A prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on, and suffer for it (Prov. 27:12 RSV).
Imagine a lone sniper outside a Catholic parish. He is randomly shooting people as they entered the church. Authorities are looking for him, but they cannot not find him. Some people believe there is no sniper, because they do not see him, and so try to get into the church, only to be shot and killed by the sniper. Others say all they needed to do was wear a bullet-proof vest; they put one on, and try to enter the church. Some make it, but two of them are shot in the head and killed.
In such a situation, until the sniper was captured, would it not be prudent to close the church, to tell people not to come? And if, because no one was going to church, no one was shot at, someone said the danger was over and people should now go back to church, would they not be foolish, because they ignored why no one was being shot? And if a bishop said, “the danger clearly is over, no one has been shot at for some time, and so the faithful must fulfil their obligation and go to church again,” would he not be guilty of reckless endangerment if the sniper had not yet been caught?
No sane person would be telling the faithful to go back to that church so long as the sniper remained a threat. No one would be telling the faithful they were cowards and did not believe in God if they didn’t just walk into church as if nothing was happening.
So why do we find laity, priests, and bishops acting like Catholics are not faithful, and don’t trust in God, if they don’t go back to church during a pandemic? With a pandemic, things are much worse than with the sniper scenario, because with a pandemic, people are not merely risking their own lives by going to church, they are risking the lives of everyone who they come in contact with because of the way COVID19 is spread. Christians are called to love their neighbor, to take care of them; putting their neighbor needlessly at risk fails their basic Christian obligations. And, we must remember, even if someone does not die because of COVID19, that does not mean they will walk away healthy. So the risk is more than death, but also a risk of a lifetime of excessive suffering for the survivors.
It’s not easy to know everyone who is infected with and can spread COVID19. It can be a hidden threat, like the sniper. Even with the best social distancing, even when people are wearing masks, washing hands, and using sanitizer, the more people come in contact with each other, especially for prolonged periods of time in an enclosed space, the more they are put at risk for catching and spreading COVID19. Just as a bullet-proof vest can help, but not prevent, someone being killed by a sniper, following the best procedures to protect people from COVID only helps, but does not prevent, the spread of COVID19. We must recognize the real dangers of COVID19, take it seriously, and until it can be properly dealt with by medical care (and vaccines), we must accept that things cannot, indeed, must not return to normal.
Sadly, it seems, various prelates and clergy do not yet understand this. They think, because of the precautions currently under place, COVID19 is no longer a major threat. Some, like Cardinal Dolan, are suggesting it is safe to go back to church. Cardinal Sarah, likewise, is telling people it is time to go back to church. Both Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal Sarah do suggest churches must take precautions (social distancing, have the faithful wear masks), but do not explain how this will be possible if everyone returns and tries to go back to church as normal. There is not enough space to do so and, because the setting would be inside, and people will be closer together with more people going back to church, social distancing and all the safety measures in place will not be as effective as they have been up to this point. Churches are not safe. They are hotspots for the virus. Many clergy, many laity, have already died or been hurt with COVID19 because it was not taken seriously.
Worse than Cardinal Dolan, worse than Cardinal Sarah, is the approach being taken in Wisconsin, where the faithful are being told they must once again go back to church while the pandemic continues. It’s not as if Wisconsin is free from the effects of COVID19 and so the bishops believe they have nothing to worry about. Far from it. They are telling people who are sick, who are taking care of someone who is sick, elderly who are frail, and others in similar situations, they still receive dispensation and not have to go back to church, but in saying this, they show they do not understand the pandemic and how it spreads. It is a hidden danger. Not everyone who has it knows they have it. Likewise, some who have symptoms assume those symptoms come from something else, like allergies, instead of COVID19 and so do not think they are sick and will feel obligated to go to church and endanger others.
We are told in Scripture to be prudent, to hide when we see danger. Bishops should heed that advice, and not make people suffer from their imprudence. Many Catholics, of course, will not heed the bishops, because they know how risky COVID19 is. They believe they must follow their conscience. They will stay safe. However, others, who do not know the risk, those who need guidance and help, are going to suffer at the hands of such imprudence. Bishops should not keep listening to the charming words of those who want to tell them to see no evil, hear no evil; they must take seriously the medical experts and not make things worse by unwise decisions. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42 RSV). By ignoring medical science, by telling Catholics just to believe and have faith, they are creating dilemmas for the faithful, and in doing so, are going to cause many to sin as they try to wrestle with the risks involved with going to church.
One priest wrote in a bulletin that people are taking advantage of the situation, of the dispensation given to them, by not going to Mass if they are not sick (or in a particular class of vulnerable people):
When anyone is not feeling well (pandemic or no pandemic), they should stay home. That’s always the case. If someone is in a vulnerable situation health-wise and COVID-19 would be a major issue, they should stay home. The same goes if they live with someone or frequently visit someone in that situation.
Other than that, we need to attend Mass. Otherwise, it’s taking advantage of a situation. I know some of our altar servers who seem unable to attend Mass on the weekend but they attend school, play team sports, and are pictured at parties on Facebook frequently. Yet they can’t come to Mass? Give me a break.
The priest should realize the problem is not that such people forgo Mass, but rather, they are engaging other, risky activities which they should avoid. Instead of encouraging them to go to Mass, he should have written to them, telling them to stop putting themselves in such risky situations By the way he wrote his column, it would seem as if he wants those engaging such risky activities should return Mass without actually stopping those activities; this means he is encouraging potential COVID19 spreaders to go to Mass and infect others in his church. This is exactly the problem we are facing, The priest means well, but he is not looking at the full situation with prudence, and so with such foolishness, he is likely going to lead people into dangerous situations which will result in a lot of needless suffering.
COVID19 continues to be a serious threat. We must not be lulled into thinking it is over. It is far from over. The precautions we are taking are helping. But every time we think that the pandemic is over because the precautions have helped flatten the curve, we see people rush out and make the situation bad once again. It’s not over. The sniper is still out there, waiting for his next victim. Until the sniper is taken out of commission, until the threat of COVID19 is neutralized, things cannot return to normal. We must not act like things are normal. We must not call people out, acting like they are not faithful to God because they are concerned about COVID19. Rather, we must recognize that Christians who care about their neighbor and not going to church are, at this time, fulfilling their obligation. Their souls are in good shape. Let no one tell them otherwise.
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