From the Archdiocese of Atlanta, emphasis mine:
Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., encourages those who are healthy and are not burdened with the fear of being exposed to the virus to begin returning to Mass and receive the grace of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.
There are two ways to read this, and the more charitable reading is that the archbishop is graciously acknowledging the suffering of persons with phobias. That’s super, I approve, and for more ideas about providing mental health support at your parish, go visit the Trauma-Informed Parishes Facebook group, hosted by parish mental health expert Cathy Lins.
Unfortunately, I’ve heard from some Catholics in Georgia who are inferring the bishop is falsely accusing them of fearfulness in their decision to stay home from Mass. (FYI: The Sunday obligation remains suspended in the Archdiocese of Atlanta through September 28th.) More on that below.
Meanwhile this quote of the archbishop in The Georgia Bulletin shows some jumbled thinking about infection risks:
“Watching the celebration of the Mass on the computer or TV cannot become a substitute for receiving the sacraments,” said Archbishop Hartmayer. “When ill or in a vulnerable category for being infected or infecting others, the sick person should always remain at home. This pandemic should not make us lazy regarding our spiritual life. Our children are back in school and many people have returned to work outside the home. . . . I suspect more of us can return to Sunday or weekday Mass than are currently attending.”
This is the other quote that has some Georgia Catholics feeling targeted.
I think I understand what the archbishop is trying say, and the message is a good one: If you are able to safely attend Mass, please do so. It’s good for you. There’s nothing that can replace the graces that come from attending. So if you can come, come.
But. But but but.
(1) The more you are exposed to the virus, the more you are likely to be carrying the virus. So we can’t point to work and school attendance as proof that someone should be attending Mass and simultaneously tell people that if they are in a category that makes them likely to infect others they should stay home. The two are mutually contradictory.
It would be more logical to acknowledge that the people attending Mass are likely to be carriers of the virus, and therefore all should take suitable precautions, but hey, the King of the Universe is gonna be there, so if you can make it, you’ll be glad.
(2) The missing word we’re looking for is prudence. From the CCC, again emphasis mine:
1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” . . . Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.
. . .It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.
If prudence dictates you should stay home, stay home. If fear is dictating to you . . . see about getting a new boss.
I know very well that fear can be a tenacious old monster. We all have to fight it in varying degrees, and there’s no special virtue in being someone who is naturally more heedless of danger, nor shame in being someone who is naturally more prone to anxiety. These things just are.
I’m unclear on why the archbishop thinks that anxiety or phobias related to the virus are significant enough in his diocese that they warrant special attention. In any case, let me say it again: It’s fantastic that the archbishop is explicitly mentioning this particular mental health concern, because it’s hard enough to be fighting a severe anxiety disorder without having to throw on top of that scruples about the Sunday obligation.
If you are struggling with some kind of trauma or anxiety that makes it hard for you to go to Mass, don’t give up on yourself. Work with a friend or a counselor or a therapist (or even a priest you trust, if there is one) on taking steps towards getting back.
Ultimately the goal is for our actions to be guided by prudent discernment of objective reality, not by subjective feelings of either fearfulness or fearlessness. Meanwhile, take the archbishop’s advice and be patient with yourself if you can’t just “get over it” right away.
Everyone else who isn’t burdened by fear? Regardless of your diocese’s status, the virtue of prudence should be sufficient to determine whether you are or are not excused.
Looking at Georgia’s COVID-19 statistics , there’s a lot of variability from county to county in terms of the history and present course of the epidemic. Prudence won’t look the same in every parish.
For my part, I’m grateful to the many people who have erred on the side of caution in protecting me from assorted causes of premature death. You won’t hear me accusing you of undue fearfulness in the face an actually-deadly epidemic. Even if your perception of the stats is skewed towards excessive caution? Eh. It’s my life. You’re allowed to be extra careful.