Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed: "No More Bishop Nice Guy": The Future of the Catholic Church in the United States

 The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial by one of their deputy editors entitled “No More Bishop Nice Guy”.  The author, Matthew Hennessey, makes a plea to the bishops: “Show some backbone. Open the churches”.  He points out what should be obvious to the bishops:  the terrible spiritual damage done to so many families whose loved ones died alone without the Sacraments, the arbitrary limiting of worshippers in churches to numbers that have no scientific justification, and, probably the worst, the breaking of the fundamental and godly habit of regular Mass attendance for millions of families.



There can be no doubt that those Catholics who had only a marginal attachment to the Church and attended Mass only a few times a year will not return once the pandemic is over.  But there are also many families who have become used to watching streamed Masses every Sunday, thinking that they have satisfied their obligation to worship God grounded in the Third Commandment by staring at a TV or computer screen to watch a ghostly priest go through the motions of the Mass.   The streamed Mass as a substitute for worship is a perversion of worship.  This false substitute for worship affects children deeply.  They will need serious catechesis from their parents about the need to go to Mass in person.  Their parents will need spiritual guidance in understanding that the reality of participation in the Mass demands one’s bodily presence.  And this is not merely to receive Holy Communion.  Catholic worship demands bodily presence to assist in the offering of the Sacrifice of the Son to the Father. Catholic worship is not virtual.  It is real.


The shocking complicity by the bishops in the severe curtailment of Catholic worship this past year—a year mercifully drawing to a close—must be acknowledged.   There are exceptions like Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco who challenged the totally arbitrary restrictions imposed by the mayor of that city and won his case.  But the great majority of the bishops have not challenged what are often arbitrary rules involving numbers of people allowed in a church at Mass, rules issued with no scientifically based rationale.


Let us be clear.  Caution must be exercised in this pandemic in real ways.  The irrational response of some Catholics to any form of exercise of the real virtue of Prudence is to be deplored.  I myself have an advanced degree in physical science and trust the objectivity of scientific research and recommendations made based on the research with respect to the current pandemic.  But the closing of churches last Spring was an arbitrary decision by political leaders that had no basis in science.  The decision treated churches like restaurants, bars, and gyms.  This is both unscientific and illogical.  And even in the time of partial re-opening of the churches, the numbers allowed at Sunday Mass varies from diocese to diocese, and is based on edicts from local government which, again, have no basis in science. 


What if the bishops had sat down and really thought about what should be done in this situation of real crisis with respect to parish worship? Could not the bishops have affirmed strongly that the work of a priest is as essential as the doctors and nurses in hospitals, and certainly as essential as those who work in super markets and liquor stores? They might have at least challenged the arbitrary closing of churches and then the numbers allowed at Mass when there was a partial re-opening.  But they did not.  Instead, they took the easy way out and complied and offered their people the ghostly sop of streamed Masses-- even in Holy Week!  The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops—an example of bureaucracy stifling the charism of the pastor of a specific flock in the Sheepfold—perhaps should form a new committee among the many now in place, a Committee on Science, whose job would be to explain to the bishops the function, role and content of scientific research and findings and then to apply this to current moral questions.  


What is at stake here is the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.  The problems are many: the militant secularization of our culture, the continued decline in the number of priests being ordained, the lack of internal and external intellectual prowess in articulating the Faith, the bishops of important Sees on the East Coast that delight in being the darlings of the liberal press—quite a lot to think about.  But the greatest threat to the Catholic Church in this country is the ever- emptying churches.  More and more Catholics do not understand that worship at Mass is the heart of what it means to be a Catholic.  One cannot love God without worshipping Him. 


 The decline in regular Mass attendance began at least a half century ago.  There can be little doubt that many Catholics who have not been to Mass in a parish church for nearly a year because of the arbitrary restrictions during the pandemic will not return when the pandemic conditions cease and thereby further accelerate this decline.  What is at stake is the practice of the Catholic faith itself. Without the worshipping community, the Catholic Church is an empty shell.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla