In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, the nationwide shutdown of Catholic churches has halted regular Mass attendance and impeded access to other sacraments for the Catholic faithful. Now, some Catholics have endorsed an open letter asking the Catholic bishops to do everything possible to make the sacraments more available.
“We don’t absolutely need to have the Eucharist, but we want to be in the presence of the Eucharist, we want to have Mass said. We want adoration, we want processions, we want all these things,” she told CNA on April 2, describing the goals of the open letter and its supporters.
“We’re putting our emphasis on the last rites, the Anointing of the Sick, and Mass and Adoration,” said Smith, a retired professor of moral theology at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary. For her, the greatest concern is what she says is “the failure to work extremely hard to make certain that those who are sick and dying can receive the anointing of the sick.”
“Most concerning is the refusal by at least one bishop to permit his priests to give the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick,” Smith told CNA. “I am impressed with one order who offered to make it more available even to those who are not terribly sick. The sacrament does have the power to heal and strengthen.”
Amid the pandemic, some American dioceses have allowed pastors to administer some sacraments and devotions in conformity with government rules banning large assemblies of people. Some priests have implemented “drive-through” confessionals or “drive-in” Eucharistic adoration and benediction.
Some bishops have regularly livestreamed messages and Masses, or adore the Eucharist in public view on cathedral steps.
Other bishops have had a more cautious reaction. Some have locked all church buildings in their diocese, and have attempted to bar the administration of all sacraments except in danger of death, even if not required by law or public health recommendation to do so.
“The precipitous closing of the churches is very concerning. In Rome within 24 hours after they were closed, they were reopened. In those places where the law has decreed that people must stay home, we should abide, but if churches can be open, they should be. Surely we can ensure that for private prayer and adoration, people can remain 6 ft apart,” Smith said.
“The one size fits all policy seems very wrong headed. In small rural communities with no outbreak of the disease, more freedom to gather should be permitted than in urban communities that are being devastated by the disease,” she added.
For backers of the open letter, more needs to be done for the laity.
“Bishops, we, your faithful flock, implore you to do everything you can to make the sacraments more available to us during this crisis. Something is terribly wrong with a culture that allows abortion clinics and liquor stores to remain open but shuts down places of worship,” the open letter says.
“While safety and cooperation with civil authorities is necessary, we must do everything we can to have access to what is essential for our spiritual lives. We should certainly not voluntarily deprive ourselves of the sacraments.”
Smith said the bishops’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has been about about “trying to protect human life,” and the letter endorsers “share completely” that goal.
“We don’t want anything to be done that isn’t following the guidelines,” she said.
The open letter encourages bishops to do everything possible t o provide some form of a public Mass, especially for the Easter liturgy, including offering it themselves.
It is unclear whether some gatherings, like “drive-in” Masses offered in parking lots while attendees sit in their cars, would comply with government bans on large public gatherings, a local bishop’s ban on public Masses, or public health experts’ recommendations on social distancing.
The open letter asks bishops to “demand that civil authorities permit events such as offering and attending a Mass in a parking lot, if they are currently prohibited.”
Smith said if a state or local government ban on large public gatherings includes people going to a parking lot in their car to hear Mass, “that has to be fought.”
“We want the bishop calling up the governor and the mayor and calling up the legislators and calling up whoever, and saying ‘No no no, this is freedom of religion that we have to be allowed to do’,” she said.
“We are not asking for anything that would put our neighbors in danger. All due precautions would be observed. How can a parking lot Mass where everyone drives there in their cars and stays in their cars and where there is no distribution of the Eucharist put anyone at danger? That is one of our chief requests to be put under consideration.”
“There is absolutely no way that this relates to the spread of the virus,” Smith told CNA.
Asked if letter organizers had consulted with public health experts on their proposals, Smith said:
“We didn’t consult any, although we have heard from many who have provided more good ideas on what can be done. We are not proposing anything specific but are asking the bishops to do everything they can to provide the sacraments within the parameters determined necessary by experts.”
Smith herself raised and then answered the question of whether organizers should have gone directly to the bishops. She said “it’s not possible.”
“They’re busy with meetings, and it’s hard to get through,” she said. “But if you do a petition that we hope thousands will sign, then I hope we get their attention.”
