Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

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Despairing about the sacraments and COVID-19 just isn’t Catholic

God has promised to preserve his Church, despite the weakness of its members.
Wed Apr 8, 2020 - 3:07 pm EST
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Rev. John G. Restrepo, O.P., pastor of St. Dominic Catholic Church in New Orleans, rides in a truck with a Monstrance on April 8, 2020, Wednesday of Holy Week to bless residents. Churches are closed in the New Orleans area because of the coronavirus. Chris Graythen / Getty Images

April 8, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Amid all of the “lockdowns” and restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Catholics have suffered a loss that is particularly painful for them: they have been deprived of some, or even all, of the sacraments of the Church.

Understanding the meaning of this loss may be difficult for those whose religion lacks notion of “sacrament” or whose definition of a sacrament differs from that of the Catholic Church.  Sacraments are seen not merely as public forms of prayer or signs of faith, but as “channels of grace,” by which God makes us partakers in his divine life. They are visible signs that contain and convey the supernatural grace that they signify, and as such they are of great comfort to the faithful.

Adding to the distress is the outrage many Catholics feel for their prelates, the bishops, who are seen by many as having withdrawn the sacraments for insufficient reasons, and indeed it is very difficult to see how many bishops could escape this indictment.

Not only are public masses prohibited as a “non-essential” activity (even with precautions such as adequate spacing between families, disinfecting, and so on), but the sacrament of penance has also been canceled by whole dioceses, except in danger of death. Even the sacrament of extreme unction, that is, the anointing of those who are sick and in danger of death, has been withheld from the dying in some jurisdictions.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, where I currently reside, the archdiocese’s ministry for the sick and dying, called “SANE,” has been unceremoniously suspended by the archdiocesan administration with only the vague explanation that priests are no longer allowed to enter the hospitals due to the threat of COVID-19 – which has been blamed thus far for 141 deaths in a nation of over 100 million people. There has been no public statement of protest from the archdiocese nor any indication that it is seeking to remedy the situation.  

The bishops, who are already mistrusted by the faithful in many countries because of their open lack of fidelity to Catholic doctrine and practice, are suspected of indifference or even hostility towards the sacraments. Some Catholics have even seen in these measures a conspiracy to end the availability of sacraments for the faithful.

Not all of the bishops of the world have caved in so easily. The bishops of Argentina, under the leadership of the archbishop of Buenos Aires, have made arrangements with the government to provide Holy Communion to the sick even while the country is in a generalized state of “lockdown.” In most American dioceses, the “last rites” are still being offered by priests, although in Italy and other places it appears that priests are prohibited from performing that duty in many hospitals.

Danger of overreaction and sin against hope

In short, the concerns and negative response of many Catholics to this situation is understandable. However, a serious danger exists that Catholics may react in an excessive way, in a way that is not even compatible with their own faith. Their grief and outrage over the loss of the sacraments could even lead them into a heretical despair against the very divine constitution of the Church. This, too, is a real danger during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both in social media and in private conversations with Catholics, I have encountered an unhealthy anguish over the loss of the sacraments and even the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 crisis, leading to panic and a temptation to despair. Many are worried that without the sacraments they will be absolutely cut off from God’s grace, unable to recover from sin or to receive divine protection. Some seem to fear that the sacraments will never be made available again.

To all of the many conspiracy theories circulating about the COVID-19 crisis have been added Catholic ones that claim the whole thing is a ruse to take our religion away from us.

Many, too, are receiving and circulating or re-circulating hysterical rumors about further calamities and the end of the world that do nothing to encourage Christians in their faith and daily struggles, but only incite more fear and panic.

During this time, Catholics will do well to consult their faith and ask if their attitude is really consonant with it. The constitution of the Catholic Church, established by God himself, includes the provision of the sacraments. Theologians agree that this means that the sacraments are guaranteed to remain in their integrity until the end of time – this is essential to the supernatural indefectibility of the Church. This divine guarantee is not violated if, on occasion, some sacraments are temporarily suspended.

Even an indifferent and immoral clergy doesn’t have the power to eliminate the sacraments of the Church or replace them with others. To claim otherwise is to deny the power and providential designs of God and to despair of his promises.

Moreover, it must be recalled that the Catholic faith teaches us that God is capable of giving and maintaining sanctifying grace in Christians without the use of the sacraments. It is not the normative way he does so, and if we have access to them we are often obligated to receive them, but in their absence God is perfectly capable of giving the same graces. This is the doctrine of the Church – how can a pious Catholic doubt it? Are we to superstitiously hold that the power of God to convey grace is limited by the availability of sacraments?

The Church has long taught that, if a sacrament is not available to us, the desire to receive it may be enough for us to receive grace. This is true of baptism, for example, which is why there are saints of the Catholic Church who died as catechumens, never having received the sacrament of baptism but received the same grace through “baptism of desire” or even “baptism of blood” – that is, they died as martyrs for the faith. “Spiritual communion” is recognized by the Church as a way of receiving the grace of Holy Communion when we are unable to receive it sacramentally.

The Catholic Church teaches us that there are three supernatural virtues enjoyed by those in communion with God: faith, hope, and charity (supernatural love). To lose any one of these is to lose our relationship with God. How can we love God if we don’t place our ultimate hope in him?

The Scripture reminds us of this repeatedly, particularly in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, where we are told that we are “saved by hope.” St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us in the same chapter that “we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good,” and asks, “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or persecution? Or the sword?  . . .  But in all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us.”

