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Church and State in the Pandemic: Benefit of the doubt?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 19, 2020

On the one hand, we have the majority in our secular culture who believe the Catholic Church is morally obliged to follow the directives of the State in deciding questions of how and when to worship during the Coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, we have a small minority of Catholics who believe the Church’s decisions should be not only independent of the State but obviously independent. And at the same time, I would say there is a larger percentage of Catholics concerned about the precedent which will be established if the bishops allow secular governments to set the policies which govern the use of church buildings for worship.

In the West these perceptions and opinions are conditioned by the dominant culture’s attitude toward religious faith. Religion is commonly regarded as mere sentiment, an attitude or a feeling which people are free to indulge as long as it has no practical consequences for the commonwealth. Therefore, it is not surprising that many serious Catholics are uneasy about the marked correspondence during the pandemic between the policies of the secular government and the policies of the bishops. It is always a legitimate concern when Church leaders seem to mirror the attitudes and decisions of either government or the dominant culture. That ecclesiastical leaders are often adversely shaped by dominant cultural values is not only an obvious fact of life today but a perennial lesson of history.

But the Coronavirus is still the wrong issue on which to make hard and fast judgments about who should take the lead.

Authority in spiritual and temporal matters

The Catholic Church has direct authority from God Himself over the exercise of religion and the meaning of faith and morals. But this authority does not preclude cooperation with legitimate governmental entities in fostering the common good, which in fact is required by the Church’s own moral teaching. Most of the statements I have seen from the pope and bishops have simply urged cooperation with the measures adopted by the various governments. They have tended to avoid giving the impression that the governments have direct authority over the Catholic Church in spiritual affairs. Rather, they have accepted that the various governments have, in matters of public health, better access to the information required for prudent decisions as well as the obligation to use this information for the protection of the community.

We know, of course, that situations can arise in which the State unfairly burdens the Church. It may be obvious that the State does not regard the Church as an “essential service” (when in fact all citizens and the governments they form should regard her as essential), and so governments may be slower to allow churches to return to normal than the entities they regard as essential. But from the secular point of view, the inability to attend religious services does not impoverish anyone, whereas the inability to work does. We must also admit, from the secular point of view, that it is hard to take seriously the conflicting claims of so many different religious groups in the confused landscape of “spirituality” today. It follows that Church leaders are morally bound to exercise great prudence in deciding when an unacceptable line has been crossed, and especially when that line has been deliberately crossed—that is, with an arbitrary intention to disadvantage the practice of the Catholic Faith.

Such a crossing is evident in the anti-Church regimes of China and the Philippines, for example; but it is not particularly evident in most Western countries. Western culture obviously no longer prioritizes religion in general or Catholicism in particular in anything like the right way, but that has long been true. To take a common enough contemporary case, the UK’s announcement that the reopening of churches depends entirely on governmental regulations errs more in its undiplomatic expression of the relationship between Church and State than in the understanding of its responsibility for the common good. The wording of such pronouncements may (and often should) grate. But they ought not to be flashpoints for direct conflict unless and until it appears that churches are being particularly and significantly disfavored in the reopening of normal social intercourse.

Questions

I am willing to predict that the Catholic Church will be numerically weakened and financially eroded by what will appear to many to be an additional proof of her fundamental irrelevance to what really matters. If we can do with a self-curtailed Catholic ministry for a few months, some will wonder why we need the full ministry at all. The very question is a temptation; I suspect there are few of us who have not considered this from one angle or another, and sometimes rather ruefully—in that we do not want this to be the case, but might we not be slipping ourselves? This is a strong argument for getting back to normal—and indeed, far above normal—as soon as possible. But it is not an argument for the Church to square off against the State in the midst of a highly unusual situation.

Most of us are willing to call for more drastic steps when we are not in charge. If we were bishops, we would be somewhat more reticent; if we were good bishops, we would almost certainly err on the side of caution in matters involving disease and death. The fact that essentially all bishops from the pope on down have reached the same conclusion is a strong argument that those of us who believe we know better ought not to question anyone else’s commitment to the Faith on that basis. Yes, there are serious drawbacks in our current situation that need to be constantly considered and reconsidered. Yes, those who refuse to think outside the box to administer the sacraments as widely as possible may be reasonably faulted. But there are many other aspects of our current reality to consider.

