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‘Social distance’ between husband and wife?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 29, 2020

Imagine a man who through no fault of his own—perhaps because of a famine in his region—cannot supply food for his family. You would feel sympathy for him, wouldn’t you?

Now imagine that this man, when he gives the family the bad news, expresses no sorrow, but instead sternly orders the children not to search for scraps to eat. “And no licking crumbs off the bottom of the empty breadbasket, either!” Do you still feel sympathetic?

During the past several weeks, many Catholic bishops have decided that they are obligated strictly to obey government restrictions on religious gatherings. Whether they are right or wrong in reaching that decision—whether they should stand and fight for religious freedom—is not my concern here. Instead I want to focus attention on the attitudes conveyed by the bishops’ announcements.

In some episcopal statements I have seen acknowledgments that the shutdowns are painful to the faithful. Some bishops make it clear that they share that pain, that they too mourn the absence of the flock. But all too often the announcements of church closings have been couched in cold bureaucratic language, redolent of lawyerly caution rather than pastoral care.

In more than a few egregious cases, the bishops’ statements betray an attitude of suspicion if not outright hostility toward those lay Catholics who might try to circumvent restrictions: those who love the sacraments enough to make a special effort to receive them. Having leapt with unwonted alacrity to obey the regulations imposed by civic officials, they appear equally anxious to squash any resistance, and proud of their ability to close down all access to the sacraments.

Still, while I have been appalled by some episcopal statements—even to the point of wondering whether the bishops might be suffering from bad consciences—I was not prepared for a letter written by Bishop Albert Thevenot of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. (Hat tip to Dan Millette of OnePeterFive for calling attention to this astonishing document.)

In his April 24 letter, Bishop Thevenot announces that all public Masses will be cancelled in his diocese—not just for a few weeks, but through the end of June. He makes provisions for small church funerals, although services in funeral homes are preferred to those in churches. But he reserves his most outlandish rules for weddings.

To young men and women in love, Bishop Thevenot offers the pastoral advice that they should not marry right now. (Young couples can wait, unlike the heedless people who continue to die on an inconvenient schedule.) But if they insist on forming a sacramental union, they must obey the rules of the Saskatchewan Health Authority. The bishop relates those rules with unseemly enthusiasm:

No more than 10 persons in the [church] building. This must take into account everyone, musicians, pastor, wedding party and guests. No exceptions. And, we must respect the order to continue social distancing at 2 meters. This would include the bride and groom. Therefore, I would suggest the wedding be postponed to a better time.

“No exceptions.” That is the peremptory language of a gruff policeman, not a loving shepherd. But it is not the most revealing language in this paragraph. Look again:

And, we must respect the order to continue social distancing at 2 meters. This would include the bride and groom. [Emphasis added.]

Is he serious? Does he expect husband and wife to remain a sterile 2 meters apart? Does he interpret the ukase of the Saskatchewan Health Authority as a ban on the marital embrace? (And if he does, why is he not fighting tooth and nail against such a gross violation of human rights?) In laying down this preposterous rule, is the bishop thinking of Christian marriage as anything other than a ceremony that takes place, despite his advice, in a church?

No doubt Bishop Thevenot will succeed in his objective, convincing young couples that they should not marry—or rather, to be more precise—that they should not bother with a church ceremony. He certainly has done his utmost to make the prospect of a church wedding unattractive. But in doing so he has issued a statement that goes beyond the ordinary bounds of insensitivity, tiptoeing toward the edge of insanity.

Later in this same weird letter, Bishop Thevenot shows an eccentric understanding of communal prayer, when he reveals that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass really is being celebrated, after all, in the Diocese of Prince Albert:

As many of you know, a few thousand of our diocesan family members have been gathering together virtually every Sunday for Mass.

How is it possible that “a few thousand” people have gathered, when only ten are allowed? Read the sentence carefully; the operative word is “virtually.” The bishop is referring to a livestream broadcast of the Mass. “Wherever two or three are logged on in my name,…”

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 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: BANICA7269 - May. 02, 2020 12:08 PM ET USA

    Does virtual offertory contributions count?

  • Posted by: FrHughM - May. 02, 2020 5:23 AM ET USA

    The situation is worse. Even those Bishops expressing their pain often fail to highlight in their words or their actions that the Incarnation and its resultant Sacraments are THE essential service. Massive missed opportunities here for witness to the heart of the Catholic Faith.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 30, 2020 4:00 PM ET USA

    This crisis is revealing the thoughts of many hearts. It's quite disheartening to see the successors of the Apostles acting in such a callous bureaucratic fashion and in the most crucial moments of people's lives. Some of them don't even pretend to be concerned about the salvation of souls. Always pray for your local Bishop, other Bishops, and for the Pope.

  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 30, 2020 2:33 AM ET USA

    Moronic is to mild to describe the letter. Sadly, this diseased is prevalent among the hierarchy. They get away from the CCP virus but the virus that has always been there seems to thrive.