COVID-19 and Religion: Rash Providentialism Is Going To Get People Killed

COVID-19 and Religion: Rash Providentialism Is Going To Get People Killed March 10, 2020

As Italy goes into lockdown mode to try to curtail the spread of COVID-19, churches are being closed and masses canceled. Elsewhere in Europe and the United States parishes are being told not offer communion on the tongue, and to do away with the chalice, until the danger has passed. We are being reminded that when one is sick not only is it acceptable to miss mass; it may be morally necessary, since flagrantly spreading disease that could harm others violates precepts of charity. 

But some people are not happy about this. Msgr Charles Pope, writing in the National Catholic Register, seems to think that closing churches to prevent the spread of a virus that could kill the old and infirm is somehow a sign of insufficient faith or excessive worldly concerns:

Some will call me irresponsible for calling for public and communal Masses to resume. “People are dying,” they will say. I can only respond by saying that souls are dying due to fear and worldly obsession with death. Death will come to all of us, and not likely by coronavirus. The deeper and more important question is this: Are you ready to die and face judgment?

Pope references the story of St. Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan during the plague in the sixteenth century:

“Be ready to abandon this mortal life rather than the people committed to your care,” St. Charles of Borromeo told priests as the Plague of 1576 swept through Milan. “Go forward among the plague-stricken as to life, as to a reward, even if there is only one soul to be won to Christ.”

Pope neglects to mention, incidentally, that one of the archbishop’s precautions was to close the churches and offer only outdoor masses that people could witness from their windows. Other catholics on social media sharing this story similarly neglect this detail, and seem to confuse the courage of a religious leader who risked his life to help others, with the rashness of superstitious persons who risk the lives of others to seek out their own spiritual graces. 

An individual who calls himself the “Catholic Traveler” on Twitter repeatedly downplayed the threat and encouraged tourists to visit Rome, just a few days before Italy went into lockdown. “Rome is open. Rome is safe”  he Tweeted, on March 4. After church officials canceled masses and forbade communion on the tongue he proceeded to vent his frustration at these precautions. 

Commenters have been stating that they intend to receive on the tongue in spite of instructions to the contrary. “No harm can come from me from receiving Jesus,” one person wrote. “What sickness could you receive if you truly believe the Eucharist is the real body and blood?” added another.

Noted pro-life spokesperson Abby Johnson wrote on her page that “deciding to the (sic) close churches because of the corona virus is the most cowardly thing I can think of.” 

In a similar vein, overt anti-semite Faith J. Goldy stated that “mass is how we appease God’s wrath for our sins. Rome’s decision to cancel Mass until April is WRONG! We cannot act temporally at a time that calls for supernatural intercession. We have seen plagues b4. How did we respond? Processions, prayers, & penance!”


Deadly Providentialism

I’m sorry, but reading statements like this, from professed Catholics and overt pro-lifers, makes me feel that this is the sort of company in which anyone at risk or vulnerable would be the least safe. Attitudes like this are dangerous. After all, the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea got its start in a cult-like Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church, due to its combination of secrecy, the mandate to proselytize, and the belief that no one who looks forward to meeting God need fear death.

Providentialism, the belief that everything is in God’s hands, fore-ordained or part of a divine plan,  often just seems silly, but at times it can be lethal. I have known quite a few cases of people who, trusting in prayer, or faith healing, declined to seek medical treatment until it was too late. At least in those cases the only ones to suffer for their pop-machine approach to religion was themselves. But in times of pandemic, such rash rejection of common sense and basic science could quite literally get other people killed.

I’m not simply saying this from a pragmatic humanist standpoint. From a Christian standpoint, too, providentialism – especially in the face of an an epidemic – is ludicrous. 

Christians, God will not protect you. God is not going to save you. 

The history of Christianity is not a history of Christians magically being provided for and miraculously thriving. It is the story of Christians being martyred, imprisoned, and persecuted for their faith (when, of course, they were not murdering and persecuting others). 

Jesus does not teach that those who follow him will have health and prosperity in this life. Jesus does not teach that we will automatically be protected from the outcome of our own errors. 

And no, being willing to die because you foolishly exposed yourself to a virus does not make you a martyr; it makes you a wastrel. Being willing to expose others to a virus for the sake of your own performative piety does not make you a martyr; it makes you an accessory to death. What ever happened to the primacy of the right to life? Where now is your zeal to fight for every innocent life? Was it all just a pose, all along?

When I see how rampant these dangerous, irresponsible, unscientific, and unorthodox ideas about the faith and the sacraments are, among Christians, I must say our religious leaders are right to shut down as many services as possible. These are the last people with whom I would want to be congregated, in a close space.

Faith in Jesus must entail following his teachings, and he taught us to put others first. Remember that the most vulnerable among us count on us to do so.

Remember the words of St. Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

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