Analysis: Policy and pastoral leadership in a time of crisis

shutterstock 1679927803 Closed church. | Allard One/Shutterstock

Across the U.S., and around the world, bishops are struggling to adjust to the pastoral emergency which has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

In entire countries, the public celebration of Mass has been suspended, as local governments ban gatherings of even a handful of people. 

And at the same time, the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse have led many to consider seriously their mortality and the state of their soul, with even the supposedly irreligious turning to prayer in increasing numbers.

Among many Catholics, there is a hunger for the sacraments, and for the faith. Catholics are looking to their bishops for leadership. Bishops, in response, are forging attempts to address a complicated situation that few, if any, ever thought they might face. 

The results have been mixed.

Some American dioceses are, for now, allowing pastors to try to meet the needs of their flocks while conforming with government rules. Drive-through confessionals have sprung up in many parishes, as have drive-in Eucharistic adoration and benedictions. And some bishops have taken to preaching online with regularity, adoring the Eucharist on cathedral steps, or making plans for the next stage of the pandemic

But other bishops have opted to err on the side of extreme caution, locking every church building and attempting to bar the administration of all sacraments except in danger of death, even if not required by law or public health recommendation to do so.

In some dioceses, priests have been told they cannot hear confessions, at least not unless death is imminent, that they can not baptize, except in an emergency, or that, in at least one diocese, they can not anoint anyone who is dying. 

As bishops look for the right ways to lead, at least some of their priests have been struggling to adjust to the ever-tightening web of restrictions on their sacramental ministry. 

Some priests have begun to wonder, in quiet consultations and conversations, whether they're really prohibited from offering the sacraments of mercy and healing now, when they seem most needed.

And some priests have begun considering a question they never expected to find themselves asking: 'Should I obey my bishop?'

The patchwork of policies and guidelines circulated by chancery officials seems to have varying degrees of clarity and authority for priests, and can risk appearing pastorally distant to Catholic laity.

The orders raise a number of as-yet-unanswered canonical and pastoral questions. For example, it is not immediately apparent that a memorandum circulated by the vicar general of the diocese meets the canonical criteria to effectively suspend the faculty of every priest in the diocese to hear confessions. Nor is it clear that a bishop has the authority to prohibit the anointing of the sick. 

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. 

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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.

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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. 

The second is to reflect on how to become more visible in their ministry as shepherds, in solidarity with their people, and eager for their spiritual care. 

While doing everything necessary to prevent contagion, it may become increasingly urgent that bishops be seen to stand with Catholics and their pastors, not between them.