending of the benefit of the doubt and goodwill to those with whom one disagrees.
Charity in a pandemic is also about carrying out works of love, justice, and mercy on behalf of others. Safeguarding those vulnerable to sickness, caring for families, helping the unemployed, consoling the grieving, and praying with others. If we have all the sacraments of the Church and a faith that moves mountains with it, but have not these, then we are nothing, as St. Paul notes (1 Cor. 13:1-3). If we would be perfect, we too must surrender everything we own and follow Christ, who walks out into the midst of the pandemic, asking us to follow him.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome.