As with so many other things, so with coronavirus: You can trust Catholics to turn it into an intramural spiritual battle. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but from what I’ve seen so far, most Catholics in the social-media world have taken bishops’ individual decisions to suspend Mass rather well. But there are a few who have taken it as just one more stupid, panicky decision by those cowardly [expletive] nimrods in purple to cover their heinies.
It’s times like this I wonder why anyone would want to convert to Catholicism. (Just a rhetorical question. Don’t take it seriously. If you converted despite all our interior struggles, please share in the combox.)
Part of the problem we face right now is that we’re trying to strike a reasonable balance between taking coronavirus seriously and not taking it so seriously that we stop living. Almost as soon as it emerged in the U.S., covid-19 became a political football. We don’t need to invoke a conspiracy theory like the New Order or the “Deep State” to concede that much of the panic is media-driven and carries an anti-Trump, anti-Republican spin. However, many right-leaning people are overreacting to the overreaction by denying or minimizing covid-19’s potential for deadliness and serious health impacts.
Yep, 21st-century politics in America — driving ditch-to-ditch.
Yes, at least 96% of covid-19’s victims recover from it eventually.* Yes, the majority of people who experience any symptoms at all suffer no more than they would with a mild case of the flu. However, the elderly and people with certain pre-existing conditions stand a higher risk of developing more serious, even dangerous symptoms requiring intensive care. No, coronavirus isn’t “Captain Trips,” but it is more lethal than the flu and it does have the potential to overwhelm our healthcare system. And even if you don’t show or feel any symptoms, you could still spread the virus.
Three questions: Do you want to catch coronavirus? Can you guarantee your case will be mild? Do you want to be a 21st-century Typhoid Mary? If you have people who love and depend on you, like most adults, you owe it to them to try to stay healthy. And you don’t have a moral or legal right to spread sickness, no matter how pedestrian you think the virus is. No, you don’t need to hoard food or sanitary supplies; but you do need to take some commonsense safety precautions. And avoiding crowds is one of them.
Is Mass Absolutely Necessary?
Of course, going to Mass to worship the Lord and hear the gospel preached is a great spiritual good, which is why the Church requires it on Sundays and holy days of obligation. However, you’re only obligated to receive the Precious Body and Blood once a year; and if you’re objectively in a state of mortal sin, you need to abstain from it until you confess and receive absolution. If you’re not certain whether your sin is objectively mortal, go to Confession anyway.
(True story: My father had been married and divorced before he met my mother; their marriage was civil only. For the entire 29½ years of their marriage, Mom went faithfully to Mass when required, even though she couldn’t receive the Blessed Sacrament. When they separated and divorced in 1987, Mom was free to receive from that point forward for the rest of her life. I was glad to ensure our pastor gave her Communion before she slipped into her final coma and death this last August.)
Having said all that, the Mass is not such a good that your immortal soul is endangered if, for good and weighty reasons, you’re unable to attend. Father David Nix, by no means a liberal or progressive priest, discusses several points in Church history when priests did not offer Mass and saints did not attend it, especially as a preparation for Communion on Easter Sunday.
Catholicism for the first millennium ran just as much on the ascetical life as the sacramental life. … The early Church expected fasting and prayer to carry as much of the weight of holiness as the sacraments — surely more than a superficial reception of the sacraments! Or rather, the powerful fasting was preparation for powerful sacraments.
Canon lawyer Edward Peters (again, no liberal) notes that bishops have the authority to suspend Mass and dispense the faithful from the obligation to attend. In fact, in non-pestilential times, there are situations where the Church dispenses you from the obligation, though you may have to do some rigorous soul-searching as to the reason for the skip. He also observes that weighing the risk to others “is not undertaken as an expression of charity toward others but as an exercise of justice to them.” If you’re sick, you have a moral obligation to not attend Mass.
