Rorate Caeli

A theologian analyzes the morality of the cancellation of public Masses and the closure of churches by the State — superb Thomistic treatment

The author of this letter, a priest and an experienced teacher of moral theology, shared the following text with Rorate Caeli. It was originally prepared as a letter to the priest’s local ordinary. I find it the best treatment I have read so far of these questions.

Letter Reflecting on the Cancellation of Masses and Closure of Churches

8 May 2020
Our Lady, Mediatrix of All Graces and Queen of All Saints

Your Excellency,

For nearly two months now the Catholic faithful have been deprived of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of Holy Communion, and for many, even of Confession, many priests refusing this ministry. This time has been one of great suffering for all. The unexpectedness of the situation found us all wondering what to do, and those in positions of leadership had to make some very tough and very quick decisions.

Even if, we hope, things may once again be relatively normal in the near future, I am mindful that the situation we found ourselves in is likely to repeat itself. It is for this reason that I would like to share with you a few reflections about the way things have been handled during the COVID-19 crisis.

This letter is not intended to incriminate anyone, nor even to lodge a complaint. It takes its source in my reflections as a theologian, and seeks only to cast upon events the light of truth and justice with the hope that, having learned from the experience, we may in the future not leave the Catholic faithful in a situation where many of them felt effectively abandoned.

We are obviously dealing here with complex issues that touch upon the powers of the state, but also the missionary mandate of the Church. These two realms sometimes overlap, and they certainly have in the past few months. I would like to believe that there was only goodwill on all sides. Goodwill, however, is often not good enough.

Two main issues are at the heart of the matter. The first is the cancellation of public Masses throughout the country by mandate of the local ordinaries. The second is the closure of places of worship, and therefore of Catholic churches, mandated by the government. Since this is the chronology of the events, it is in this order that I intend to address these issues.

Cancellation of public Masses

Faced with news of a rapidly spreading virus about which the most grim – if not always exact – reports were circulating, many bishops around the world began to cancel public Masses in their dioceses. At the same time, they urged their priests to continue offering Mass without the assistance of the faithful. What this achieved was to effectively create a category of liturgical services reserved to the priest and from which the faithful were excluded. A number of things need to be pointed out about this practice.

First of all, the canonical legislation of the Church tells us that “the sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them” (Canon 843 § 1). Furthermore, “the pastor and parochial vicars, chaplains and, for all who live in the house, the superior of the community in clerical religious institutes or societies of apostolic life have the right and the duty to bring the Most Holy Eucharist to the sick in the form of Viaticum” (Canon 911 § 1). Regarding the sacrament of penance: “All to whom the care of souls is committed by reason of an office are obliged to provide that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to their care be heard when they reasonably ask to be heard and that the opportunity be given to them to come to individual confession on days and hours set for their convenience” (Canon 986 §1). As regards anointing, we are told: “All priests to whom the care of souls has been committed have the duty and the right to administer the anointing of the sick to all the faithful committed to their pastoral office” (Canon 1003 §2).

It follows that a priest may not refuse the sacraments to a Catholic who asks for them in a reasonable way. This reasonableness is presumed unless it is clearly contradicted. We should add that according to sound moral principles, a priest who has care of souls (a parish priest, a religious superior for his religious, a hospital chaplain…) is obliged ex iustitia to administer the sacraments even to a person with a grave contagious disease if there is danger of death for that person. Other priests are obliged to the same ex caritate. The reason for this is that the eternal good of the soul in question comes before even the physical health or even life of the minister. Just as soldiers, policemen and fire-fighters must risk their lives, so must priests when the occasion arises.

It would seem therefore that a priest may not be prevented in any situation from administering the sacraments to his people, for the simple reason that the faithful have a right to them and he has a duty to administer them. It does not seem to be within the competence of the sacred minister (and this includes the bishop) to deny the sacraments to a Catholic who is properly disposed.

