COVID-19 One Year Later
A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: As Catholics, it is our constitutional right as religious believers to assemble for worship, not a privilege that can be withdrawn unilaterally by the state.
It’s hard to believe that we have reached the one-year mark of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
All of us are painfully aware of the colossal human toll the pandemic has exacted, both in terms of lives lost and in terms of livelihoods lost. But for Catholics, another critical aspect deserves equal consideration as we reflect on the last year: What has been the impact on the Church and on religious liberty?
Since the start of the pandemic, there, tragically, have been more than 480,000 deaths and more than 27.5 million cases in the U.S. and some 2.4 million deaths and 108 million cases worldwide. The pandemic has also had a shattering impact on the global economy and on the mental and emotional health of millions more who have faced isolation, anxiety and chronic uncertainty.
In addition to these terrible personal losses and hardships, Catholics have found themselves largely deprived of the sacraments, and all people of faith have grappled with unexpected threats to our most cherished right of religious freedom.
Looking back at the last year, we must ask a hard question: By allowing civil authorities to continue to have the final word about whether public Masses could take place, did the Church make the grave mistake of surrendering too much authority to the state?
In an effort to cooperate fully with local, state and federal authorities as the pandemic’s first wave washed across the nation last spring, bishops suspended public liturgies and dispensed all Catholics from their Sunday obligation. We, sadly, found ourselves unable to even be present in our churches for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Catholics, only able to virtually participate in the Mass on television and the internet, found themselves cut off from the sacraments in a way that was both shocking and increasingly frustrating, as the pandemic stretched on for months. It soon became clear that some public officials targeted religious gatherings unfairly, deeming them as nonessential to the public welfare.
EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research polling found late last year that 71% of Catholics were distressed to be unable to attend Mass while government and health officials treated religious worship as “nonessential,” while allowing hair and nail salons and massage and tattoo parlors to remain open. And the 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index found that only 39% of Americans said that religious congregations were treated fairly during the pandemic.
The disparity between how officials treated houses of faith compared to a broad range of businesses deepened the concern many Americans already held regarding our society’s growing intolerance toward religion. An EWTN News poll in November 2019 found, for example, that 69% of all Americans and 70% of Catholics felt that people are becoming less tolerant of religion in the U.S.
Some bishops defied the Mass restrictions once it became apparent that they were targeting religious groups unfairly, such as in Minnesota last May, when the state’s bishops forced their governor to rework an unfair reopening plan. Other religious leaders fought back in the courts, although initially with only limited success, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July in favor of extending deference to Nevada’s discriminatory restrictions on religious worship.
But the tide turned when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed draconian and patently unjust limits on religious worship last fall. This time, the Diocese of Brooklyn found injunctive relief at the Supreme Court, which, courtesy of newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s decisive vote, ruled 5-4 that such discriminatory restrictions during the pandemic were a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise.
The high court’s clear ruling, however, did not stop some other states and counties from persisting in limiting freedom of worship — limits that were especially unjust for Catholics, given the overwhelming scientific and medical evidence that the Church has been celebrating Mass safely by following sensible and prudent precautions.
California, which was the first state to impose a complete lockdown on March 19 of last year, has remained especially determined to shut down religious worship, provoking the Supreme Court to weigh in again with an even more forceful 6-3 ruling on Feb. 5 in a pair of cases brought by California churches. The high court struck down California’s restrictions, and Chief Justice John Roberts this time joined with the majority and wrote, “The state’s present determination — that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero — appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake. … Deference, though broad, has its limits.”
Incredibly, despite the ruling, Santa Clara County in California immediately reinstituted a ban on indoor worship, claiming that its rules are “fundamentally different” from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order that the Supreme Court had just blocked.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who started the “Free the Mass!” movement, has been outspoken in defense of religious worship during the pandemic. He has distinctly articulated what we all recognize about these unfair limitations: “It’s deeply offensive, it’s outrageous, and it’s unconstitutional to say worship is nonessential. The government has no authority to tell the Church if it’s essential or not, or which of its services are essential or not. That’s the Free-Exercise Clause of the Constitution.”
At EWTN, we have firsthand experience of how Catholics around the globe are suffering from the restrictions on their public worship and how willing they are to take extra steps to try to compensate when they are deprived of access to Mass — the “source and summit” of our worship of God. EWTN has been grateful to be able to provide the televised Mass, Eucharistic adoration and other devotions throughout the pandemic, and we have heard from huge numbers of Catholics everywhere who have appreciated being able to participate at least virtually and to make a spiritual Communion. But EWTN’s mission has always been to point people back to a relationship with the Church. We are a sacramental Church, not a virtual one.
After this year of curtailed access to churches, with the sacraments treated as “nonessential” by public authorities and the failure by many Church leaders to speak out strongly enough about the threats to our right of religious freedom, an unfortunate precedent has become established in the minds of too many Catholics that Mass attendance is not all that important. We already suffer as a Church from tragically low belief in the Real Presence — in our October poll, only 50% of the self-identified Catholics surveyed held the belief that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, while that number climbed to 69% for those who attend Mass weekly — and the image of closed churches has only reinforced in the minds of many Catholics that there is no urgency to go back to Mass and even less to demand the right to do so.
The Church missed an important opportunity early on in the pandemic to speak out about the essential place of worship — of faith — in the life of the nation and to proclaim the Gospel and the centrality of the Eucharist with even greater clarity, especially in the midst of so much suffering and death.
We continue to pray for the millions of victims of the pandemic and their families, and we pray as well that we will be able to return to our normal lives. But this pandemic has left its lasting mark on the world, and we must be firm in defense of our religious liberty if we want to avoid having our freedoms become one more casualty of the virus. And we can’t simply rely on the courts to protect us: We need our Church leaders to speak out forcefully and collectively on our behalf, proclaiming to the nation’s public authorities that our right to assemble for worship is a foundational right we hold as religious believers, not a privilege that can be withdrawn unilaterally by the state.
If we fail in this, the forces of secularism will try to push us further out of the public square and compel us to surrender our sacred rights to practice our faith freely. As we move forward, let us resolve never to let this happen again, while recommitting ourselves to proclaiming the Real Presence and being ever watchful in the defense of our religious freedoms.
God bless you!