Pandemic and religious freedom

Msgr Gerard Burns reflects upon the suspension of Masses and other religious gatherings. The other day I went to get a haircut after the last 2 months in lockdown (I…

Msgr Gerard Burns reflects upon the suspension of Masses and other religious gatherings.

The other day I went to get a haircut after the last 2 months in lockdown (I didn’t trust the others in my ‘bubble’ to give me a haircut!). As I entered the shop to see my old friend and barber, I noticed – further along the street – the blanket-covered body of someone sleeping rough.

I had thought that most of the homeless in Wellington were being housed at this time so wondered what was happening that someone was so evidently not housed. As the person was sleeping I did not disturb them at that moment.

I was reminded of that person when I was reading some of the comments from people about the (non)opening of churches under the current Covid-19 alert level. It sometimes seems that the measure of a Christian/Catholic life has become the opportunity to worship together.

I too love that opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist – the gathering of the faithful, the encounter with Christ in various ways during the Mass, the profundity of the ritual bringing me deeply into saving story of the Lord’s death and resurrection. However, wonderful, important and nourishing as that is, it’s not the test of my Christianity.

The test is whether I recognize and welcome Jesus present in the poor, vulnerable and excluded. At least that’s according to Matthew 25, when Jesus says whenever we did it to the least of his brothers and sisters (hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, sick) we did it to him. It is in such people that we encounter Christ also. Could people identify us as Catholics if we had no churches?

For some of our community, returning to our usual liturgical gatherings seemed to become the central issue for us as Church.  However, our tradition also gives us guidance on considering whether the role of the state to protect the common good can outweigh legitimate freedoms of citizens to exercise their normal rights.

Catholic social teaching sees protecting and fostering the common good as a prime responsibility of the state (in New Zealand commonly called ‘the government’ of whatever political party or coalition of parties), but upholding the common good is also our responsibility as church and as citizens. The common good is the good of all of us, as individuals and groups within a population, that leads to human flourishing. It cannot mean any section of the population, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, are left behind or excluded.

Part of the protection of the common good is the recognition of the innate human dignity of persons and ensuring various freedoms including the right to marry, found a family, voice one’s opinion, associate with others, etc.

In times of emergency or special need the state may suspend some individual and group rights to ensure the safety of a population. During war it may be that the right to travel abroad might be suspended or the right to found a party supportive of a group of looking to destroy the state. For example, in England during the war against Nazism my right to found a pro-Nazi party would have been suspended.

In questions of general public health which affect all of us (especially during pandemics), as we have previously seen in New Zealand, the normal rules of society can be suspended. For example, during polio epidemics in New Zealand schools were closed to stop spread among children – to some extent curtailing the ordinary right to an education. Likewise, during the current Covid-19 pandemic our rights to move about and to associate have been curtailed. How this has been managed has varied according to ‘alert levels’ and the measured progress in this country of the virus.

Now that at least the first wave of the virus seems has been beaten, general freedoms are being gradually and we may soon move into the almost normal situation of Level 1. Some asked why freedoms were returned in some areas, such as shopping and some forms of social gathering, but not for church gatherings.

Did this deny religious freedom? Is it to privilege the economic over the spiritual? Should not our bishops have “stood up to this (godless) government’, as some asked, and not be pushed around by people who side-line religious gatherings as ‘irrelevant’ or not ‘essential’? Where does the truth and best practice lie?

In terms of public health and the common good it is a question of ‘prudential’ judgments. ‘Prudence’ in this sense means taking into account all the factors and finding what is best in the circumstances. A government facing a health crisis like the pandemic has a right to prudentially decide which activities to open up at which rate. However, we also have a role as a Church community to contribute to that decision-making. Along with government officials, we also need to weigh up our right to religious practice alongside the right to life and health of the most vulnerable among us.

People of faith, including myself, may have wanted the chance to return to ‘normal’, as with schools or businesses, and return to regular church attendance. I, too, deeply missed being able to celebrate Mass on a face-to-face basis and gather with the worshipping community for the sacraments. However the other factors here are the dangers of spreading the virus through the kind of intimate gathering that a Mass or a funeral is.

There is good evidence from overseas and here that church services (Masses, weddings, funerals) have been opportunities where the virus has spread easily. I work among Māori and know that at a time of prayer the urge to touch and hongi in the Mass is extremely high – an ideal chance to possibly spread a virus. In an ordinary congregation the sign of peace is a similar opportunity. It is not that people at religious gatherings cannot learn other ways of behaving in the interim (we have changed previously during the SARS epidemic) but we are asked for a time to forego some standard activities.

Religious gatherings can be special opportunities for the spread of some diseases in a way that going shopping or even participating in other social gatherings does not. We spend much more time together at a Mass than we do in the short encounters with others when shopping. We may be sitting among strangers, especially in our bigger churches, not with 9 people we know at a social gathering. The rules were made for all religions, not just Catholics, and other religions have their own customs which can pose a danger.

Does this impinge on our religious freedom? Somewhat, but not completely. As Catholics, we do rightly view the celebration in community of Mass, the Eucharist as very important – the source and summit of worship and of our community expression. But access to our churches is not the only expression of our faith activity – prayer (which can take place anywhere) and action in love for the reign of God are keys for our faith.

The test in Matthew 25 (whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me) is not whether we got in to our churches to celebrate Mass but our care for one another and for Christ who is present in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the excluded. It’s a tough request and it is not to deny the importance of prayer or the Eucharist. But it is to recognize that there are ‘two tabernacles’, as Pope Francis said on the feast of Corpus Christi, 2018.

At the Corpus Christi procession in Ostia, outside Rome, Francis took up the theme of Matthew 25. He spoke of the Eucharist as the ‘beating heart of the community’ and of making the Mass a priority for encountering Christ. But he also spoke of finding Christ not in ‘exclusive, select places’ but rather in ‘uncomfortable places, untouched by hope, untouched by love’ and of people who are ‘lonely, troubled and in need’ as ‘lonely tabernacles’.

So, difficult as it is to accept, getting back to Mass is not the most important thing. The health of the community is a key part of the common good. As Catholics we should support that and remind ourselves of our priorities. The Mass is indeed central, and I am privileged as a priest to be able to celebrate it and have access to Eucharistic communion. Will that save me if I neglect those in need? No.

Msgr Gerard Burns

June 20202