Our fear should be principally of God himself, a holy fear that recognizes his superiority and our own accountability to him. If we are animated by the holy fear of God, how can anything else really terrify us? Moreover, even the fear of God is not one that denies his mercy and rejects hope; it must be a reasonable and pious fear, not an irrational one that insults the creator.

I remember very well in 2005 when Hurricane Rita, then a terrifying category 5 storm, was bearing directly down on Houston, Texas, where my elderly father and I lived at the time. Hurricane Katrina had, only weeks earlier, destroyed much of New Orleans, and Rita was even more powerful than Katrina. Houstonians began to panic. I called my father to ask him if he needed any help, and he responded, “I’ll be all right, and even if I’m not, I’ll still be all right.”

Because of his faith, my father was at peace. He wasn’t looking to this world for his ultimate happiness anyway.

It is a sad irony that, because of the fear generated by the previous experience with Katrina, 2.5 million Houstonians attempted to evacuate the city by driving hundreds of miles inland. They created a massive traffic jam on the main evacuation routes, where they became trapped without food or water. In the end, the storm weakened before landfall and missed the city, but 111 people died -- most of them due, not to the storm, but to the evacuation.

Suspension of public worship has happened before, but the sacraments are still with us

Some have questioned the authority of bishops to suspend public masses. Although one might suspect that such restrictions are excessive given the risk and the availability of measures to avoid contagion, ultimately the issue is a difficult judgment call and bishops do have the authority to make such decisions. They cannot, however, prohibit emergency baptisms or the sacrament of penance when there is danger of death, which is allowed to any priest, even one that has been laicized or excommunicated.

We have every right to question and even manifest our concern regarding decisions we don’t agree with, but we cannot let our dissent become a basis for denying the divine constitution of the Church itself. I also question the complete suspension of public worship – it seems to me that it can be done safely if people are properly spaced apart and other standard precautions are taken, such as disinfecting and perhaps the use of masks. But I am not the one with the authority to make such decisions – only the bishop is.

Even if the bishops are overreacting in this case (and I personally think that they are) the reasoning behind such suspensions is not, in principle, opposed to our faith. Public worship was suspended in some places during the Black Plague of the 14th century, and was widely suspended in the United States during the 1918 swine flu pandemic.  The reason should be obvious: we cannot presuppose that God will do miracles and supernaturally protect the faithful when we fail to act in accordance with the laws of nature, which we know by our divinely-given rational faculty.

As Oxford professor Joseph Shaw reminded his readers in a recent tweet, the Baltimore Catechism warns us that we must “carefully guard against expecting God to perform miracles when natural causes may bring about what we hope for. God will sometimes miraculously help us, but, as a rule, only when all natural means have failed.”

Gatherings at Christian communities in the United States and Korea have become the centers of new outbreaks of COVID-19. Sadly, the media have played up these few cases and the effect has been to frighten people away from religious activity, even when reasonable precautions are taken. However, the Catholic bishops in many cases are simply concerned that, given the advice of medical experts and the possibility that they could be blamed for new outbreaks, the most prudent route is to temporarily cease public worship. It is easy to criticize them, given that we will never be held accountable for any disease outbreaks that might have occurred.

The truth is that in some situations Catholics may find themselves unable to receive the sacraments, even for long periods of time. For example, such cases may arise when Catholics live in isolated rural areas, far from clergy. Here in Mexico, many Catholics can only receive communion and confess once a year, due to a shortage of priests in their area.

During the Cristiada, a war to resist the Mexican government’s persecution of the Church in the 1920s, public masses were suspended for several years in churches throughout the country. The same happened numerous times during the Middle Ages, when popes placed whole regions under interdict, depriving people of the sacraments due to the misdeeds of their leaders. This is something the Church has the authority to do, although it must be exercised with great reserve and discretion.

Other Catholics have suffered for years without the sacraments because of their imprisonment for the faith. They long for the sacraments and sometimes are able to receive them surreptitiously, but this is more often not the case. This is particularly true in communist countries like China, where Catholics, particularly clergy, are regularly imprisoned for their faith. Who would believe that God deprives of his graces these holy confessors who are most devoted to him, who suffer for him, simply because they cannot receive the sacraments?

Fr. William Rock of the FSSP reminded his flock in a recent essay that the Catechism of the Council of Trent, one of the Church’s principal catechisms which was reissued by Pope John Paul II in the 1980s, that we may receive the graces of Holy Communion in a purely spiritual way when the sacrament is lacking, although we must be properly disposed and must desire the sacrament, despite being impeded from receiving it. We may not receive some of the “special fruits” of being present at Mass, but the general fruits of the Sacrifice are available to us.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri gives us this prayer for making a spiritual communion: “My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”

Catholics should be concerned about the availably of the sacraments, and express those concerns to their prelates. However, we should not be carried away by superstitious fears of God’s abandonment, nor by a despair that denies faith and hope. The sacraments will return, doctrine will be preserved, and the corruption that currently pervades both clergy and laity will be overcome. The triumph of Christ is already written in the annals of eternity.

So let us keep our heads during this crisis, and stand as an example to the world of God’s work in us, remembering the admonishment of St. Peter, who writes in his first letter: “Sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.”


  catholic, confession, coronavirus, covid-19, holy communion, last rites, mass, sacrament of penance, sacraments

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