The open letter advocates that civil authorities recognize religious services as “essential services,” a move which some states have done amid stay-at-home orders.
Referring to emergency declarations’ distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” employees and businesses, Smith said she is concerned “the Catholic world does not seem to understand that it is simply wrong to concede that religious services are ‘non-essential’.”
“Yes, we can dispense with them as virtually everything can be dispensed with in certain conditions,” she said. “But the conditions we are in right now do not, at least as far as the experts tell us, require all that our bishops have done and have allowed to be done.”
In Smith’s view, “the bishops are missing in action in clearly responding to the spiritual needs of their people.” She acknowledged that almost all bishops are streaming Masses on Sunday, saying this is “a good thing” but “not the most important thing.”
While she has seen many priests doing “very innovative things” to make available the sacraments and ensure the spiritual needs of their people are being met, she others are not visibly doing enough. Some, she said, were “almost denying sacraments before they needed to.”
“We need bishops who are trying as hard as priests are to attend to the spiritual needs of people,” she said. “They are making decisions that impact our spiritual lives and we need explanations of them. We need them to tell us how we can keep our spiritual lives alive.”
The “We are an Easter People” open letter said that if the government prohibits priests ministering to the sick in the hospital or their homes, bishops should “make a personal and formal request of civic leaders to permit such ministry with assurances that all due precautions will be taken.” They should find ways for priests to provide the anointing of the sick, “especially to those at risk of dying.”
While priests who minister to the sick are encouraged to take precautions like wearing personal protective equipment, such equipment has been the subject of a nationwide shortage. Smith acknowledged the shortage and said health care professionals should have priority for their use. In many places, she added, there is not a shortage. She added that an increase in manufacturing could eliminate a shortage before long.
The open letter lists more than 20 project endorsers, including Catholic commentators, video bloggers and others. More than 24,000 internet users had signed the letter as of Tuesday afternoon.
Project endorsers include Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute; former abortion clinic manager Abby Johnson; Phillip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News; and Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute; Catholic speaker Mary Beth Bonnaci, a Catholic speaker; podcaster Matt Fradd; author and movie producer Steve Ray; and Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh.
In mid-March 2020, after the coronavirus had begun to devastate Italy, Farr told CNA that bans on religious gatherings due to high rates of deadly infection can be justified, but may not target a particular religion or religion in general. They should be based on “overwhelming evidence,” with clear time limits.
“Speaking as a Catholic for whom the sacraments are not optional, and are necessary to health and welfare, however, I would hope that the Italian Church, or the Church in any jurisdiction would do everything it could reasonably do to make the sacraments available in ways that would be consistent with just authority,” Farr said.
“We invited people who have large followings in the Catholic community who would have an interest in having the sacraments and having their bishops explain their choices,” Smith told CNA.
One open letter endorser, Peter Kwasniewski, is an independent scholar who signed a 2019 letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. Another endorser, YouTube video caster Patrick Coffin has expressed skepticism regarding of media reporting and the government response to the coronavirus.
In a March 28 YouTube video titled “The Truth About the Commie Virus,” Coffin discusses “media-fueled hysteria” and “hyperbole” about coronavirus models. They are “misleading, because they are incomplete,” he said in the video and its description. After presenting his interpretation of a medical journal article co-authored by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Coffin declared “We are burning the house down to kill a termite.”
A March 24 video from Coffin is entitled “Did Pope Francis Help Cause the Covid-19 Pestilence?”
Project endorsers have “a wide variety of views,” Smith told CNA. “They are endorsing us; we are not endorsing all their positions.”
Both expert opinion and public opinion about the coronavirus response have changed in recent months. Two separate surveys from a Public Agenda-USA Today-IPSOS and ABC News-IPSOS suggest a vast majority of respondents now support canceling large-scale events. Most Americans now say they are avoiding large gatherings or crowds, and a significant minority now say they avoid religious services.
The letter’s request, Smith told CNA “is one that helps us grow in the virtues that enable us to do all the good things we should be doing now. We should speak of our love for Jesus and our need for Jesus. Our belief that He is truly there in the sacrament and just being close to him is a powerful experience of intimacy with the divine.”
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