Coronavirus Essentials: How the Church Is Applying Public-Health Directives

COMMENTARY: A global pandemic is hardly the time for acrimony and accusations in the Body of Christ. It is better to extend the benefit of the doubt and attempt to understand why such decisions were taken.

A man walks outside of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with the church doors closed to the public while Archbishop José Gomez leads a Sunday Mass, streamed online, March 22 in Los Angeles.
A man walks outside of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with the church doors closed to the public while Archbishop José Gomez leads a Sunday Mass, streamed online, March 22 in Los Angeles. (photo: Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This article originally ran March 26, 2020. 

One-quarter of the population on planet Earth is living under some kind of state of emergency or lockdown, advised — or mandated — not to leave home except for “essential” services.

It is a clarifying point in the culture. In much of the world, gathering for worship and prayer in churches has been judged “not essential.” Even keeping the churches open for private prayer has been determined in some places to be “not essential.”

This has caused some to criticize bishops who have suspended public worship and others who have closed their churches.

A caveat is in order: A global pandemic is hardly the time for acrimony and accusations in the Body of Christ. It is better to extend the benefit of the doubt and attempt to understand why such decisions were taken.

Bishops and pastors are being asked, in a matter of days or even hours, to make decisions that no one alive has ever taken before. In such an environment, the more prudent option — for civil and ecclesiastical authorities — is to take the most severe option sooner rather than later.

For example, shutting down public transit may be aimed at the crowded London Underground or New York subway and may well be overkill for the bus through rural Cambridgeshire or upstate New York that may only have two or three passengers on it. But there is no time for all those relevant distinctions, and so the shutdown of everything is applied.


Mass Gatherings and Gatherings for Mass

In the first days of the restrictions, it was mass gatherings that were prohibited. That’s why most sporting events were canceled quickly. In many places that meant also gatherings for worship.

That’s why many bishops made a distinction between Sunday Mass and weekday Mass. Sunday Mass would tend to gather more than the threshold — at that time, 250 people in some places — while weekday Masses would not. There was no suspension of gathering for Mass, that is, but of mass gatherings.

It would be incorrect to accuse, for example, Virginia of now making it illegal to attend church services. A church service — as of March 25 — of six people could go ahead. A bachelor party of 11 people could not, given the Virginia order; and if they wanted the party in a restaurant, it could not be held no matter how few friends the groom had.

As the gathering threshold ratcheted downwards — to 100, 50, 10, five and, in Germany and the United Kingdom, even two(!) — weekday Masses also were suspended with the participation of the faithful. Private Masses, of course, could continue. Some such Masses streamed online show that there are one or two people present, leading the responses or even music — all the while observing the recommended social distance.


What About the Bars?

An early complaint was that restaurants and bars were free to remain open while churches were limiting worship. That indicated an inversion of priorities, surely?
Three things were at work there: First, it is likely that bishops — particularly in northern Italy — were more responsible than commercial operators, taking necessary steps earlier. Asking a bishop to make decisions like a nightclub owner would be odd.

Second, public authorities are reluctant to cause mass economic pain. Bartenders and waiters cannot work from home; a closure means no money for a large number of people close to the economic margins. A closure order means an instant economic crisis. The same intensity of economic pain does not apply to churches, museums and galleries, which is why they may have been asked to shut down earlier.

Third, the decision did reflect the declining importance assigned to religion, deeming it as “nonessential.” There can be no getting around a secularized shift in public opinion.


Is Prayer in a Church Essential?

After the suspension of public Masses, a consensus emerged that churches would stay open for private prayer, often with Eucharistic adoration. People could come to pray on their own, keeping the recommended distance from each other. Some parishes therefore moved Eucharistic adoration from a small chapel to the main body of the church.

Then the public-health advice shifted from avoiding public gatherings to staying at home — period. People should stay at home, venturing out only for “essentials” like groceries or medicine.

Thus the question became: If I can be in a supermarket with 20 other people to buy groceries, why can’t I be in a church with five other people — far more spaced out — in order to pray?

The default position toward keeping grocery stores open certainly did not extend to churches. That is partly a reflection of a secularized society. Partly it reflects Protestant culture, where churches are almost exclusively used to gather in numbers for worship and prayer. The custom of an individual dropping in to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or to pray alone in Eucharistic adoration, is a Catholic practice. Even today, many churches in Italy are open for private prayer. Long before the pandemic, the vast majority of churches in Italy would be quite accustomed to only a few people being inside almost all of the time, aside from Mass.


Why Did Bishops Agree to Close the Churches?

Should bishops have been more insistent on keeping their churches open for private prayer as “essential”? The argument for that is not implausible, that a secularized culture needs the witness of those who consider the good of the soul at least equal to that of the body.

There are three counterarguments.

First, bishops have no information upon which to make their decisions other than what they are told by public-health authorities. And with the exception of a few archbishops in major cities, most local Churches are not even in contact with senior public-health officials. They get their information on websites and social media like everyone else. In the absence of any other information, it is understandable that bishops would follow, in a state of emergency, the advice they are given.

Second, keeping churches open in some cases simply means the pastor unlocking the door. In many places, though, it involves more people than that, and therefore may require people to come to work who should stay at home. Again, in time of emergency, the rule for the more complex cases applies to every case.

Third, there is a delicate element treated with discretion. Decisions about the coronavirus are made, for the most part, by elderly people for elderly people. Bishops are generally seniors; and in many places, their parishes are more akin to the demographics of retirement homes than community centers. Places where seniors gather have the most restrictive measures in place. In light of the severe restrictions — no visitors, except in danger of death — placed on nursing homes, the closure of churches is more understandable.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, hinted at that when he explained why the bishops of England and Wales chose to close their churches even when given an exemption from the government to keep them open for private prayer. An open church would be an implied invitation, even a “temptation,” for some to venture out who should stay at home. He had in mind those who were “vulnerable,” by which he meant, but did not say, the elderly, who comprise the largest share of almost all parishes.

One reason Italy has been so hard hit is that it has the oldest population in the world, save for Japan. Many parishes would make Italy’s population seem young by comparison. A 73-year-old bishop, thinking about parishes where more than half the parishioners are over the age of 70, may well consider it better to close the church entirely, especially if the pastor himself is over 70 and would be responsible for opening, closing and supervising the church. Many diocesan communications with priests are very attentive to this last reality, advising elderly priests — many of whom are active pastors — to take severe precautionary measures.


Sacramental Challenges

Now that the churches are closed in many places around the world, the challenge remains about how to administer the sacraments. For the moment, weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations are suspended. Confessions are not being heard, save for a few outdoor/drive-thru solutions. Holy Communion is almost nowhere being distributed.

That cannot continue in the long term and remains the next great challenge, for which solutions are not obvious.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.