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Rendering to Caesar in an epidemic: the limits of authority

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 20, 2020

My friend and colleague Jeff Mirus cautions us that we should not rush into judgment of our Church leaders; we should not leap to a premature conclusion that they are bowing to civil authorities by restricting pastoral ministry during the current epidemic. He is right, of course, and I recognize in myself a strong tendency toward rash judgment: a tendency that I need to control.

Nevertheless I cannot escape the conclusion that devout Catholics have good reason to suspect that in this crisis, their pastors have been more worried about the political ramifications of their actions than the pastoral fallout. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Quite often, the restrictions announced by Church leaders have exactly matched, point by point, the regulations issued by civil authorities. In Rome, the police closed down access to St. Peter’s Square (which is within their jurisdiction), and then a few hours later the Vatican announced the closing of St. Peter’s basilica (which is under Vatican control). Was that a coincidence? The same pattern was evident all around the world: Church leaders closed churches as soon as public officials imposed emergency rules. Only rarely did Catholic leaders resist the imposition of civil orders on religious activities.
  2. As a general rule, the bishops who have been most anxious to restrict access to the sacraments—and the lay Catholics most anxious to defend those restrictions—have come from the Church’s liberal wing. On paper that correlation makes no sense. One might expect older and sicklier Catholics to favor stronger public-health measures, while the young and reckless chafed under restrictions. But if my observations are accurate, it has been mostly orthodox Catholics who have pleaded for greater access to the sacraments, while progressives have argued that reopening churches would be unwise.
  3. The remarkable deference to civil authority during this epidemic follows a pattern that has become all too common in recent years. Our Church leaders have carefully avoided public controversy, even at the expense of ecclesiastical discipline. Take, for instance, the manifest unwillingness of American bishops to bar pro-abortion politicians from Communion.

For the past forty years liberal Catholics have told us that the pro-life cause is not sufficient reason to deny anyone the Eucharist. Yet for the past forty days we have been told that the pro-life cause is sufficient reason to deny the Eucharist to everyone. Go figure.

We could not keep the churches open, we were told, because the Catholic Church is a pro-life church, and we must never do anything that would jeopardize the lives of those who come to worship with us. That logic is sound, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.

The Catholic Church is not in the business of saving lives, but the business of saving souls. So during an epidemic, while civic leaders rightly have the physical health of the people uppermost in their minds, Church leaders should be more mindful of their people’s spiritual welfare. As important as it is to worry about the health of parishioners, pastors should never do anything to jeopardize the souls of those who worship with us.

Only rarely do the demands of physical health come into conflict with the demands of spiritual welfare. But such a conflict has arisen in these past several weeks. Different pastors have resolved that conflict in different ways, and I am not going to question their judgements. But far too many pastors, rather than making their own decisions, deferred entirely to secular authorities. And that is a choice that I question.

In an excellent column for Catholic World Report, Douglas Farrow observed that some earnest Catholics are reluctant to reopen churches:

They make their appeal to the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And to what Jesus identified as the second Great Commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” These they have merged into a justification for the new COVID commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor by staying well away from him, lest thou pass on a virus that might kill him.” And the COVID commandment, they point out, also remains in force.

While readily conceding the need for prudence in attending to health concerns, Farrow adds that a sense of balance and proportion is necessary, because “it won’t do to protect people from a deadly virus only to hand them over to poverty, famine, tyranny, war, or death by neglect.” Yet even that is not his primary concern. The greater danger, Farrow argue, lies in the willingness of Church officials to accept government-imposed restrictions—even extreme restrictions—without demanding that the government understand the Church’s priorities.

My worry is that by their compliance they are endorsing, or will be seen to be endorsing, not the gospel of the kingdom but the gospel of the state; that they are making the priorities of the state their own, rather than the priorities of Jesus.

