COVID Catholicism: An After-Action Review

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(The laity) 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, #37

It is a sad day in the Catholic Church when a partial Pentecost—one in which only a portion of the Church ventured forth, timidly and full of trepidation, from the upper room—marks a change for the better. But, given the choice between this year and last year’s Liturgical-Year-that-wasn’t, I imagine we would all take the version we just experienced. 

Still, it was hard to look around at all the masked faces and half-empty churches and not feel one was looking at a metaphor for the identity crisis and marginalization of the Church in the West and an indictment of our chosen course in the pandemic.

Perhaps now is as good a time as any, as we continue feeling our way forward through this interminable season of anything-but-ordinary-time in the Church, to begin the unpleasant task of performing the post-mortem on the Catholic Church’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. (Note that this is an analysis of the American Catholic response to COVID-19, although many of these issues occurred—and are still occurring—in other countries.)

What follows is a rudimentary critique of what I have come to call COVID Catholicism. 

I should note that because the COVID-19 vaccines are a live issue, and this article is an attempt at a preliminary post-mortem, I have left the discussion of vaccines to others. I recommend the analysis already provided here, here, and here.

Essential vs. Non-Essential

“Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things; one thing only is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

Catholicism’s COVID catastrophe began in the fateful month of March 2020 with this fact: throughout the United States, the fate of every institution rested on the answer to one all-determining question—“Are we an essential or a non-essential service?”

The fact that ultimately every bishop in the United States, whether by force or by choice, placed the local Church entrusted to him on the non-essential services list speaks to an eviscerating failure of identity, priority, and mission.

While grocery stores, marijuana dispensaries, and Planned Parenthood scrambled to adjust their logistics and carried on offering their “essential” services, the Roman Catholic Church declared herself non-essential, suspended public Masses and the other sacraments, and effectively abandoned the field and the faithful. 

During the lockdown, we could obtain the bread that perishes any time we wished from our local supermarket, but the Bread of Life was withheld from us for months. 

This was a catastrophic failure of identity. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, the extension in the world of the presence and mission of Jesus Christ. We are not only an essential service, we are the essential service, the “one thing necessary.” If the Catholic Church is not essential, nothing is essential. 

This was a stunning inversion of priorities. Health, safety, and physical well-being are most certainly goods, but they are neither the summum bonum nor the goods for which Christ founded the Church. Our first priority is spiritual well-being, and so, for the Church, due concern for the life of the body must give way at the point where it would in any way undermine our primary priority. 

Finally, this was a monumental failure of mission. The Church does not exist to save people from death but to prepare them well to meet it and to be with them as they do. The work of the Church is to save souls, not lives. That missionary mandate is fundamentally incompatible with hunkering down in chanceries, rectories, and home offices, wishing the world well from a safe distance.

The Catholic Church should have thrown her doors open to a world suddenly haunted by the specter of its own mortality, inviting the lost sheep to meet again the One who conquered death.

Instead, we are left with the bitter irony that in choosing to be of the world, where our COVID-19 response was concerned, we failed for months even to be in it. 

The Lockdown

“The world could exist more easily without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” (St. Padre Pio)

“Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” (Code of Canon Law, #843)

There are two vital differences between the COVID-19 lockdown—with its attendant suspension of Mass and sacraments by the Church—and the handful of lockdowns in the past. 

First, there has never been a subsidiarity-obliterating universal lockdown like this one. They have only ever been local. The simultaneous lockdown of the better part of a hemisphere is truly unique in human history. 

The second difference is this: no one has ever used a lockdown as a preventative measure before. They have only ever been a last-ditch effort to slow a full-blown catastrophe already in progress. 

Employing a lockdown as a preventative measure is like using a Gatling gun to kill a mosquito, only to realize afterward that, in your zeal to avoid contracting malaria, you’ve machine-gunned all your neighbors and set half their houses on fire. 

Where the Church is concerned, instituting a universal, indefinite exemption from the Sunday obligation and withholding the sacraments from the faithful as a preventative measure is tantamount to a suspension of the Third Commandment, which lies well outside the authority of any non-divine person. 

It should be noted, as well, that the lockdown followed logically and chronologically on the heels of the recommendation that all public gatherings be limited to 10 or fewer persons. 

Catholics were told this recommendation meant it was no longer possible to meet for public Mass or receive the sacraments. This is a non sequitur. Ten was only an arbitrary figure calculated to keep people properly distanced. 

For example, the diocesan chancery where I live sits in the downtown area of a fairly good-sized American city, not far from a professional sports venue that seats upward of 40,000 people. Would any reasonable person suggest that 11 people in that stadium constituted a public health threat? 

The arbitrary number-limit on public gatherings called for nothing more than a tape measure and a couple hours in the sanctuary to figure out what the new COVID-spaced capacity would be. 

Ultimately, these decisions constitute a violation of canons 213 and 843 in the Code of Canon Law, both of which assert that reception of the sacraments is always the right of the lay faithful. This establishes an equally fundamental duty on the part of the clergy to provide the sacraments to us.

