“Fraternity is the true cure for the pandemic and the many evils that have affected us,” Pope Francis told the Vatican diplomatic corps Monday morning. “Along with vaccines, fraternity and hope are, as it were, the medicine we need in today’s world.”
What does fraternity require of us during the coronavirus pandemic? A critic of Pope Francis recently declared, “This man willingly ceased public divine worship at the behest of the state, and actively encouraged the lack of availability of the sacraments when many needed them most. How many souls may have been lost? Who knows?”
In the face of all the restrictions the pandemic requires, including closed or socially distanced churches, we might be tempted to think that our body is more important than our soul, that the sacraments are not necessary, that public health is more important than divine worship. Or, like the critic, we might be tempted to believe that because the sacraments are necessary, our being deprived of them entails spiritual death.
We should not believe either of these. Let’s consider each of them in turn.
Body and Soul
Regarding the priority of the soul over the body, Jesus teaches us not to fear those who kill the body, but to fear him who has the authority to cast us into hell. We should prefer to lose a part of our body than through mortal sin lose sanctifying grace and friendship with God, because the condition of our soul at death in relation to God determines the eternal condition of our soul and body. Although we have a duty to love and care for our body, we should be more concerned about the health of our soul, namely, that we are growing in grace and charity.
The charity in which we must grow is love for God above all other things, and love for our neighbor for God’s sake. Christ has established in his Church the sacraments and especially the Eucharist as the essential means by which we live out and grow in this love. We cannot love Christ and culpably neglect the sacraments.
The Eucharist is not only the supreme sacrament by which we grow in charity, but is also the highest act of love for and justice to God. Through every Eucharistic sacrifice the community grows in justice. For this reason divine worship is a far greater good than the health of our bodies, greater even than the good of public health.
However, this does not entail that we may harm our neighbor’s body or detract from public health, in order to attain a spiritual good for ourselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason” and “One may never do evil so that good may result from it.”
This applies not only to our neighbor, but even more so to our community. Higher goods are not opposed to lower goods, and often require our sacrifice of lower goods for God’s sake. So, our rightful fulfillment of our religious obligations must also be in keeping with the natural law and thus with our duties to our neighbors.
A Serious Reason
Hence our Sunday obligation is “excused for a serious reason.” For example, the care of infants. If the infant cannot be brought to Mass, the parents cannot justify neglecting or abandoning the infant, in order to receive the higher good of grace from the Eucharist. The injustice of wrongfully abandoning their child would place an obstacle to receiving grace until they repented, because such an injustice would in fact be the rejection of the higher good of love for God.
Taking care of their infant does not mean that the life of the infant is greater than the good of the Eucharist, or that the parents committed idolatry by loving the infant more than Christ in the Eucharist. The parent may in fact be loving God by remaining with the infant, even though the Eucharist is a far greater good than the infant.
Our moral responsibility to care for our neighbors can also generate a serious reason that excuses us from the Sunday obligation. If a neighbor needs emergency care, for example, and there is no member of his family available to provide that care. This kind of serious reason can arise for a whole community under extraordinary conditions. When, for example, a significant percentage of a population is asymptomatically carrying and shedding a virus that is especially contagious indoors and that carries a significant case fatality rate for the vulnerable.
Under such extraordinary conditions the prohibition on exposing someone to mortal danger can oblige us to avoid indoor gatherings, and thereby justify the decision by bishops to suspend indoor masses. There have been similar cases during the Spanish flu in 1918, and during the plague of 1576 in Milan and in Rome in 1656.
A Theological Question
Nevertheless, how to respond to the present conditions is not fundamentally an historical question, but a theological question. God wants us to grow in grace and charity, and to escape spiritual death. The early Church embraced the possibility of salvation for Catechumens who died before baptism, even though baptism is necessary for salvation. That truth regarding the first plank of salvation applies also to the second.
This truth is rooted in the moral distinction between rejecting or culpably neglecting reception of a sacrament and desiring but not having access to a sacrament. The harm to the soul by culpable neglect of the sacraments does not apply to cases of desiring the sacraments without access to them.
Many saints and theologians have written about spiritual communion, by which the faithful, under conditions in which the sacrament of the Eucharist is not available, can grow in grace through desiring to receive Christ in the sacrament.
When the sacrament of reconciliation is unavailable, the faithful may still receive forgiveness even from mortal sin, the Catechism explains, through contrition motivated by love of God, “with the firm resolution of recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.” And we should believe that God does not withhold the grace for such contrition under conditions in which the sacrament is unavailable, such that persons must remain in a state of mortal sin until the sacrament is again available.
God has promised to give himself to us in the sacraments, but he has not restricted himself to work only through the sacraments. Under extraordinary conditions where the faithful do not have access to the sacraments, we should not despair concerning the health of our soul or avoiding spiritual death. Instead we should believe that even under such conditions God is present with us, helping us to remain and grow in grace and friendship with him.
Brian R. Cross is associate professor of philosophy at Mount Mercy University.