Laity Will Determine Church’s Future After the Pandemic

COMMENTARY: The great takeaway of the pandemic isn’t, ‘The Church is led by sinners.’ The lesson is, ‘It’s up to the laity to spread the faith.’

A young female parishioners sits praying at a Catholic church.
A young female parishioners sits praying at a Catholic church. (photo: Anna Nass / Shutterstock)

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that Jesus Christ’s commandment to us to “Love thy neighbor” is more important than ever.

What should Catholics do in the face of enormous new challenges in the Church and in the world? The challenge in the Church is widespread doctrinal confusion and a hierarchy that has lost our trust. 

In the world the challenge is unprecedented rejection of the truth of the human person and increasing hostility toward believers. The answer to both is the same as it has always been: Love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.

No one knows what the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the United States of America’s response will be, but we can guess. 

It has to be a guess, though because there is a lot of confusion about what exactly happened. On the one hand, there is evidence that COVID-19 was what Victor Davis Hanson calls America’s “neutron bomb” — a disease that left 600,000 dead; more U.S. casualties than World War I and World War II combined. On the other hand, there is also evidence that the real devastation of the pandemic will be revealed in the months ahead: The unemployment and isolation of so many people in lockdowns and the dehumanization of mask mandates led to a devastating psychological toll of suicide, domestic abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and anxiety.

Was the disease or the response worse? I don’t know, but I know that our neighbors are in need of comfort and human contact like never before. In business terms, you can see that as a giant marketing opportunity for Christian love. In religious terms, you have to see it as exactly the kind of crisis Jesus commanded us to answer, a crisis in love of neighbor.

If you don’t know your neighbor’s name, learn it now. Meet with them on the porch at least if you can. Find out what they need and then do it for them.

In his prescient new book, The Storm Before the Calm, George Friedman predicted that the 2020s would be a time of massive upheaval. If the riots suggest his theory of the cycles of history is right, the pandemic accelerates the timetable for one of its consequences: The dire need for community.

He said we are wrong to expect more high-tech communication than ever in the future. Instead, “communication technology has reached its reductio ad absurdum,” he wrote, even before the pandemic forced us all onto screens. “It cannot sustain the emotional needs of a human life,” he said; instead, expect “an aggressive reassertion of community, not perhaps with the old rituals, but with a culture that has at its center the avoidance of loneliness.”

Working at a college, I would add that this new culture of human connection will have young people at its center. We used to call the youngest generations coddled, soft and spoiled by their lives of constant supervision filled with superficial joys and no suffering. We can’t say that anymore.

Instead, the newest generation has suffered things we never had to. An invasive disease and an overreaching government has snatched away things they counted on: their classrooms and sports teams, their youth groups and summer camps, their babysitting gigs and summer jobs. Some of them will come out of it emotionally crippled, but many will come out of it newly resilient and with eyes wide open to the shortcomings of both the government and the Church. 

They won’t be easy pickings for either political party anymore; and they’ll be even more distrustful of organized religion.

There are many beautiful exceptions to the rule, but overall, the Church did a terrible job of responding to the pandemic, and we all noticed. Dioceses abrogated the Sunday Mass obligation, which is understandable; but it is impossible to abrogate the Third Commandment, and the Church did very little to help us keep it. The Abitene Martyrs said “Without Sunday, we cannot live!” Our bishops seemed to say, “No Sunday? No problem!”

But the hierarchy’s complacent disregard for souls is nothing new. Dante’s Inferno tours the history of cowardice and self-seeking in the hierarchy one circle of hell at a time, down to the Apostle Judas in the mouth of Satan in the depths of hell. The great takeaway of the pandemic isn’t, “The Church is led by sinners.” We already knew that. The lesson is: “It’s up to the laity to spread the faith.”

We knew that already, too. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told us so, and every Pope from St. John XXIII to Pope Francis repeated it.

But the lesson has never been so clear and present to me as it has been after the pandemic. The Church is holy because its magisterial doctrines, the efficacy of the sacraments and the lives of its saints, not because of the virtue of its hierarchy. Seeing so many in the hierarchy drop the sacraments with ease and take them back up again with reluctance lifted a veil from my eyes. “The hierarchy won’t reach my neighbors. They can’t even be bothered to reach me. It is my job to do that,” I thought. Duh. I should have known that already. I sure know it now.

But God has done even more with the pandemic: As the haze of diocesan mediocrity cleared, a bright constellation of Catholic lights appeared in the night sky.

I always knew Bishop Robert Barron was a smart guy with great things to say. But without the pandemic I never would have discovered his deep series of homilies on the Old Testament, which led me to more and transformed my understanding of the Bible. I always liked Father Mike Schmitz; now I thank God daily for him as I walk my dog surrounded by his “Bible in a Year” community. 

The pandemic revealed to me that we live in an age of not just one, but dozens of Fulton Sheens. In fact, we have a Fulton Sheen for every taste: Jennifer Fulwiler or Matt Fradd are funny Fulton Sheens; Father Robert Spitzer is the brainy Fulton Sheen; Scott Hahn, the Biblical Fulton Sheen. We have whole organizations of Fulton Sheens: Augustine Institute, Word on Fire, Ascension, Catholic Answers. My kids have discovered a world of YouTubers speaking the faith in their language.

These all put the Church in context, reminding us why we believe in the promises of Christ and how we see him despite the sinners.

All that is left is to get the word out to every neighborhood. Jesus Christ in his wisdom made you the answer to the needs of your neighbors. Meet them, appreciate them, help them with what they need, and be ready with an answer to the question, “Where do you find hope?” when they ask it. Be ready with an answer that includes the story of how you personally overcame the pain of the pandemic, and directions on where they can find your favorite Fulton Sheen. You know what? You should even reach out with love to your pastor and bishop, with no agenda but love. 

If we do this, we will transform the culture. If we don’t, we never will.

This is part 2 of the “Love Thy Neighbor” series. Read  part 1 here and part 3 here.