Sep 1, 2020
If American Catholics feel singled out in this strange year they are not being paranoid, they are simply paying attention. From church burnings to the verbal and physical abuse heaped on beloved saints and their statues, the incidents have piled up. And, on top of all this, local jurisdictions have too often piled on by categorizing the mass – the source and summit of Catholic life – as "non-essential."
In the city of San Francisco, social indoor gatherings have been indefinitely prohibited since a June spike in COVID-19 cases. Movie theaters, nightclubs, indoor entertainment complexes are all shuttered. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 12 people, and participants must wear masks, keep six feet apart and not share food or implements. This effectively rules out team sports and other pleasant activities the city deems non-essential. But it also rules out indoor masses and outdoor masses with more than ten mass-goers, because local officials put religious observances in the same class as baseball games.
Some Church prelates, notably Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, are reacting not with anger but with gentle persistence and ingenuity. The Church in San Francisco has pleaded with local officials to be allowed to hold indoor masses while employing strict safety measures, as is being done in many parts of the country and, indeed, other parts of California. Dioceses are using highly detailed guidelines that the Thomistic Institute developed for bishops. These guidelines are based on the advice of scientists, doctors, infectious disease experts, and theologians who have applied current Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization standards to worship.
As a result, Catholic churches across the United States are meticulously doing the right thing: cordoning-off pews, spacing family groups, enforcing mask-wearing, refraining from singing and handshaking. The whole mass experience has changed dramatically, thanks to the seriousness, respect, and mutual care of American Catholics. Going to mass these days may well be among the safest outings a family makes all week. In fact, a recent study of over one million public masses celebrated under strict guidelines in the U.S., shows no outbreaks linked to church attendance or evidence of viral transmission.
And yet indoor mass under these science-based guidelines is prohibited in San Francisco-and limiting outdoor masses to 12 participants makes it impossible for any but a tiny portion of the Catholic population to go to mass. Archbishop Cordileone has made a moving video plea explaining the importance of gathering together for worship. More than that, he has demonstrated the essential nature of the sacraments by organizing a long day of multiple small masses in the Cathedral plaza on the feast day of the Assumption. Spaced out in groups of 12, the San Francisco faithful knelt and stood and prayed - apart but mercifully together.
These are the kinds of signals that local governments need to heed when contemplating or enforcing shutdowns that fail to recognize the essential nature of worship.
Lockdowns have caused an explosion of existential loneliness as adults and children are isolated from extended family, friends, co-workers. They're cut off from even simple daily contacts with pleasant strangers or acquaintances. Rising suicide and overdose rates are a heartrending testament to this cold social fact. For millions of Americans, the church "family" is one of their main connections to others, through daily or weekly mass. For those same Americans, being unable to receive the sacraments, the physical expression of communion with God, is a spiritual tragedy. Perhaps worse still, the inability to hold a funeral mass for a cherished husband or child is grief piled upon aching grief on the bowed shoulders of the bereaved.
And where's the fairness in all this when a dizzying array of other kinds of gatherings are being classed as "essential" or excused? In San Francisco, the list of exceptions to shutdown is long. Retail storefronts can remain open as long as staff and shoppers stay six feet apart and do not exceed half normal occupancy. Factories, warehouses and logistics businesses can operate if everyone inside can remain six feet apart. Grocery stores, banks, airlines, childcare centers and summer camps – all are open. Political demonstrators are allowed to throng city streets by the packed thousands. It is safe and fair to classify religious observance as essential – because it is.
Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco won't be the last prelate to gently and insistently work around the current restrictions that unfairly target religious Americans.