The White House has consulted four Catholic bishops who have reinstated public Masses, as the Trump administration considers issuing guidelines on the safe reopening of churches and religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Multiple sources confirmed to CNA that officials from the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a series of conference calls with bishops from three states on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The bishops of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Lubbock, Texas, and Billings-Great Falls and Helena, Montana, spoke to administration officials who asked for feedback on the dioceses’ resumption of public ministry in line with state public health orders.
The initiative for the discussions came from the White House, sources familiar with the talks told CNA.
During the calls Tuesday and Wednesday, various policies put in place across the different dioceses were outlined, including extra measures for maintaining social distancing indoors and outside, and for the distribution of Communion. Administration officials also underscored to the bishops the administration’s ambition to see church buildings reopen whenever and wherever reopening can be done safely.
On April 15, the Las Cruces diocese issued guidelines providing that Masses could resume either outdoors or inside church buildings while conforming to state requirements on social distancing. The Diocese of Lubbock circulated its own guidelines on April 22, including provisions for restoring access to Communion for Catholics.
In their own public statements last week, Montana’s two bishops, Bishop Austin Vetter of Helena and Bishop Michael Warfel of Billings-Great-Falls also issued their own guidance on the phased reopening of churches in line with the governor’s announced plans.
Bishop Michael Warfel of Billings-Great Falls told CNA Wednesday that he took part in a call with several other bishops and White House officials earlier in the day.
“I was on a phone call just earlier this morning with the director and deputy director for domestic policy for the White House, and we were sharing our experiences [reinstituting public Masses],” he told CNA.
“They were very much interested in our experience and what we were doing.”
The calls were coordinated through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the request of the White House, sources told CNA, but the bishops’ conference did not play an active role in the discussions.
When contacted by CNA about the calls, White House spokespeople declined to comment. Calls to the USCCB were not returned by the time of posting.
Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, who was the first U.S. bishop to announce the resumption of public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic, released a statement to CNA confirming that he had taken part in a call but declined to elaborate on the discussion.
“I was contacted by some officials at the White House and am grateful for their concern for religious liberty and the responsible resumption of religious worship,” Baldacchino said. “I am always open and grateful for dialogue with civic leaders, regardless of the party.”
“It is my hope that even more government officials, especially at the state level, will come to recognize the essential nature of faith and worship,” Baldacchino told CNA. “I continue to pray that God grant wisdom and discernment to all our government leaders.”
During the calls, according to several people familiar with the conversations, administration officials expressed their hope to be able to support faith communities with “sensitive and respectful guidance” to help restore public worship “as soon as it is feasible,” and asked for details of local guidelines issued by the bishops.
The bishops highlighted their desire to conform with state-level public health regulations, and emphasized the need to protect at-risk populations, including the elderly. At the same time the bishops said they were committed to responding to the spiritual needs of local Catholics.
“We are being cautious,” Warfel said of his own efforts to restore sacramental ministry. “We have protocols and restrictions, this isn’t a turn-key operation where a parish can just open the doors and say ‘y’all can come in,’ there are definite restrictions.”
On the calls, White House officials discussed the significance of state government designations of churches as either “essential” or “non-essential,” and asked about the response from both priests and people in the dioceses to the announcements that public Masses would resume.
Policy officials also discussed ideas for other possible ways of increasing the number of people who could attend Mass at a time, including the enforcement of larger spaces for social distancing rules between families, who could be seated in a group.
“I have continued the dispensation of Sunday and holy day obligations, and that will continue until we reach phase three [of the governor’s reopening plan], and I have encouraged those who are little more vulnerable to continue to stay home or maybe look at attending smaller events, maybe a weekday Mass,” said Warfel.
At the same time, he said, the absence of regular parish life has been felt keenly by local Catholics.
“The churches have to have the space needed, and have seats roped off [to enforce social distancing]. That’s often the hardest part for people – not being able to sit next to their friends and neighbors, it is a real hardship. People need people, that’s a part of communion, the gathering of the body of Christ to receive the body of Christ.”
Warfel told CNA that while much of the discussion has focused on the resumption of public Masses, other sacramental ministry was also vital to the lives of Catholics.
“Look at funerals,” he said to CNA. “In some areas we haven’t been able to have anything past a burial service recently – we are talking about a very emotional, sensitive time in a family’s life. If you can’t have a funeral Mass it’s very, very difficult.”
According to those involved with the calls, the bishops were asked if they would consider it helpful if the CDC were to provide suggested guidelines for faith leaders to consider when reopening churches in accordance with state laws. The AP reported this week that draft CDC guidelines for religious groups are at the White House this week for review.
“I think they were just looking for guidance,” Warfel told CNA.
“I don’t know all of who they talked to, but my guidance is mostly on a statewide level not federal.” He told CNA that, while it was for bishops to make the final decisions for their dioceses, consultation was important. In addition to taking advice from his own priests and local civil authorities, Warfel said the bishops of his region (USCCB Region XII) had set up a regular Tuesday conference call to share ideas.
“All these areas are so different,” he said, and pointed out that local circumstances were important to consider when looking at options for restoring sacramental life.
Contrasting his own experience in Montana with urban areas hardest hit by coronavirus, like New York City, the bishop noted that “in much of my diocese we don’t actually have any confirmed cases. We have sadly had some cases here in [the city of] Great Falls, but most of the counties are rural – in a few of them the cow population is greater than the people population.”
During the calls, White House officials explained that any forthcoming guidance would be broad in scope, and not look to dictate specific liturgical or ritual religious conduct, such as the reception of Communion.
The bishops were told that the Centers for Disease Control hoped that issuing guidance could help inform state and local leaders about the “essential” nature of religious practice, while still allowing for localized responses to the coronavirus and provide “helpful parameters” for state and local governments who are trying to safeguard public health.
The bishops were also told that the administration hoped to see a discussion between bishops and civil leaders to encourage them to be more “forward leaning” in efforts to promote the “critical importance” of religious faith and practice in daily life.
White House officials also told the bishops that the attorney general had recently issued a memo saying the Justice Department would be paying close attention for any possible violations of civil liberties by state and local governments.
They told the bishops that the attorney general would act if there was evidence of “needlessly aggressive” enforcement of public health measures against religious communities.
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