Recently a local Catholic homeschool group announced a “Mom’s Day of Reflection” at a Catholic community center. The day would allow homeschool moms—those most harried of creatures—to have a chance to relax, reflect, and recharge. There was just one problem: one of the moms didn’t think the group would enforce mask-wearing sufficiently at the event. She contacted the location where the event was to be held to inform them that the event organizers were not going to force people to mask. So the location administrators got nervous and backed out. Needless to say, tempers within the group flared, and eventually the event was cancelled. So much for relaxation, reflection, and recharging.
Now, this isn’t another article debating the efficacy of universal mask-wearing. It’s about how we as Catholics view and treat those who differ from us on pragmatic issues, and how we react in stressful times. Stories like the one above are becoming more common as the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” approaches 365 days. While most people dutifully, if perhaps grudgingly, went along with the initial lockdowns last spring, the same cannot be said for the succeeding mask mandates that began to appear last summer. As mandates are built upon mandates with no end in sight, the response to mask-wearing reminds one of the words of Jesus: “they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:53). When you step back and think about it, it’s amazing that a small piece of cloth has caused so much division.
I’ll freely admit that I’m firmly against universal mask-wearing mandates, but at the same time, if someone wants to wear a mask, I’m not going to try to stop them or denigrate their decision. This virus and how to respond to it is a confusing and now politically-charged issue, and there’s a lot of room for differences of opinion on the topic. I make no claims to be infallible in this regard, but I also don’t pretend that Dr. Fauci is infallible, either. What is most dangerous, in my view, is how enforcing mask-wearing is tearing apart communities, including Catholic communities.
I’m sure the pro-maskers believe they are doing God’s work. After all, they likely have become convinced that someone not wearing a mask is directly, dangerously, and needlessly putting lives at risk. Thus, I can understand their fanaticism toward mask-wearing (and now double-mask-wearing). But their enthusiasm for protecting grandma has turned them into religious zealots, and the religion isn’t Catholicism, it’s Covidism. Sadly, our Church leaders have fostered this unbalanced zeal, as they have put their strict mask-wearing rules in terms of living Gospel charity. If for any reason whatsoever you don’t mask, then you aren’t a good Catholic. Period. It’s a manipulative tactic that creates the Catholic Mask Police and turns mask-wearing into the eighth sacrament.
The real-world damage caused by this overzealous mask enforcement is piling up. I’ve heard stories from trusted friends about being publicly berated by priests—even in the middle of homilies—because they weren’t wearing a mask. Pro-abortion politicians can traipse up for Holy Communion, but if a non-mask-wearer dares to enter the church he’ll be thrown out into the cold where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. One parent of a child at a solid Catholic university shared that her daughter calls her nightly, crying and stressed out from complying with the strict mask mandates and enforcement on her campus. I know someone who was shunned from a Catholic funeral last summer for not masking (it gives him anxiety and he can’t breathe well) and as a result has only gone to Mass online since then, even though he wants to go in person. He even offered to sit in the back or sit in the cry room or vestibule but they said no. I’ve heard of Catholics who haven’t gone to Confession because the parish Mask Police are so harsh they don’t feel they can stand in line without being judged and condemned.
Bishops have threatened to shut down parishes they felt were not fully complying with their mask mandates, even though irreverent liturgies and heretical homilies don’t cause even the slightest stir. Catholic college campuses are overrun by mask zealots ensuring no young person dares to breathe without a prophylactic over his mouth. And of course lay Catholics are snitching on other lay Catholics whom they don’t believe are subservient enough to the latest regulations regarding masks. How on earth (or in heaven) do we think this mess is a good reflection on the Body of Christ?
If after reading this litany of discord and strife you immediately think, “Well, they should just wear the damn mask,” then you’re part of the problem. The refusal of the pro-maskers to consider any possible side effects of all these extreme masking measures hides the reality that many Catholics are suffering in silence. They feel alienated from their parish, from their family and friends, and from the world. At the one place they expected solace—their parish—they instead receive clipped orders and suspicious glares. From those whom they expected consolation—their priests and bishops—they instead receive condemnation, all because they won’t (or can’t) wear a mask.
I’m not calling on every Catholic diocese and parish and school to end their mask mandates tomorrow, but I am asking that Church leaders apply some of that compassion Pope Francis says we should have for the “peripheries” to non-mask-wearing Catholics, who are clearly part of today’s outcasts. Realize that the science isn’t “settled,” and that turning mask-wearing into an idol severely threatens the witness of the Church regarding the primacy of the spiritual over the physical. Have rules if you must, but be generous in understanding the needs of non-mask-wearers.
And to fervent pro-mask lay Catholics: your duty as Catholics isn’t to search out and find any and all non-compliance with the State’s latest mandates. Instead, recognize that our scientific and political leaders are fallible, and that their latest pronouncements are not divine words coming down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. I realize you think you are “saving lives,” but your efforts likely won’t save one life. However, they can destroy your community, which is a fundamental part of what it means to truly live. Recognize that the various mandates and rules are prudential (and political) decisions about which Catholics are free to disagree. So maybe less snitching and condemning, and more treating your fellow Catholics, even the non-mask-wearers, as images of God, not vectors of contagion.
The Catholic Church in this country was already in a steep decline before COVID-19 hit our shores. Catholics were flocking out the doors like the building was on fire. Having the remaining Catholics at each other’s throats is only going to accelerate that trend. In the days of the early Church, one of the main activities that attracted the pagans to the Church was the heroic way in which Catholics fearlessly treated the sick and the dying when the plague hit. They ministered to them, no matter the danger to their own lives, for they put spiritual needs above physical needs. It would be tragically ironic if the very thing that caused growth in the early Church—her response to a frightening ailment—were to accelerate her decline today.
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