And lay people, at least some lay people, have begun to ask why they shouldn't baptize their own newborn babies, or even invoke a little-used canon that would permit them to marry outside of canonical form when circumstances warrant it.
This week, a group of lay people called for bishops to find whatever ways are possible to continue the administration of the sacraments. How bishops will respond remains to be seen.
But the situation could become contentious.
Priests with whom CNA has spoken in recent days have said they want to make every effort possible to be obedient to their bishops. But some have said they're not sure what they'll do if a person comes to them in mortal sin seeking forgiveness, or a parishioner calls about a loved one dying at home, especially from causes that are not coronavirus, and seeking anointing.
Even a sense that disobedience might become morally necessary could become demoralizing to priests, and lead to ecclesial dissension at a time when faithful unity seems critical.
And the situation would become even worse if priests looking for attention or validation decide to make a spectacle of disobedience to norms they finds problematic. Such a thing would be unfortunate, but in the contemporary social media and ecclesial climate, completely unsurprising.
Priests in many places are left feeling conflicted: trying to balance a commitment to their flock with the desire to conform to the will of their bishop.
At the same time, the impression that some bishops are out of touch with the reality facing the faithful is not helped by pastoral letters that seem more concerned with fundraising than spiritual leadership.
Catholics are, more than ever, looking for true shepherds in a time of crisis. Responding with an approach that is too policy-heavy may leave bishops at risk of appearing to legislate from a bunker, as priests and laity struggle with spiritual and physical isolation.
Pope Francis has urged against "drastic measures," and said he is praying that bishops will "provide measures which do not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone, and so that the people of God will feel accompanied by their pastors, comforted by the Word of God, by the sacraments, and by prayer."
The pope also intervened in the Diocese of Rome, reopening the churches for private prayer after they were initially closed completely, and commanded international attention when he offered a special Urbi et Orbi benediction to an empty St. Peter's square.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
St. Charles Borromeo is an historical example being cited by many as a model for bishops in times of pandemic. The Archbishop of Milan closed the churches of his diocese against the plague in the sixteenth century, though he delivered the sacraments to quarantined houses himself, preached holy hours, and processed through the city with the Eucharist.
Around the world, some bishops have sought to lead by personal example, even as they scrupulously observe public health rules.
In Cologne this week, Cardinal Rainer Woelki reopened the archdiocesan seminary as a temporary center for the city's homeless, offering shower facilities and hot food. Overseen by health workers from Malteser International, the cardinal personally welcomed guests into the center.
Meanwhile, in China, where public health restrictions have been at least as dramatic as parts of the U.S., Bishop Stephen Lee Bun-sang of Macau sat outside his house last week, wearing a surgical mask and hearing confessions from behind a screen.
Examples like the pope, Cardinal Woelki, and Bishop Lee, seem to have helped local Catholics, priests and laypeople, to feel both loved by their bishop and led in faith and service to each other, while at the same time setting examples about conforming to local regulations on social distancing.
To ensure that a public health emergency does not become a pastoral crisis, American bishops face two pressing challenges. The first is to find some coherent path forward for sacramental ministry that is neither negligent of legitimate health concerns nor heedless of real pastoral needs, and the genuine priestly desire for the administration of the sacramental life.