Our bishops are in a bit of a predicament with COVID-19. They want to be good citizens as well as good shepherds. And it looks like this is shaping up to be something of a challenge.
Our bishops responses in dealing with the pandemic are all over the map.
- In some dioceses bishops are suspending and canceling all masses and saying “All Catholics have been dispensed of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass;”
- Some bishops are saying “those who are sick or fearful of getting sick have been dispensed of the obligation to attend Sunday Mass;”
- In other dioceses bishops are saying, “Catholics who are over 60, chronically ill or immuno-deficient, or concerned about being in public gatherings” are dispensed from their Sunday obligation.
- Still others are saying Masses will continue as usual “but the sick and those caring for the sick are dispensed from their Sunday obligation and instructed to stay home.”
- And some bishops are instructing parishes to add masses to keep Mass attendance below 250 people.
This is not a very unified response from the universal Church. And it raises the question: Why should Catholics in one diocese have to watch Mass on TV or on their computers and take spiritual communion while Catholics in an adjoining diocese are still able to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist? As of March 15 only Idaho and Alabama had not reported anyone infected with COVID-19, so no diocese or parish is safe from this particular Coronavirus.
The varied responses by out bishops are proof that they are human beings like the rest of us. Each of them is trying to his best to walk a line between caring for our spiritual needs and our health and welfare.
COVID-19 vs. the Spanish Flu
Granted, COVID-19 is not a run of the mill flu strain. Its severity may be more along the lines of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. That pandemic may have resulted in somewhere between 30 million and 100 million deaths. (Estimates on this vary, and as this article points out, everyone seems content to report the estimates. No one seems to bother to actually check the math.) Regardless, medicine and healthcare have come a long way in 100 years.
As reported at Healthline, “Back then, scientists didn’t know viruses caused disease, and we didn’t yet have a vaccine or antivirals to help prevent or treat influenza, nor did we have antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.
“Life was also very different back then — for one, we were in the middle of a war and soldiers carried the virus with them all over the world. People were also living in very crowded conditions and had extremely poor hygiene . . .”
Of course, communications have also improved tremendously since 1918. Emergency preparedness has improved as well.
But sometimes enhanced communications is not such a good thing. Based on the empty shelves, freezers, and meat cases in the grocery stores it’s evident a lot of people are trying to ‘hunker down.’ Some know-it-all said everyone should “stock up” and that message got out very quickly. A lot of people are trying to do just that.
Former CDC director Tom Frieden also may have unwittingly done some scaremongering. He supposedly said that the U.S. death toll for the Coronavirus could range anywhere from 327 up to 1.6 million. Of course the only number anyone remembers or talks about is the big one.
A National Review article summed up the situation pretty well:
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — and probably the most helpfully even-keeled government official during coronavirus outbreak — noted that that media tends to report on the higher end of ranges predicted by models. “Remember the model during the Ebola outbreak said you could have as many as a million,” he noted. “We didn’t have a million.” Two Americans died of Ebola.”
But are the potential risks a sufficient reason for canceling Masses?
As the CDC’s “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” report says, “information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild,” and that “Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.”
Older people and people with health problems are always susceptible to complications from Coronaviruses and other viral infections. Fortunately, with COVID-19 children seem to be the least susceptible to it. They still can be carriers, however.
Also according to the CDC:
“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
“These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
- People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest).
- Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Tempest in a Teapot?
According to Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a Catholic deacon and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Alpert Medical School of Brown University, COVID-19 “spreads like other respiratory viral illnesses which means everyone can do something to help stop spread coronavirus. The community is not powerless.”
Proper precautions are basic ones. We should cover our mouths when coughing or sneezing. We should wash our hands a lot and not touch our mouth, nose, or eyes. And we should stay home if we’re sick and avoid public contact. These basic, simple precautions will go a long way toward preventing the spread of the virus.
And even though schools are closing, movie theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants and bars are all staying open in most of the 50 states. As of this writing (March 15) just about every other business in the country is staying open, too. Apparently people still need their entertainment during the pandemic (even though some establishments are reducing occupancy rates)! And people do still need to earn a living and pay the bills.
With the exceptions of school closings, no St. Patrick’s Day parades, no NCAA sports and some (not all) professional sports on a hiatus, it looks life goes on. But many Catholics now can’t go to Mass or receive the Eucharist.
So are the risks a sufficient reason for canceling Masses especially during this most holy season of Lent?
My wife and I teach a lesson on the Mass to the 8th graders in our Faith Formation class. I always tell the kids that the most important thing any of us do each week is go to mass on Sunday.
For every one of the many martyred saints down through the centuries, their Faith was more important than their lives. And even today, Catholics in some parts of the world go to Mass on Sunday knowing that they might be killed or imprisoned for doing so. Yet still they go.
The Church also tells us that our goal in life is to become a saint. Nothing on earth should stand in the way of this goal.
Are our health and our bodies more important than our souls? Isn’t this putting us and our own well-being before God?
Is canceling all Masses out of fear of spreading the Coronavirus showing true wisdom? Or is it showing too much concern for things of the world?
My wife and I have been debating these questions. Based on the responses of our bishops, they are debating them as well.
My wife also threw another factor into the mix. She points out that many of our priests are over 65. So many priests fall into the “older people” at risk category. It would certainly not be a good thing if a sizable number of our priests were hospitalized due to complications from COVID-19, and heaven forbid, died from those complications. This would pose a whole new set of problems for the Church.
What To Do?
CS writer Laura DeMaria has already cleared up the confusion many Catholics may be experiencing. In her article “How to Stick with Lent During Coronavirus” she offers some good advice.
“Our spiritual lives do not really need to suffer. While we may be enduring quarantine, telework, and a severely impacted social life, there are still ways to observe this holy season. Indeed, it is imperative to continue our Lenten practices, and to see this unusual trial as an opportunity to elevate and adapt our practices for a greater spiritual good.”
So let’s adapt. And let’s make sure we add the Pope, our bishops, and our priests to those for whom we are praying during this Lenten season.
“Jesus, please protect Pope Francis, our bishops, and our priests from COVID-10 and help them to guide us according to Your will while COVID-19 is among us. Amen”