Some have pointed to cases of epidemics in the past, when public Masses were suspended to avoid contamination. It is important to keep in mind two things: first of all, the gravity of the infection in the place where the suspension of Mass will occur, not in some other part of the world (just as it is not possible to give the sacrament of anointing to someone who is not ill for the reason that he might fall ill, so it is not permissible to take measures to deprive the faithful of sacraments because there is some vague possibility that they might spread contagion); secondly, the provision of the sacraments for those who needed them. For example, St Charles Borromeo is said, during a plague in Milan in 1576–77, to have arranged for Masses to be celebrated outside and at street intersections so that people could watch from their windows and unite themselves in that way with the Mass. That similar procedures were enacted in those parts of the world which were hit hard by COVID-19 (New York City comes to mind) is no surprise, but the question is: here in our country, did we have such a situation that justified the cancellation of ALL public Masses, and this without any given time frame for an evaluation of whether normal liturgical ceremonies could be resumed? I am of the mind that due proportions were not respected here.

Another consideration is that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, access remained for “essential” activities, such as going to purchase food. However, it seems obvious that the danger of contamination exists much more in the supermarket than in our churches. And yet, public Masses were banned, even though the rules of social-distancing put into place in “essential” activities could have easily been maintained. I feel that the conclusion easily drawn from this – not intended, certainly, but nevertheless easily arrived at – is that the bishops themselves considered the attendance at Mass, even on Sundays, to be non-essential. One can get food for the body, but not food for the soul. What can this mean if not that the former is more important than the latter? Unless of course one considers that food for the soul is sufficiently provided for by personal prayer, in which case the sacramental economy of an incarnate religion is put in parentheses, to say the least.

Others will point to historical situations in which the sacraments were forbidden the faithful of a particular region or city. It is what Canon Law refers to as “interdict”, that is to say, that all the faithful, including the clergy, were forbidden to celebrate or receive the sacraments. This canonical punishment was usually inflicted to put pressure on the local government. The thinking, valid only in a fully Catholic society, was that if the people were deprived of the sacraments, they would pressure their leaders into complying with measures taken by the Church. This was often the case when some grave abuse was being promoted by the state. However, it should be obvious that such historical events cannot serve to justify the exclusion of the faithful from the sacraments as we recently experienced, the main reason being that the faithful were guilty of no crime that warranted such a punishment. There clearly was no interdict. Furthermore, in the present code of Canon Law, local interdicts no longer exist, but only personal ones.

Another point in question here is the concept of “private Mass”. The term, up till now, was used to refer to Mass without the attendance of the faithful, usually in the context of religious orders whose priests do not have any public ministry, bearing in mind however, that all religious orders, even the strictest of them such as the Carthusians, have a Mass available to the public in their churches. So when traditionally reference was made to a “private Mass” it did not mean a Mass from which the faithful were banned, but a Mass that simply had no reason to be open to the public because other Masses were available. This being said, we must add that there is really no such thing as a “private Mass”, the principal reason being that the priest is by nature a public minister of the Church and, as such, even if he is a member of an enclosed religious order, he cannot positively refuse any of the faithful to attend a Mass he is celebrating, unless other Masses are readily available. It seems that what we witnessed during COVID-19 was unprecedented and, in my opinion, unwarranted and unjust, being contrary to one of the most fundamental rights of the Catholic faithful. This appears to me to be a very serious question, one that will not go away in the future, and that we must be ready to give a correct answer to the next time we are hit by a pandemic. Again, I am not throwing stones at anyone, but only trying to stimulate reflection on this very important question, which can have the gravest impact on the practice of the faith.

Indeed, if it is true that the cancellation of public Masses was not warranted, and if this was perceived to be the case by the faithful, it is to be feared that at least some of them will draw the conclusion that attendance at Mass is not that important, and they will be inclined, at best, to watch a live-streamed Mass instead, given in particular that some of the clergy did not hesitate to say that we have found “new ways of ministering to the people”. Already there is talk of the Sunday Mass obligation being subject to change in the future.

The Third Commandment makes it mandatory to honour God on the Lord’s day. Canon Law specifies that this is done principally through attendance at Holy Mass. Holy Communion is not part of the obligation. This is important, because the question of how to prevent the distribution of Holy Communion from being a possible source of infection seems to have been influential in making the decision to cease public Masses altogether. This problem, which did not exist in the time of St Charles Borromeo, for example, when daily Communion was extremely rare, would seem to be due to the quasi-universal reception of Communion at all Masses which we have seen develop since Vatican II. Many feel that, if they do not receive Communion, there is no sense in going to Mass. This is erroneous. Being present in the church during the offering of Holy Mass satisfies the Sunday obligation and brings abundant graces to the soul that unites itself with the sacrifice taking place on the altar and makes a spiritual communion. It appears that this has been lost in the minds of many. Would it not be the time to renew our catechesis on this question? It might also be the opportunity to inform the faithful (many of whom are ignorant of it) that to receive Holy Communion worthily one must be in a state of grace, fasting for at the very least one hour, and dressed with modesty and dignity.