In an article posted the same day by Le Figaro, Cardinal Robert Sarah makes a similar point, expressing concern that Church leaders, in their desire to be “good citizens,” have too often lost sight of their more important mission. Yes, the Church works for the good of society at large, and offers her guidance on temporal affairs, as befits (in the words of Pope Paul VI) an “expert on humanity.” “But little by little Christians have come to forget the reason for that expertise,” the cardinal remarks.

The Catholic Church can offer advice to civic leaders, in pursuit of the common good, because the Church knows what mankind needs to find true and lasting happiness. But civic leaders cannot return the favor; they cannot offer the same sort of guidance to the Church, because the secular world does not comprehend the Church’s mission of salvation. The Church understands the world; the world does not understand the Church.

So the Church cannot, indeed must not, accept the presumption that the state knows what is good for the Church. The state’s business is to know what is good for the temporal welfare of citizens in general. When the state’s laws are designed for that purpose and equitably enforced, the Church does well to obey them. For example, parish churches should comply with local fire-safety regulations. But when the state arbitrarily rules that church services are not essential activities, the Church cannot and must not acquiesce. Worship is essential. The Church knows that because she is an “expert on humanity” and because she is familiar with the First Commandment. To accept designation as “non-essential” is to deny the proper authority of Christ’s Church.

When civil officials issue orders about what is good for public health, Catholic bishops should listen, because civil officials have the proper authority to enforce public-health rules. Indeed a prudent bishop would ordinarily heed those rules even if he personally believes they are misguided, because the bishop is not an expert in the field of public health. But if and when the rules infringe on the prerogatives of the Church—if they compromise the evangelical mission—then the bishop must demur, and protest, and if necessary defy the civil authority. And so must we.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Cory - May. 24, 2020 12:46 AM ET USA

    Please, please, please keep writing. You are one of the few sane voices in this mad times.

  • Posted by: Cory - May. 24, 2020 12:43 AM ET USA

    We have no king but Ceasar! I think that is what was at play at this time. Another thing is that the Catholic Church has lost its moral authority with all the filth that has been exposed about her. Without all the indictments and cases of sexual and financial corruption, I think the response would have been different. But now they are all cowering - let's not rock the boat, lets' not draw attention to ourselves. We've had to suffer through that before and now they deprive us of the Holy Mass.

  • Posted by: FrHughM - May. 23, 2020 12:40 PM ET USA

    As you imply, it is not so much the closure of Churches which is the sin here. It is the utter absence, in many significant Church officers, of witness in word and deed to the essential physical presence of God among us. Witness, that is, to the uniquely Catholic understanding of sacramentality.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 21, 2020 9:51 AM ET USA

    Our Savior set the guiding priority for His followers in clear terms: "I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day." Charity requires that we should not rush into judgment of pastors, but the same charity demands to speak up in the face of wrongdoing. CCC#907 teaches that it is the right and sometimes *a duty* of the Catholic faithful

  • Posted by: winnie - May. 20, 2020 7:48 PM ET USA

    According to Pew Research only 10 states forbade worship. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/27/most-states-have-religious-exemptions-to-covid-19-social-distancing-rules/

  • Posted by: winnie - May. 20, 2020 7:39 PM ET USA

    Only 11 states specifically banned Church openings, but Florida was not in that number. Our governor, Ron DeSantis ordered social distancing and a restricted group size. The Diocese of Palm Beach closed our churches on March 20th. The Maronite Church in Tequesta FL continued with Masses & Tridium. Here’s is link to Eparch’s letter/from Brooklyn, urging priests to keep the churches open if state/local government allowed it. https://www.stmaron.org/press-releases

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - May. 20, 2020 6:36 PM ET USA

    Msgr. Charles Pope had a good column over at National Catholic Register recently on this topic. He writes that we need to accept that some people will die from the virus, and confront our fear of death with Christian faith. Good article. https://www.ncregister.com/blog/msgr-pope/coronavirus-where-is-thy-sting-why-we-must-not-be-seized-by-fear