Masking

“But when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed…And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:16,18)

 “The face is how one person is present to the other; it is self-exposure before each other, toward each other. The face is therefore the bearer of personal presence, its efficacious symbol, its sacrament.” (Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, theologian, and friend of Pope St. John Paul II) 

The most profound problem with face coverings is not what they fail to accomplish, but rather what they do accomplish with diabolical efficiency: the obscuring of the human person, and the contracepting of human presence. 

A mask is not a face diaper; it is a face condom. 

As the quote from Msgr. Albacete above expresses so well, the human face is the sacrament which points to, and makes present, the person. To be face-to-face is to be present to another in the most intimate way possible outside the marital embrace; it is to encounter the other sacramentally, as God intended. Face coverings contracept personal presence. They withhold and (literally) deface our God-given personhood.

Satan is utterly powerless to hurt God, and so he tirelessly bends his malevolence on destroying God’s created image. This past year we have done it for him—just as Satan has sought for two thousand years to empty the Church of the faithful and the world of the Church, and this past year we did it for him. 

In a culture already hell-bent on obscuring and obliterating the God-given truth of the human person, the cost to the human community, and the human future, of the loss of the human face and authentic human touch is incalculable.

Worst of all, the Catholic Church is complicit in the masking of children, a demographic for whom a COVID-19 death is a unicorn. This spectacle of terrified, virtue-signaling adults forcing these least of our brethren into masks will doubtless be counted the high-water mark of our insanity by the future generations who are doomed to deal with the damage. 

To those who say masking is no big deal, just a little sacrifice, an act of charity, I say unequivocally you are wrong—profoundly, fundamentally, dangerously wrong.

Last, but not least, there is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. No word, no gesture, no item in the Mass is wasted or without meaning, and yet, because of a virus, the Church has blithely introduced a new liturgical vestment, the mask, and the new liturgical action of covering the face before distributing Holy Communion. 

Out of idolatrous concern for health and safety, the priest, who stands in persona Christi, is required to mask the face of Christ in order to give the faithful His Body and Blood, and we, the faithful, are required to mask ourselves to participate in these Sacred Mysteries! 

This borders on blasphemy. 

Charity and Obedience

I believe the Church’s charity narrative during the pandemic—claiming it was charity that compelled us to adopt the secular COVID-19 protocols—is a sincerely-felt rationalization of our chosen course. It is, without a doubt, a necessary prop for exhorting the faithful to obedience. 

Charity and obedience go hand in hand. Obedience can only be invoked, in the case of the pandemic policies, if said policies are acts of charity. Charity is, after all, the bedrock principle of the Catholic moral law, and we owe the hierarchy obedience in matters of faith and morals. 

On the other hand, if the COVID-19 protocols adopted by the Church are not acts of charity, then they remain simply ad-hoc public health policies, promulgated by a particular group of doctors as advice on how to navigate the pandemic. 

On the charity question, the red flag went up, for me, on day one. 

In defense of the suspension of public Masses, bishops and their communications staff began telling the faithful that closing the Church to keep everyone safe from the virus was an act of charity. Essentially, the Church running for the bunkers, like everyone else, was pitched as an innovative means of loving our neighbor. 

With all due respect, this is sophistry, and it does not hold up to scrutiny. 

If shutting down, locking your doors, and going dark and silent was truly the charitable thing to do in the face of the pandemic, then remaining open would necessarily constitute a failure of charity. Yet the essential services that stayed open and soldiered on were not denounced for their lack of charity; they were hailed for their heroism. 

This gives the lie to the Church’s charity narrative. Unless, of course, the Church is not an essential service but merely a luxury, like nail salons, or bowling alleys. Which brings us back to the epic error of the Church placing herself on the non-essential list. Error has a nasty habit of breeding. 

The charity narrative does not hold, and the invocation of obedience goes down with it. 

Peter, standing before the Sanhedrin, or Paul before the Romans, declaring with holy boldness, “We must obey God rather than men,” understood this perfectly well, and both were willing to give their lives rather than submit the mission to mere men, or to manmade institutions. Sadly, their successors seem to see it differently. 

These errors of false charity obscure and undermine the identity, priorities, and mission of the Church and the effectiveness of our witness to the world, now and in the future. 

Conclusion

During the pandemic, Church leadership has sounded for all the world like a gut-wrenching parody of the Blessed Mother at the wedding feast at Cana. Faced with the COVID-19 threat, the hierarchy stood before the faithful, pointed at Anthony Fauci, and said, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Allowing the world to lead the Church through the pandemic has, in effect, confirmed what the enemies of the Church have been saying for centuries: that the Catholic Church is a relic; a pointless anachronism from the Middle Ages which has no place, and must have no voice, in our enlightened culture. Like Esau, we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

We must firmly resolve never to commit these errors again. It is time to part ways with the wisdom of the world, lift the COVID-19 restrictions, and fully reopen the Church to the world. 

We lost this battle, but Christ has won the war, and now Our Lord is calling us back onto the battlefield. Let us respond with faith and fortitude.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Amator Ecclesiae is the pseudonym of a diocesan official who serves in the chancery of a large diocese in the United States of America.

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