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In a crisis, our odd priorities show a lack of faith

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 18, 2020

When a crisis strikes, we reveal what is important to us—as individuals and as a society. Awash in the flood of information and misinformation about the current epidemic, we are all developing opinions, which may or may not prove to be accurate. What we actually do—the actions we take, far more than the statements we make—show where our hearts lie.

With that in mind, let me offer a few reflections on the crisis.

We like to talk. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the causes of the epidemic and the best ways to respond—and a willingness to debate these issues online. Very few people have any expertise in epidemiology, but we can still pick our own favorite “experts” and promote their analyses. And the legitimate experts do differ in their opinions. We are dealing not only with hard statistics (the number of infections, deaths, and recoveries) but also—in fact primarily—with projections of how trends will develop. Any projection is built on assumptions, and those assumptions can be questioned. So the debate continues.

The near-obsessive discussion is also a coping mechanism, no doubt. We talk because we’re worried; we search for new information because we’re unsettled by the information that we have. At the same time we talk because that’s what humans do: we communicate. Isn’t it a relief when the conversation shifts to some other topic—the weather, perhaps, or last night’s ballgame? Oh, wait; there wasn’t a ballgame last night; and that’s part of our problem. What else can we talk about?

[A confession: I didn’t want to write about the epidemic today. But unless I’m much mistaken, readers aren’t in the mood for an essay on just-war theory or the filioque clause.]

Oh, and one more thing about our priorities: We, as a society, place a high value on toilet paper. About that observation, I trust, there will be no arguments.

We, as a society, don’t consider religion essential. The churches were closed before the bars and restaurants were shut down. Surely the virus is more likely to spread when people are sitting elbow-to-elbow, eating and drinking, than when they are seated quietly in the pews. But public officials were reluctant to impose what seemed like draconian orders; religious services were seen as less essential. (“People have to eat!”)

To this day, gyms remain open even in cities under strict quarantine. So healthy young people—who might not be particularly vulnerable to the virus, but can certainly pass it along—gather to sweat and pant together, to share showers and locker facilities. (“Well, we need our exercise!”)

Still more remarkably, day-care centers are not only open; they are expanding their services, now that schools (which often serve the same function) are closed. There is probably no more efficient means of spreading germs than by bringing toddlers to a central location to roll around together. (“But Mom has to get to work!”)

Yes, people need to eat; but with rare exceptions they could prepare and eat their food at home. Yes, people should exercise; and the great outdoors beckons, with parks and hiking trails that preserve “social distance.” And yes, many mothers find it necessary to work, but at what cost do we preserve their employment options, after having closed down so many other workplaces? Thus we reveal our priorities.

In a more sinister way our health-care system itself betrays its priorities. At first it seems only logical that non-essential surgeries will be postponed. But look more carefully. If you’re in agony because of kidney stones or an infected tooth, tough luck. But elective abortions will continue on schedule.

For me personally, the most shocking revelation of the past two weeks has been the cavalier attitude displayed by Church leaders about the shutdown of sacramental ministry. The very first pastoral priority of a Catholic bishop is—or should be—to ensure that the faithful have access to the sacraments. Today, in most US dioceses, the public celebration of Mass has stopped; baptisms and confessions and weddings and funerals have been curtailed if not cancelled. This is an unprecedented pastoral disaster: a suffering that American Catholics have never experienced or even contemplated.

Last week I argued that the Church should offer more spiritual support, not less in this time of crisis. I was overjoyed to read a statement that was originally attributed to Pope Francis (it turned out to be from his private secretary), insisting that priests should be “on the front lines” and warning: “I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need.”

I know that the Church has not abandoned me. I know that good priests are still celebrating Mass privately. (I also know, to my profound regret, that some priests mistakenly think that they cannot celebrate Mass privately. And I know that many bishops, in announcing the suspension of public celebrations, did not give the faithful the very necessary reassurance that the Eucharistic sacrifice would continue.) I realize that many pastors decided, in good faith, that they had no choice but to curb public celebrations of the Eucharist. Still I wish that, at a minimum, our bishops had shown more reluctance to take this drastic step. I wish that they had conveyed, in their public announcements, an understanding of how the faithful would suffer, and shown that they regretted that suffering. I wish that their statements had sounded more like sorrowful messages from a grieving father, and less like bureaucratic memos from civil servants.

