As of today, nearly all public Masses have been cancelled in the United States indefinitely. In Italy, all public Masses are closed at least through the Triduum. These decisions have been met with disparate responses from the laity. Many on social media have voiced vehement disagreement with the decision, arguing that the Church is letting down the faithful precisely in the moment when they are in most need of the grace of the sacraments. The cartoon below has been making the rounds on Twitter and elsewhere.
An infinitely more eloquent and substantial argument has been released by R.R. Reno today in First Things. I take the following to be a distillation of Reno’s main argument:
The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear.
This isn’t something to be overlooked. This is not, as I have seen someone on Twitter retch up, “spreading the coronavirus to own the libs.” This is an authentic Catholic concern. It is basic Christian doctrine that we must put off consideration for the life of the flesh when such considerations are counter-productive to promoting the life of the spirit. Indeed, the very greatest Christians are the martyrs who witness to us the perfect abandonment of their entire earthly life for love of God. Insodoing, they become not just reflections but true points of contact with the font of our faith, hope, and love, the Self-Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Mass is more important than our earthly life, and we should all be ready to forget ourselves in order to preserve an authentic pursuit of the Eucharist.
But, the crucial difference between the martyrs and the laity in the time of the coronavirus is this: we are not facing a decision to sacrifice ourselves; we are facing a decision which affects others. A single person may sacrifice themselves for the sake of a friend. They do not sacrifice their loved ones whom they are charged to defend, especially the weak under their protection.
Of course, I am not an epidemiologist, but the average layman has access to enough basic details about this virus to make a sound moral analysis. Consider what we know: this virus is highly fatal to the weakest among us; many experience only mild symptoms or may even be asymptomatic. This creates a perfect storm for accidental transmission of the virus, especially from the relatively young and healthy to the relatively elderly and/or sick. No one can be completely sure that they will not pass the virus on to others. In fact, right now it appears that very many will get sick and most (or at least a significant number of) transmissions may indeed happen without the transmitter even being aware that they are sick.
It seems to me that the decision of our bishops to cancel public Masses needs to be seen particularly within this context. They are decidedly not choosing a lower good over a higher good, i.e. preserving a particular set of individuals’ bodily health over their spiritual health. Rather, the bishops are helping us care for the vulnerable whose lives are ours to protect. Moreover, the common good of the health and order of the community outweighs an individual’s (or group of individuals’) ability to attend the Mass, especially in light of the fact that Masses shall continue, and the faithful can make acts of spiritual communion with the Church as She prays.
If this pandemic were not communal, e.g. if one could attend Mass to the detriment of oneself only, then we might be able to make prudential considerations about attendance, and many might attend even in the face of death. This would be heroic. But given that the dangers associated with Mass attendance at this time are communal, they require communal regulations.
While communal spread would be lessened by cancelling Mass and yet also leaving churches open to the faithful, it will not fully guarantee the safety of the weak and elderly. The virus is still likely to spread, just more slowly. As such, the same prudential considerations apply. For this reason, bishops can and should be making their own prudential decisions on this, as well.
Indeed, while the notion of cancelling Masses altogether is quite alien to us, the principle of staying home from Mass on an individual basis for the bodily health of our fellow Christians is not. If I were being chased by mad gunmen who will indiscriminately kill anyone around me in their pursuit, I wouldn’t seek asylum in the middle of a packed church, even if I really wanted to fulfill my Sunday obligation. Common sense, I think, would unite us in agreeing that someone in this situation ought not to attend Mass, even if the goods being weighed are a private spiritual good vs. a common bodily good. Apply this same idea not just to a few individuals but to most of us, and you have our current situation.
I shall miss attending the Holy Sacrifice, and I hope that I can return with my family as soon as possible. The silver lining in this just may be an increased appreciation for the Mass. I am thankful for the opportunity to grow in an authentic longing for the Eucharist and to purge away the roots of mere obligation which are still present in my interior life. Our current situation is an evil one, but God always brings a greater good out of every evil.
In the meantime, I know that the Church will continue to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with or without me physically present, and that I shall be with Her as she does. This is indeed a spiritual sacrifice, but it is one that we can all make for both the bodily and spiritual good of our neighbors, and particularly the weak. I take that to be a truly Christian act.
Please God, most of us shall return to actual Communion soon. And those of us, God forbid, who face death or disease during this crisis will be able to return to it before death, as needed, through the supernatural courage and charity of pastors who will brave death to bring Our Lord to those in most need of Him. The Church is not abandoning us. In fact, I think that we ought to see the current steps being taken by our shepherds as the logical consequences of safeguarding corporal and spiritual mercy for those who need it most. It is the lamb who is lost or in danger whom Our Lord attends to with the greatest intensity and joy.