A minority of people who contract the coronavirus will become so ill they will be admitted to intensive care for intubation on a ventilator. They may be placed in induced comas, and their chances are not especially good. Those who are Catholics have the right to ask for a priest to administer the Sacrament of the Sick. It would be a good idea to do so while still conscious.
While most people flee a pandemic, good priests, like good doctors, run towards it. Hospital chaplains are active and are conferring last rites while adhering to safety standards that apply to NHS staff.
Official guidance from the bishops has instructed them that “the oil of the sick can be applied using a cotton bud which can be burned afterwards (one end for the head and the other for the hands) and the priest suspends his hands over the sick person for laying on of hands”.
Access to other sacraments is more restricted, with the bishops waiving the obligations of Catholics to receive Holy Communion and go to Confession at least once as part of their Easter duties.
Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, first Holy Communions and first Confessions have also been deferred until after the pandemic, and the churches are closed even to private prayer as part of the national lockdown.
Catholics are being advised to participate in liturgies via live-streams from churches, shrines and cathedrals and to practise spiritual Communion and acts of perfect contrition in place of Holy Communion and Confession.
The bishops are following guidance of the Government and if newspaper reports are true, there is no consensus within the Cabinet about a pathway out of the lockdown. Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chancellor Rishi Sunak in particular are disagreeing about strategy.
As the situation drags on, Catholics might wonder if there is any room for manoeuvre in the question of access to the sacraments. It would be difficult to envisage a situation in which Holy Communion might be received and social distancing requirements observed at the same time. But there is no absolute prohibition of Confession, and priests are advised by the bishops to use their discretion, and are being reminded that they are within their rights to refuse any requests.
One parish was dissuaded from offering “drive-through Confessions”. The Archdiocese of Westminster told the Catholic Herald: “There has been an attempt to organise drive-through Confessions at a parish in the Archdiocese of Westminster. This is not encouraged, as it directly contravenes the Government’s guidance for everyone to stay at home and to maintain social distancing.”
Others are letting their parishioners know they will hear Confessions on request and subject to social distancing, but they cannot grant absolution over the telephone or the internet. Canon Law also envisages situations, such as within pandemics, in which Catholics may baptise their babies in the absence of a priest.
Just weeks into lockdown, it is unlikely many people feel that such a point has been reached. But who knows what the future holds.