Why priests and laypeople must work around bishops forbidding sacraments for COVID
October 27, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Some time ago, a friend asked me what I think about Catholic clergy who “went rogue” during the COVID lockdown and continued offering clandestine Masses and so forth, even when “forbidden” to do so by “legitimate authority.” She asked me what I thought of laity who encouraged them, assisted them, and benefited from their ministrations. Is this defensible behavior? Is it even, perhaps, required behavior?
The topic continues to be relevant because the mightily exaggerated threat of COVID-19 is being used in European countries to impose a new wave of restrictions of all kinds, including on religious activities and gatherings. We can expect the new world-managers of panic and fear to milk this crisis for all it’s worth, and to extend it for as long as they possibly can — particularly in populations whose native irascibility has been extracted by decades of socialist conditioning.
I was and continue to be sympathetic with every effort by clergy and laity to circumvent and ignore episcopal diktats that severely limit the sacramental life of the Church when readily available evidence demonstrates that we are living through a situation not unlike other severe flus that have come and gone many times in the past. My thinking on the question stems from a few basic principles.
The sacraments are not a privilege for the deserving, or a symbolic “window dressing” for the “real” Catholic life that goes on purely interiorly or domestically, as one of the new cardinals of the Church seems to think, but rather a necessity, a reality integral to the Christian spiritual life, as well as a genuine right of the faithful, understood in reference to our membership in the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is our elementary food for soul and body. Confession is our (blood)bath. Extreme unction is our lifeline, our immediate preparation for death, judgment, and eternity. Fasting from spiritual goods of this magnitude should be a last resort, of brief duration; therefore, limitations on them must also be a last resort and of brief duration, manifestly prompted by an undeniable emergency (think: bodies dropping dead all around us in the streets). A total lack of access at any point is indefensible.
It is one thing when a totalitarian regime hostile to the Church hauls priests away to a concentration camp in an effort to take the sacraments away from the people; then there is little choice on anyone’s part. It is quite another thing for the Church’s own shepherds to order priests to stop giving the sacraments to the faithful. In doing so, they literally short-circuit their own authority, function, and mission; they cancel themselves out. It is the equivalent of a bishop preaching that Christ has not come in the flesh (cf. 1 Jn. 4), or denying the homoousios of the Creed: that Christ is consubstantial with the Father and thus has authority and power to impart the divine life, His divine life, to the poor and needy of the Church on Earth. Regulations there must be; strangulations there must never be. The dam may regulate the flow of waters, but the waters must indeed flow.
The same holds true of the public offering of the sacred liturgy and our participation in it. There are currently millions of Catholics who are persuaded that their obligation to worship God on Sunday has been dispensed. But this is not true. God commanded that He be worshiped in a formal, public cultus, for which He instituted a weekly Sabbath among the Chosen People. With the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, Sunday was sanctified as the firstfruits and the symbol of the new creation in which righteousness dwells (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13); therefore, Sunday, the Dies Domini, the “little Easter,” is a solemn day of formal, public cultus that must be offered to God. This is how Christians fulfill the Third Commandment, from which there can be no dispensation, as noted by Cardinal Burke. The obligation to join personally in the perfect sacrifice of Christ on Sunday remains in place for all of the baptized, and no bishop can alter that one bit, nor can virtual attendance substitute for it.
If it is impossible, physically or morally, for an individual to attend — his car breaks down on the way to church, or he is sick or vulnerable, or the church has been locked shut and he has no choice — the obligation ceases to bind, and no sin is committed (at least, not by the layman!), but in no way is it waved aside. It stands. The only question is whether or not we have legitimate grounds to leave it unfulfilled. The actions of our bishops and some of our priests have given quite a different impression: attending Sunday Mass ends up looking more like a human custom, a mere precept of the Church, rather than the observance of a divine precept as determined by Christ and His Church in her unbroken tradition. As mentioned, the only way one does not sin by not attending Mass on Sunday or any other holy day of obligation is if it is impossible (see Code of Canon Law 1247–1248), which is how the matter has been seen for all of Catholic history, and that strong view explains the odd absence of precedent for general, standing Sunday Mass “dispensations” — even in the midst of much worse famines, wars, plagues, and disasters than anything we have experienced in recent times.
Beyond these more precise points about sacraments and liturgy, we should look at the big picture in the Church. We are dealing with a situation, built up over several decades, in which the bishops have lost credibility and trustworthiness. With a few exceptions, they do not teach sound doctrine; they do not celebrate reverent liturgy; they do not rid their dioceses of homosexuality and abuse; they are mammon-hungry. In all these ways, they have lost the “moral high ground” required for us to “just trust them” in their judgment calls. As Newman argued was the case during the Arian crisis, much of the present-day hierarchy is, for all intents and purposes, in a “suspended condition,” a state of dysfunctionality, disengagement, and inefficacy. In jungle circumstances of this kind, priests and laity must shift for themselves as well as they can. Where there is every reason to think that the salvation of souls is not respected as the highest law (salus animarum, suprema lex), a Christian’s obligations to His Lord and Master take precedence over his obligations to members of the hierarchy, no matter how exalted.
In a May 20 letter published at LifeSiteNews, Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Alabama stated: “If any priest cannot follow archdiocesan regulations [which, inter alia, forbade Communion on the tongue], it will be necessary for him to refrain from the celebration of public Masses. This matter is too serious for us to take any other approach than one of extreme caution for the safety of others.” Similar attitudes are at work in dioceses across the globe.
I could somehow imagine a different and more authoritative statement issued from the chancery of the court of heaven:
“If any bishop cannot follow natural law and divine law in regard to the adoration, reverence, and care to be shown to the Son of God in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and if, moreover, he does not fight to keep churches open, liturgical worship accessible, and sacraments available to the faithful, it will be necessary for him to refrain from the hope of reaching eternal glory. This matter is too serious for us to take any other approach than one of extreme sacredness and total commitment for the salvation of souls.”
The same is true for all the clergy and laity. In a time of pandemic, we must make more, not less, use of prayer, processions, penances, liturgy, and sacraments. In a time of spurious pandemic, we must make war against exaggerated restrictions and unjust cancellations, supporting those who creatively and courageously work around them and behind them.