Analysis: Can bishops lead the faithful and follow the lawmakers?

IMG 0232 1 Bishop Peter Baldacchino celebrates Mass on Holy Thursday. | David McNamara/Diocese of Las Cruces

Last week, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces became the first bishop in the United States to roll back the ban on the public celebration of Masses.

His decision, and the reasons he gave for it, have highlighted a growing tension: while Church leaders try to comply with state regulation, some local authorities insist that any religious practice should be curtailed.

Amid that tension, bishops face the challenge of balancing competing goods, and as they tackle that challenge, new ecclesial leaders could emerge.

In line with New Mexico's public health order, Baldacchino reinstated indoor Masses last Wednesday, but limited numbers to five people at a time. The bishop encouraged outdoor liturgies – either in parking lots or in other open-air parts of church property like cemeteries, with no cap on attendance.

Baldacchino's plans, which include strict guidelines for the distribution of Communion and unambiguous instructions to adhere to state regulations on social distancing and public health, did not meet with the governor's approval.

While conceding that the Las Cruces plans were within the law, a spokesperson for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said "it is concerning that they would be 're-opening' at all."

"Any kind of gatherings that are not absolutely essential to one's health or welfare are strongly discouraged," the governor's office said, illustrating the chief fault line between the bishop and the state.

In an interview with CNA on Thursday, Baldacchino said he disagreed with the governor's characterization of the Church as "non-essential" to public welfare, noting that drive-in Masses under his guidelines were significantly more regimented than a McDonald's drive-through, and that the state's definition of "essential" was debatable, at best.

"We have our priorities totally upside down," Baldacchino said. "Here in New Mexico, you can buy all the liquor you want, this is essential… you can buy marijuana, this is an essential service… but the Eucharist – the summit of our Christian life, the sacrament of our salvation – this is not worth any risk, it's too dangerous."

"We take risks to buy destructive things and call it essential while denying ourselves the true medicine," Baldacchino said.

Many bishops across the United States have issued near-total sacramental bans in their dioceses, seeking to comply with state public health measures and help halt the spread of coronavirus.

The first instinct in many places has been to defer to state and local leaders, trusting that they have an eye on the common good. But, as weeks of lockdown wear on, Baldacchino's point about inverted priorities has been taken up by a growing number of Catholics.

Liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries remain largely exempt from orders on businesses to close, with patrons lining up for entry in many places. In states across the country, Catholics have asked why would or should bishops support a different standard applied to churches.

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.

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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.

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