At the outbreak of COVID-19, dioceses across the world quickly put into place an array of measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. The public celebration of Mass was suspended and, in some areas, access to the sacraments was severely limited. This response elicited a variety of reactions from Catholics. Some claimed the measures were prudent, as the best way to protect lives. Others argued the measures were excessive. Some bishops said their number one priority was the safety and health of their flock. Others countered that a bishop’s number one priority is actually the salvation of souls, and that the graces flowing from the sacraments are “essential” for salvation. Now that the restrictions are gradually being lifted with the resumption of public Masses, Catholics returning to Mass are seeing a variety of new norms and directives in place.
- Pews have been marked off to ensure proper social distancing.
- Masses are limited to a certain percentage of the building’s maximum capacity.
- Hand sanitizer is strategically placed at various locations in the church, with frequent use strongly encouraged.
- Reception of Communion on the tongue has been prohibited.
- The Sign of Peace has been suspended.
- Distribution of the Precious Blood to the faithful from the chalice has been suspended.
- Informational videos were made by diocesan officials spelling out what the faithful should expect upon returning to parish life.
Opinions vary on the prudence and nature of the directives issued. Some argue, with good reason, that prohibiting the reception of Communion on the tongue is excessive, and that receiving in the hand does more to transmit contagion than receiving directly on the tongue. One thing that diocesan-level COVID-19 responses clearly demonstrates is that far-reaching and immediate changes to the liturgy and parish life can be implemented, when the will is there. Priests have been informed that these directives and regulations are to be followed to the letter. Any hint of not following through, or any indication of gaps in the enforcement of these new directives will most likely result in a phone call from the higher-ups. They mean business. They’re not going to waste time when it comes to protecting the body from a virus. Action was immediate, swift and far-reaching.
And yet, for half-a-century, Catholics have observed a steady decomposition of Catholic life in the United States and around the world. Liturgy, Catholic schools, seminary culture and the traditional devotional life at the parish have all experienced a sharp decline. Countless abuses and excesses have burrowed into the liturgy at the average parish, to the point of becoming predictable. Reverence has been replaced with banality. Once-beautiful historic churches have been gutted and stripped bare with a thoroughness that the Protestant revolutionaries of the 16th century would have admired. Catholic schools appear more interested in appealing to contemporary, multi-cultural sensibilities than defending core Church teaching and instilling traditional virtues like modesty and purity in students. Seminary formation and culture have likewise suffered just as the Catholic schools, with even more dire consequences. And many parishes have abandoned traditional sacramental and devotional practices like adoration, frequent confession, Stations of the Cross, processions and the veneration of relics. How much spiritual harm have these hazards inflicted on the souls of Catholics? The damage is incalculable.
So when we compare how these problems in the life of the Church have been, or haven’t been, addressed (touching the health of the soul), to the swiftness and organization with which dioceses worldwide responded to COVID-19 (touching the health of the body) we have to ask: “What is the priority: the health of the body or the health of the soul?”
Since the health of the soul takes precedence over that of the body, the collective damage of the above-mentioned liturgical, catechetical and ecclesial abuses far outweigh a biological threat from a virus. The threat of COVID-19 was taken quite seriously by Church leadership, and the restrictions and liturgical measures set in place to “protect” the faithful were almost immediate. But what about the very real threat of mortal sin? What about the very real threat of bad formation and catechesis? Are these spiritual “viruses” being assessed as hazards by the leadership with the same vigor, promptness and gravity as we have seen them deal with the hazard of COVID-19?
If only the fight against mortal sin were given as much attention as the fight against a virus. If only there were as much concern with access to confession at the parish as there is access to hand sanitizer at the parish. If only we were to hear as much about spiritual combat and virtue as we hear about a virus. If only preparing the soul for Communion and being in the state of grace were given as much attention as prohibiting on-the-tongue reception of Communion. If only there were as much enthusiasm to ensure the knowledge and defense of the faith as there is conveying knowledge of COVID-19 liturgical protocols.