Some local authorities, as in Louisville, Kentucky, and Greenville, Mississippi, have gone out of their way to close down drive-in religious services, fining and harassing people socially isolating in their cars, while permitting local restaurants to operate drive-through services.
Mendocino County, California, has ruled that there can be "no singing" during live streamed church liturgies.
The apparent targeting of religious observance in some places, and the deference shown to institutions like Planned Parenthood in others, presents a difficulty for the bishops.
On the one hand, the desire to lead by example on matters of public health and safety is real. No bishop wants a church to become a locus for spreading disease, and many believe they are setting a powerful local example by closing churches, putting pressure on other denominations, including some less concerned with observing social distancing, to follow suit.
On the other hand, it is increasingly difficult for bishops to lend their moral authority to the diktats of civic leaders that prioritize alcohol, marijuana, and abortion as essential for public welfare – especially over the sacraments and spiritual needs of the faithful.
Many bishops want to present a united front with their governors and mayors. But, when those same officials offer absurdist schedules of what is necessary for the public welfare, Catholics will more frequently question the impression of total support for those policies.
Some bishops have proactively barred exactly the kind of flexible ministry championed by Baldacchino. Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee recently banned his priests from offering Mass in parish parking lots, claiming that "parking lot Masses are not possible if we want to maintain our priorities of keeping people safe (including ourselves and our staff), preserving the dignity of the Eucharist, and sustaining unity among ourselves, as ministers and leaders."
But the principle of subsidiarity, and the dictates of common sense, suggest that there is no one size to fit all for the Church in the United States. The wide-open spaces of Las Cruces bear little resemblance to city blocks in Brooklyn, where the coronavirus has taken such a terrible toll.
Still, bishops will try to balance competing priorities during the pandemic. They want to comply with civil regulations, and play their part in guarding public health. They will have to weigh this with, perhaps at times even against, their obligation to lead their flocks with courage and faith – and when necessary speak out against public policies which go against the basic principles of life, even under the guise of "sustaining life."
It is an unenviable task in unprecedented circumstances.
Some U.S. bishops will undoubtedly seek safety in consensus, as they have tried to in the past. But consensus is hard to form, and it will be harder to hold as different circumstances continue to develop across the country.
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As the second stage of the pandemic unfolds, and public life is eventually restored, new leaders could begin to emerge in the Church in the United States. Time – and the faithful – are likely to favor those who did the most to stand closest to their flock.