Where Caesar’s Priests Draw the Line

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Canadians, unlike their feistier counterparts in the United States, tend to be law abiding, even to the point of submissiveness. Revolution was never in the genes. When the government urges them to wear masks to help ease the threat of spreading the Covid-19 virus, they are expected to comply, and comply without complaint.

A parishioner in British Columbia, however, has become a newsmaker for refusing to wear a mask while attending Mass. He cites a passage in his Church’s stated policy which allows exceptions for those who cannot wear the mask for legitimate reasons, such as health. His pastor, backed up by his bishop, however, have given him a stern ultimatum: wear a mask or do not attend Mass. The matter seems even more difficult to comprehend in the light of the fact that the province has not issued a mandatory mask policy. Provincial officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated that “ordering universal face mask use in all situations creates unnecessary challenges with enforcement and stigmatization”. The parishioner, who remains anonymous for fear of reprisals, is determined to attend Mass despite orders from the clergy. On the surface, the story appears to be an irreconcilable conflict between willful defiance and authoritarianism. But the surface is for newspapers.

The priest, not to be defied, included his recalcitrant parishioner in a sermon in which he stated that his parishioner was not being obedient to the government by not wearing a mask while not properly obeying Caesar (how un-Canadian!). Having read this stunning reference to Caesar, I then reached for my copy of Jacques Maritain’s The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. Concerning the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal powers, the Peasant of the Garonne makes the following comment: “Nothing is more important for the freedom of souls and the good of mankind than properly to distinguish between these two powers: nothing, in the language of the day, has so great a cultural value. It is common knowledge that the distinction is the achievement of the Christian centuries and their glory” (page 1). Maritain is referring to a distinction that is rooted in St. Augustine’s critical distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The pagan City claimed the whole of the human being while at the same time divinizing the state. The freedom of the soul was of no concern.

Was the priest out of line in referring to obedience to Caesar? Probably, since the Catholic Church does not belong to Caesar. The sad irony with regard to the British Columbia situation is that the conflict is taking place within the Church. Surely accommodations could be made including social distancing, frequent hand washing, proper seating in the church, etc. The outright prohibition from attending Mass seems, in this instance, both premature and unnecessary.

The freedom to worship has been hard earned throughout the centuries. And it is so easily lost or compromised. The current pandemic brings out a host of problems in which the spiritual takes a back seat to the temporal. In some places, strip joints are open while churches are closed. Anthony Fauci has given his approval for sex between strangers (though they should be wearing masks). The spiritual, nonetheless, has supremacy over social gatherings, sporting events, economics and even health.

The episode in the Nelson diocese of British Columbia (which is being repeated in many parts of the world) should remind every one of us of the priority of the spiritual, but also the need to find middle grounds, and not stray from kindness and understanding. The Church should be a witness for the freedom of souls. Particular decisions in the practical order may be complex and difficult, but we cannot forget what is most important. Respecting priorities is essential in the resolution of any dispute.

[Photo credit: Erin Alexis Randolph/shutterstock.com]

Donald DeMarco

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Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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