What if, for example, only the most committed Catholics return? What if the Church in the West ends up visibly smaller but, as a result, develops a more highly-committed profile? Just as we do not know whether or not Our Lord would permit infection and death through participation at Mass and reception of Communion (and because we do not know, we must presume that He will), we also do not know what role the current pandemic is being orchestrated by Providence to play in the renewal of the Catholic Church. And when there are so many present realities and future outcomes that we do not know, we are wise to avoid harsh judgments of those who have to make what are obviously very difficult decisions.

Among other things, we cannot presume that our bishops have simply ceded their authority to the State. For that, we would need a far more precise demarcation of responsibility when it comes to the protection of the common good, along with a far more conclusive parsing of the relevant episcopal statements. In the United States, when the Church appears to be disadvantaged in lock-down decisions, cases are coming before the various courts, sometimes decided one way and sometimes another. In France, the Council of State has struck down efforts to keep churches closed as other venues are reopened. Catholicism might not be much of a value in our dominant culture, but religious liberty still has a kind of uncomfortable traction (even if, to the Catholic mind, often for unsound reasons!).

Conclusion

We should be aware of the dangers, of course. The same dangers plagued us on every side before, and it is only natural and preternatural (I use the words advisedly) that they should plague us on every side now. But this is no time for rash judgments. When people are navigating confusedly through a crisis for which they have no blueprint, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. And that goes double for the pope and the bishops who—from Catholics, at least—always deserve the benefit of the doubt. And which of us, on this issue, truly entertains no doubt?

Finally, the ultimate spiritual results of the pandemic are well beyond us. They are likely to be a mixture of good and bad, as usual. But the reality is that the Pope and the bishops do not know…and neither do we. Surely we must be hoping for something better than the spiritual tepidity—the offensive lukewarmness (Rev 3:16)—of the past two or three generations. For my part, I am opting for anything that helps to renew the Church. In this hope alone, it will be interesting to see what Providence has in store. But mark this, because it is my whole point: It is far too soon to say, and way too soon to judge.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Cory - May. 24, 2020 12:32 AM ET USA

    The problem with Bishops is the lack of will. Too quick to bow to Ceasar. Now that we are back (a terribly dismal 10 when we can have 50 and still socially distance), what I have said could be done so we can keep going is now being done: 1) Registering for the Masses and having more Masses 2) Giving communion via paten 3) Disinfecting the pews as we go, etc, etc. All this was possible even at the height of the plague. Bishops just could not be bothered. We have no king but Ceasar, perhaps?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 20, 2020 3:16 PM ET USA

    My point here follows on Phil's comments about thinking outside of the box. If the outdoor Mass/confession option is viable for most Catholic parishes, then to outright forbid that option is unreasonable. The underlying assumption must be that Catholics are not sufficiently responsible persons to be able to regulate their response to the virus transmission. The responses are well known for the sick, the aged, the vulnerable. The Catholic presumption should be on the side of responsible adults.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - May. 20, 2020 3:06 AM ET USA

    Your whole thesis tends to focus on so many other areas and mix it all together. Disagree that it is too soon to say or judge particularly in the USA. Many of our Protestant churches are at least challenging many of these tyrannical governors. You fail to mention that the 1st Amendment which is Right should be the guide and allows the exercise of religion, period. When you allow the State to tell you what you can do you lose your authority as a Church. Setting guides together is ok but not told.

  • Posted by: edith_white9052 - May. 20, 2020 12:44 AM ET USA

    A very balanced and measured article with an apt warning for us to not be too hasty in chewing up our bishops! However, I must admit that I would like to see in our Church a greater transparency. Throughout the world it appears that the bishops themselves made these decisions (to cancel public Masses) in haste without consulting their priests or the faithful. We felt bewildered by their decisions, and still do. Where is the accountability?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 19, 2020 6:52 PM ET USA

    If Walmart can remain open with social distancing and churches can have no more than 10 people, that is a violation of religious freedom NOT public health.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 19, 2020 6:20 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I agree wholeheartedly with it.