Closure of places of worship

A distinct issue regards the closing of all places of worship decreed and implemented by the Government. A first distinction needs to be made here between places of worship and churches. It is clear that for many believers, a place of worship is where people gather to celebrate their faith. For many of them, especially Protestant Christians, the church building serves only to unite people to pray. When no one is there, the edifice serves no purpose. It would occur to no one to go there to pray, for this can be done in one’s home. Such is not the case for us. Our churches contain the living presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Many of the faithful go there during week to pray and adore. By ordering the closure of churches, the state has made this impossible.

It is undeniable that civil authorities, in order to protect the lives of citizens, can ban access to certain edifices for grave, objective, demonstrable reasons, such as dangerous conditions of the building which could injure people, serious proven infection of the place, or for a brief time if it has been the scene of a crime or an alarm.

However, if the state were to mandate closing of churches in general without the above conditions, it is clearly usurping a right it does not have for the following reasons:

1. The faithful have a right to access their churches and their sacraments. This right is based on the fundamental right of religious freedom.

2. The bishops and priests have a divine right and duty to preach the faith and make available the means of salvation, principally the sacraments, which they cannot withhold without very grave reasons to do so. (If there can be “new ways of ministering to the people”, these can only add to, never replace, the sacramental economy given to us by Jesus Christ).

3. No authority on earth can deprive the bishops of that fundamental right and duty.

4. Civil authorities therefore cannot inhibit the practice of the faith which includes having access to churches.

Consequently, whatever reason might be given by the state for the closure of churches, we are dealing, de facto, with a violation of religious freedom, even if this is denied by the said authorities and even if there is an apparent reason for their closure, the reason being that the Church answers directly to God. Should closure be required in the gravest circumstances (such as the plague under St Charles Borromeo), this must be decided by the Bishops, not by the state.

I am of the mind that, except in the aforesaid exceptional circumstances, no government may order Catholic bishops to close the Catholic Churches, for they have a direct mandate from Jesus Christ to serve the spiritual needs of the faithful, which needs always take precedence over physical ones. That other churches, such as the Church of England, receive orders from the state, that is normal, it is of the very essence of that Church to obey the Crown. We are not a State-run church. We receive our powers directly from the Lord Himself.

Were we to find ourselves in a similar situation again in which it is not obvious to everyone that being in a Catholic church building constitutes of its very essence a grave danger to public health, I deem it of the utmost importance that the bishops – all together if possible, but if not possible each one in his diocese – oppose to the government a flat refusal to close their churches. In so doing, it is important that they be not afraid to argue the unique sacredness of Catholic churches. Catholics do not just use their churches to gather on a Sunday. Many of them attend church each day to visit their Lord whom they believe is substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament. Permanent access to our churches is an essential right of all the faithful, which cannot be relegated to the level of visiting a theatre or a café. (How can one not feel disgust and outrage at seeing our churches closed in the very same decree that mandated the closing of bars and coffee shops? Surely this is a mockery and a grave offence against Almighty God!) Failure to resist would be a violation of their most sacred duty to God Incarnate and a concession to the political power that can only have grave consequences in the future.

I am aware that yourself and a number of bishops have been making efforts to work with the government on this question of reopening the churches as soon as possible. The people, however, were not informed of these efforts. They need to be. As in many other realms, transparency is vital. When nothing is said, the conclusion is quickly drawn that the bishops are not really concerned about the Mass and the faithful, especially when they see the presbytery of their local parish shuttered or are told not to come to confession (as some priests are doing).

Finally, I would like to repeat that what I have written is not intended in any way to incriminate anyone. I appreciate that the decisions were made in good faith and under great pressure to act without delay and without knowing enough about the situation. What I want is to protect in the future the rights of the Catholic faithful to have access to their churches and to the sacraments.

With filial gratitude and affection.

A Catholic priest and theologian