Peters also makes the point, “Since ancient times it has been recognized that no one is bound to the impossible.” You’re not required to travel several hours to reach an available Mass or spend your life’s savings on Uber or a cab. Here, the question is whether attending would impose an unreasonable burden. Again, you may have to search your soul as to whether the burden of finding an available Mass is really undue or merely an excuse to slack. Nevertheless, Mother Church recognizes that, while God can’t be deceived, He’s also compassionate and understanding.
Coronavirus Calls for Prudent Action
Certainly, the decision to suspend Mass and/or dispense with the obligation to attend is a grave matter, one that requires the bishop or ordinary to weigh the spiritual welfare of the faithful against other goods. More to the point, though, it’s a matter of prudential judgment, which by its nature depends on the bishop’s subjective understanding of justifiable risk. Given that not exposing others to illness is a matter of justice, does the faithful’s spiritual welfare depend so much on Mass attendance that the risk of spreading coronavirus is justifiable?
Instead of asking whether Mass is necessary to our spiritual well-being, let’s ask how necessary it is to our spiritual lives. The Church’s answer, both historically and now, is that it’s not so necessary that missing Mass will endanger your spiritual welfare regardless of cause or grounds. In one sense, access to Sunday Mass is a modern privilege that wasn’t always and everywhere available to the faithful in previous centuries, to say nothing of daily Mass. To call it a privilege is not to diminish its importance but rather to recognize that its necessity is contingent on its availability.
The fact remains that containing the coronavirus’ spread calls for prudent action. The physical welfare of the faithful matters as much as their spiritual welfare. In the absence of the Mass, we have other means of keeping the Sabbath holy and joining in spiritual communion with one another. Our medieval ancestors found watching the elevation of the Host salvific enough not to require Communion; we can join with them spiritually by watching Mass on television. And like the Egyptian fathers, we can use this Eucharistic fast to prepare more fully for the Easter celebration.
With thought and reflection, this time of pestilence can be spiritually fruitful.
Conclusion: No Time for a Piety Contest
In the Diocese of Dallas, as of publication time, Bp. Edward J. Burns has suspended Masses and dispensed with the obligation until March 30. In the neighboring Diocese of Fort Worth, Bp. Michael F. Olsen has dispensed with the obligation “as always” for the sick and the vulnerable and their caretakers, and instituted extra steps to reduce the risk of transmission while still making Mass available.** Both bishops have acted as prudently as they think they must. Which is right? By the time we can view their reactions without the filters of internal politics, the question will no longer be interesting.
As far as their motives go, my preferred rule of interpretation is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. As a corollary, I propose this rule: Never attribute to bad motives that which can be adequately explained by good intentions gone awry. Just as I need no conspiracy theory to explain the media hype, I need no presumption of moral cowardice to explain the bishops’ actions. It speaks to how badly they’ve failed us in the last few decades that we should even presume cowardice. Nevertheless, prudence looks like cowardice only to the rash.
In summary, although we don’t need to stop living or start hoarding, we also don’t need to make the coronavirus pandemic a piety contest with our bishops or each other. If you’re not sick, and you can and want to go, then go, by all means; just don’t blow a trumpet to announce your attendance. If there are no Masses available within a reasonable distance, keep Sunday holy and use the time to reflect on the Mass and its significance. Then, when Mass becomes available again, your participation in it will be more joyous.
* Based on a 4% mortality rate as of March 17, 2020. The rate does not reflect asymptomatic victims who have not been tested; the actual figure may be significantly lower. See the Johns Hopkins coronavirus website or the Coronavirus Dashboard for updated information.
** On March 18, Bp. Olsen restricted celebration of the Eucharist to the priest, a deacon, and an acolyte/server, with Communion to be distributed outside of Church “for those who are present in their cars or separated by a safe distance. It is to be distributed in an open space with safe social distancing, in the hand, and not through a car window.” Also, “The circumstances current in our community are such that attendance at Mass borders on an impossibility and thus there is no obligation to attend.”