Church, State, and the Virus

The local bank branch is open but not the church

Common sense is often in short supply. Far too many people go about their daily routines paying little attention to the role that social distancing plays in saving lives, including their own. That said, the pandemic also calls for “clarification of thought,” as Peter Maurin liked to say, about three points of pressing importance.

A pair of contrasting examples paves the way. Here’s the first. Late last week my wife stopped by our parish church. We knew there would be no public celebration of the liturgy. Still, we’d hoped to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But, no. The church was locked tight, although a sign on the rectory door encouraged our donations.

Now the second example. A couple of days ago, duly masked and gloved, I made my way to our local bank branch. Surely the ATM would be open. No matter: the bank itself was open! Bank personnel, using strips of blue tape, had carefully marked service aisles to maintain full-fledged social distance. Business finds a way!

With these examples in mind, the first point that needs clarification is that the language of public health officials is ethically flattened and hegemonic. The state is the topmost agency of the people. It is for the people and must answer to them. But public health officials, in a secularized society, can only speak of our physical health. At the same time, they tend to subsume every good under the good of public health. Public health officials during the worst of the AIDS crisis ignored critical moral dimensions of that crisis.

The second point that demands clarification is that the Church ministers to the whole person. As a matter of history, the Church has led the way in building hospitals and encouraging vocations to medical service. But the Church knows that the good of health is not to be put at odds with other basic goods, and surely not the good of worship. Our bishops need to look closely at what public health agencies propose and speak up when the language and the specifics of such proposals lose sight of the integral and common good.

What might a more robust discussion suggest? Public health policies, as prudential, call for ongoing assessment. When we ground that assessment in the integral and common good we’re going in the right direction. Our bishops, in consultation with the faithful, need to be leaders in this discussion.

Here are a couple of specific questions for consideration. Why not identify at least one parish church in each deanery that will remain open for prayer? It would be a simple enough matter to limit entry to the church to, say, half a dozen people at a time. It would be simple enough, as well, to make sure that they stay several feet apart. And why not identify at least one parish church in each deanery, one with serviceable cry rooms, that will use its cry rooms to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a regular basis? Again, it would be simple enough to do so in a way that maintains social distancing.

Scripture tells us that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light (Luke 16:8). And so I find myself thinking of what my local bank branch seems to be managing well enough, in the name of the economy, and what my local parish, at the behest of our archbishop, seems to be managing far less ably than it might.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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