It cannot possibly be right that when a pastor is instructed to stop celebrating Mass in public, the fateful directive comes not from his archbishop, but from a public-relations consultant. It cannot possibly be right that at a time when public officials are saying that services will be shut down for at least two weeks, the bishops in Ohio have already announced that there will be no public celebrations for Easter—without even waiting to see how the next few weeks might change our situation.

During the years when the Soviet empire persecuted the Church, I heard a story about Christians in a gulag, who petitioned for permission to celebrate Easter. The pitiless superintendent replied that they could hold their service—in the pond on the grounds of the prison camp, which had not yet fully thawed. He thought surely that would be enough to crush this unwelcome manifestation of religious faith. He was wrong. On Easter Sunday morning, the stalwart Christian inmates waded into the icy waters to pray together. Because worship was their top priority.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: canónigoregular - Mar. 22, 2020 7:41 PM ET USA

    Phil is right: we all read and we all form opinions. One of mine is the opposite of his: in the USA as many social interactions as possible should be curtail/prohibited as soon as possible, including Masses. This infection is so contagious when no signs are yet visible, at this rate we will surpass the percentage of deaths in Italy within weeks. Sorry if I lack faith. One has to be alive to have faith. When dead we will see Him face to face. Then who will pass on our faith to our children?

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 22, 2020 9:55 AM ET USA

    Come on Phil, you and Jeff are better than this. ...lack of faith? The very fact that you and so many others cry out about not being able to participate in Mass shows the opposite. How many are actually praying now or praying more now? No one likes this and there is suffering and hardship. But your claim seems to be based on Church leadership defying secular leadership and gathering people anyway because somehow going to Mass will be exempt from viral spread? That’s faith? Disappointing.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 21, 2020 7:11 AM ET USA

    Our local parish continues to allow parishioners to attend daily Mass, where I take communion and bring Him to my homebound spouse. But there is no Mass on Sunday. Yes, something is dreadfully wrong here.

  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Mar. 21, 2020 4:28 AM ET USA

    Some old Church fathers said that the cessation of Mass was a sign of the time of an antichrist--its lack in our Churches is in fact "the abomination of desolation." (which can also be translated as, "the outrage of emptiness") We are finding out which bishops are the hireling shepherds who abandon their flocks and flee at the sign of danger.

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Mar. 21, 2020 2:35 AM ET USA

    Here in California, we are on "lockdown" like many other places. I went shopping tonight to get some groceries, and was surprised to see business as usual; I tried to keep my "social distance" from other customers, but most seemed not to care much, nor did the cashier or grocery bagger. It would be so much easier to keep social distance in a large church. I'm so saddened that the bishops didn't try to use creativity to allow public masses to continue. I don't think it would be that difficult!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Mar. 20, 2020 10:21 PM ET USA

    A Canon Lawyer lays out why Bishops can't do this at

  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 20, 2020 9:05 PM ET USA

    John Calvin must be over-joyed.

  • Posted by: gmiguelps9564 - Mar. 20, 2020 8:33 PM ET USA

    I am shocked by the behavior of our clergy and their complete lack of faith.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 19, 2020 10:34 AM ET USA

    We have all heard the phrase, "New World Order". The Elite look forward to its emergence. The Elite are no doubt pleased by our current cowardice in closing our churches. One can only think that the New World Order has taken a huge step forward for mankind. So the question is, "Do our Catholic Church leadership look forward to the New World Order?" And "Who do our Church leadership worship?" Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: Scott W - Mar. 18, 2020 7:53 PM ET USA

    The bishops do not act like fathers because they are not men....

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 18, 2020 3:34 PM ET USA

    Thank you for sharing the observations. Looking at different diocesan announcements across United States, I caught myself looking specifically for expressions of Faith, some regret over cancelled Masses and Confessions, and spiritually elevating Apostolic guidance for practicing Catholics. Sadly, some of the diocesan announcements are not even signed by the bishop.