The novel coronavirus pandemic is easily the worst public health crisis in living memory. The Italian government has put in place severe restrictions on movement and commerce in order to slow the spread of the disease, including bans on all public gatherings — religious ceremonies included — and has basically declared a halt to all non-essential retail business.
Make no mistake: the threat from coronavirus is real, and the choice facing political leaders and citizens alike is stark: be prepared to impose and abide “social distancing” measures that will cause major disruption, or else prepare to bury or burn the corpses of 10-14% of the population.
It may not be as bad as all that, but anyone willing to find out has no business leading a free people in such a crisis. Still, if there is a precedent for such encroachments on civil liberties in peacetime, this journalist can’t think of it.
Amid all this, Pope Francis and the leadership of the Church in Italy have a fine line to walk between kowtowing to Italian authorities (which would set a very bad precedent), and obstructionism. The art of political leadership is the art of the possible, and right now, there is no real doubt about what to do. The question is: how to do it?
“Drastic measures,” Pope Francis said on Friday at the start of daily Mass from the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae in the Vatican, “are not always good.”
The Pope did not refer to any specific measures. Nevertheless, everyone took his observation as an indirect rebuke to Rome’s Cardinal Vicar, Angelo De Donatis, who had announced the day before that the Rome diocese would be closing all its churches — the first in the country to do so — and in so doing, going far beyond even the frankly draconian measures Italian authorities have imposed.
People also took it as a warning to the Italian bishops, who had announced on Thursday that they were considering measures to shutter churches throughout the country. “Not because the State imposes it on us,” the Italian bishops wrote, “but out of a sense of belonging to the human family.” The people who heard a warning in the Pope’s words probably weren’t mistaken in their hearing.
The thing is, Rome’s vicar decided to shutter the city’s churches on Thursday, after consulting with Pope Francis. The very next day, Cardinal De Donatis decided to re-open parish and mission churches, after “further discussion” (It. ulteriore confronto) with Pope Francis.
Sure, the Cardinal Vicar also had some other pretty high-profile pushback, as well.
The papal almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, opened his titular church and exposed the Blessed Sacrament on Friday, in defiance of Cardinal De Donatis’s decree. “It is [an] act of disobedience, yes, I myself put the Blessed Sacrament out and opened my church,” Cardinal Krajewski told Crux on Friday. He also told Crux he would keep his church open, and the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, all day Friday and during regular hours on Saturday.
“It did not happen under Fascism, it did not happen under the Russian or Soviet rule in Poland — the churches were not closed,” he said.
Whether Francis heard other protests and complaints from persons more discreet than his charity man, is for now a matter of speculation.
The fact is that the conditions were favourable to a show of papal willingness to step in and adjust the safety measures and be seen to do so in response to popular outcry. This not only served as a message to the Italian bishops, but also to Italian authorities: if you try to close the churches, expect a fight — and not from ecclesiastical leadership.
On the one hand, Francis seems to understand he is playing a potentially dangerous 3D political game with fine lines and few rules, both with and against the Italian state and his curia. The problem is: he might be acting under the assumption the other gamers think and act like the Argentinians with whom he tangled back home in the 1970s and 80s.
The government telling the Church what to do with herself could look very much like a probe and might seem so especially to a Pope wary of secular intrusion. In such circumstances, one would want to avoid both an anaemic response and an explicitly defiant reaction: whether from the Vatican or from the CEI.
The way Pope Francis handled it was typically anti-institutional.
Francis is willing to sidestep protocol and govern by force of personality, and that can be a good thing in times of crisis. Governing by those means requires a very strong hand, and real popular support. This crisis, in any case, is really testing institutions both civil and ecclesiastical.
Everyone involved will do well to step back and realise that they’re on the same side, and fighting this war, not the last one. Otherwise, things could get real dirty, real quick.
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