Religious Freedom Inside the Church

The Church’s general reaction to COVID-19 was not that of a sacramental “field hospital.” Catholics cannot just “move on” from this, in the name of peace and quiet, and risk seeing the mistake repeated.

A priest stands alone June 11 in a church closed as a coronavirus preventative measure in Tepatitlán, Mexico.
A priest stands alone June 11 in a church closed as a coronavirus preventative measure in Tepatitlán, Mexico. (photo: Photo by Leonardo Alvarez Hernandez/Getty Images)

“Beginning June 22, the Feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher,” says the announcement, “the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops celebrates Religious Freedom Week. Join us in promoting religious freedom For the Good of All.”

This year, however, I want to propose another theme for Religious Freedom Week: How do we assure religious rights and liberty in the Church?

I am not arguing, as some revisionist theologians do, for the “right” to call yourself Catholic and support abortion or pretend that priestesses are compatible with Catholic teaching. I am asking about the consequences of what we are told, particularly after Vatican II, about the sacramental rights of Catholics and in the Church.

Most dioceses are now emerging from COVID-19 lockdowns and offering some opportunity for public Mass. This is after the denial of access to public Mass by the faithful in every diocese in the United States. In some places, that ban has been in place for three months. In some dioceses, it extended not just to public Mass but to any sacramental celebrations. Churches were simply locked.

We need a post-pandemic discussion of that response that involves the whole local Church. We cannot just simply “move on,” and we cannot, in the name of peace and quiet, simply say that what happened was right.

Catholics have been repeatedly told since Vatican II — and rightly so — that they have a right to the sacraments by virtue of Baptism. As long as a Catholic is baptized and not subject to penal sanctions, he has a right to the sacraments.

That is a theological principle. It is also a canonical one, but canon law is (or at least should be) subordinate to theology. The Church’s law exists as the legal embodiment of her theological vision, not as a body of positive rules whose ultimate authority comes from the lawmaker.

I think that principle was forgotten these past three months.

What kind of “right” do people have to the sacraments if that right can be vitiated by disciplinary decisions of bishops to limit or even suppress celebration of those sacraments? Those limitations or denials were not a consequence of some penal sanction against a concrete person, but a general, broad and universal decision to make the provision of that “right” null for other reasons. A “right” whose existence depends on another’s sufferance is no right.

(I am not arguing for the inflation of people’s wants into “rights” — the kind of thinking Mary Ann Glendon criticizes in civil life as “rights talk,” or turning your preferred policy outcomes into constitutional claims — but I want to take seriously, in a Church context, just what the “right” to the sacraments entails.)

If bishops really took two theological principles seriously — that the faithful have a right to the sacraments and that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, No. 11) it would seem that a primary and ongoing effort would have been to find ways to make that sacrament available amid the circumstances in which they then found themselves. Hospitals, after all, had to continue operating amid severe strains on the entire system and life-threatening situations in every facility. They did not close down: they adapted their protocols to keep functioning, as safely as they could, even amid challenging conditions.

Why didn’t the “field hospital?”

In general, Catholics did not see broad adaptive efforts to make the sacraments available in the midst of COVID-19. Yes, individual pastors came up with “drive-up confessions” or parking-lot Masses, but such priests were few and far between, more anomalies than the norm. And that speaks a lot.

Was it truly impossible, using parking lots, parks or other outdoor spaces, to provide appropriately socially distanced opportunities for celebration of Mass all this time?

Why were outdoor confessions where penitent and priest were physically separated possible in diocese A, but intolerable epidemiological threats in neighboring diocese B?

Why did we not hear from more bishops that church services were at least as essential as liquor stores or casinos? Why didn’t we hear vocal statements from our bishops that the liturgy should be subject to no more rigorous requirements than those a jurisdiction deemed “essential services?”

It was only at the end of May — two and a half months into the lockdown — that the bishops of Minnesota appeared to protest and resist more constrictive standards imposed on churches than on retail establishments. Up to that point, bishops seemed supine — and in some cases, more eager than local civic leaders — to adopt maximalist restrictions. Why did it seem that litigation against policies that disadvantaged churches seemed to be driven by our Protestant brothers?

Vatican II makes clear that the faithful have a “right” and even a duty to ask these things of their bishops: “The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church” (Lumen gentium, no. 37).

I’m asking.

So, too, are a lot of the Catholics that will be returning to Mass as church doors reopen. Let’s admit what we all know. The number of Catholics who are registered in parishes is a small fraction of those who have been baptized. The number of those attending weekly Mass is an even smaller fraction of the limited registrant pool. These are the Catholics still acting like Catholics, i.e., still fulfilling what was once not a particularly unusual expectation: attending Sunday Mass. They are also the people wondering what happened. Your Excellencies: you don’t have a lot of them. Take those you still have seriously.

The truly theological and pastoral response is to engage in honest and critical dialogue with the faithful whose access to the sacraments was — rightly or wrongly — prevented. One can, of course, respond in a “clerical” way: the bishop is the lawgiver of his diocese and he regulates the sacraments (even if he regulates them beyond what appear to be the limits of canon law). One might add a “pastoral” veneer: it was done out of “love.” One can, of course, also ask the difference between “pastoral” and “paternal,” because paternalistic “care” has been on the out in the caring professions for quite some time. Whether we face these questions honestly and critically may also be telling about whether overcoming “clericalism” is a real goal or merely a slogan to advance other agendas.

One lesson of COVID-19, however, is that the Church must be prepared to respond to similar emergencies, on a greater or lesser scale, in the future. Assuming that future people may turn to today’s playbook, it would be irresponsible — on the part of bishops and on the part of the faithful — not to demand a “post-mortem autopsy” of how we handled the situation.

Vatican II calls the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, No. 11). The question we now have to ask, in conscience, is whether we acted in every way during this pandemic as if we really believed that.