March 12, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — In relation to an epidemic, we must exercise prudence and take seriously the consequences of what we are doing for the good of our neighbor. Exposing others to a significant and unnecessary risk of infection, for example, is a sin against justice. There is also a risk involved in excessive caution. Closing down all schools and businesses, were that to happen, would have a huge cost. To impose this cost on children and employers without sufficient justification would also be a sin against justice.
Of even greater concern are measures taken or considered that affect the spiritual good of the faithful. In nearly all cases, the response of bishops to the epidemic has been restrictive, public Masses being suspended in Italy being the most extreme, but the suspension of the Kiss of Peace or the Reception of the Chalice, at the less serious end of the scale, are now becoming widespread. All of these measures may, or may not, be justified; I do not have the expertise to judge. But what they have in common is that they are negative and reactive.
An exception to this general tone has come from the Polish bishops, who have asked their priests to increase the number of Masses. Since the danger of infection increases with the size of the congregation, and having more Masses implies a reduction in the average size of the congregation, then this is a perfectly sensible thing to suggest, even from a purely natural point of view. The number of Masses a priest can say on a Sunday is limited by canon law, with an exception for “pastoral need,” so it is useful for the bishops to say, in effect, that there is a pastoral need, identifiable but temporary.
But why, we may ask, are we not hearing appeals for prayers and votive Masses to be said to implore God’s mercy to end the epidemic? One clue to this is the claim by Cardinal Scola of Milan — once thought of as a conservative contender for the papacy — that “divine punishment does not exist. It is an incorrect view of Christianity.” He added: “Of course, God knows and predicts events but does not determine them.”
His Eminence is incorrect. God is the Lord of history; not a sparrow falls to the ground without His consent. Of course the coronavirus is a punishment from God: all our sufferings are the consequence of sin; for us sinners, they are a just penalty for our sin; and God has complete control over what happens and how it affects us. Both testaments of Scripture are full of examples of this, and it is equally fully reflected in the liturgy.
The idea that God is a helpless bystander seems necessary, to some people, and perhaps to Cardinal Scola, to reassure the suffering that they haven’t been singled out for punishment because of their sins. The flip-side of it, however, is that if, as I heard one priest say, “God doesn’t want you to suffer,” then it follows that God cannot help us. This is wrong. He can help us, and He will, especially in response to prayer, in the way He judges best. It is true that those who suffer most are not necessarily the greatest sinners, but the explanation of this is the familiar idea that the punishment God sends us is a sign of love. God punished the Chosen People in the Old Testament more than other nations because He loved them more.
The spiritual means of averting calamity or rescuing our communities from it once it has struck are very much to the point. God intends His punishments to be medicinal. They are to stimulate us to repent and help us grow in holiness.
The Collects of the older Missal are, admittedly, clearer on this subject than those of the 1970 Missal, but these are still part of the Church’s liturgical patrimony and cannot be considered to have been repudiated or to be “erroneous.” As well as the many Collects of Lent that make reference to these themes, there is a special Mass to be said for times of pestilence, which reminds us that God “does not seek the death of the sinner, but penance” and asks that the “whip of thy anger” (“iracundiae tuae flagella”) be removed from us.
What are we to do, then, in the face of calamity? The good works always recommended by the Church: prayer, penance, and acts to charity toward others. The problems created by outbreaks of disease may or may not give us special opportunities for good works directed to the bodily needs of others, but they certainly give us opportunities for prayer and penance.
We should react to this epidemic not simply by cowering in our homes, but by responding as God wishes us to respond to danger and suffering: with filial trust in God, uniting our sufferings with those of Christ, and repenting of our part in the sins of society to which public calamities should always put us in mind.