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Some thoughts on the Catholic coronavirus controversies

The pandemic has been a reminder for many of what a precious gift life is. And here distinctions are required.

Health care workers at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in New York City wheel the bodies of deceased people April 4, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 7, nearly 13,000 people have died in the U.S. because of the virus. (CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

The coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of abating as this is written, but it’s none too soon to start thinking about what we have already learned from this painful experience. I leave it to the physicians, the politicians, and the economists to draw appropriate conclusions in their areas of expertise. Here are some thoughts on the pandemic’s lessons for people of faith.

The most important lesson obviously was how much we value certain things and people that we ordinarily take for granted. That includes spouses, family and friends, the freedom to come and go as we please, and, for us Catholics, the Mass and sacraments celebrated in our own familiar churches. The social distancing imposed by COVID-19 served as a reminder that nothing beats being without someone or something to remind us how much he or she or it really does matter to us.

In particular, the pandemic has been a reminder for many of what a precious gift life is. And here distinctions are required.

I agree entirely with religious commentators who’ve used the occasion of closed churches and cancelled Masses to point out the error of absolutizing mere staying alive, as if simple survival were the highest value there is. That’s the error one Catholic writer called “the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.”

That said, though, I seriously question the good sense of those who moved from the general principle to a highly dubious application by lambasting religious leaders who closed churches and cancelled public Masses as step to slow the spread of the virus. Although the announcements that accompanied these steps may occasionally have sounded more bureaucratic than pastoral, the criticism itself seemed at times to err by missing the point.

What point?

First, that talking down the importance of saving lives implicitly belittled the bravery and dedication of medical personnel who repeatedly placed themselves in danger of contracting the disease by tending those suffering from it. Second, that the criticism carried with it a message to the high-risk elderly that it’s selfish of them to prefer living to dying. Many old people have long since come to terms with the fact that sooner than later they will die. But many also would quite reasonably prefer that when death does come, it not be via COVID-19, which by all accounts appears to be an especially ugly way of checking out.

Some who regret being without the sacraments say canon law prohibits withholding them. I share their regret, but nothing in canon law overrides common sense and social responsibility in the face of this crisis. And as canon 27 wisely points out, “custom is the best interpreter of law.”

Finally, the pandemic has provided an object lesson in the value of courageous, creative, and, if possible, charismatic leadership in the Church. Some unquestionably provided it, and I hereby express heartfelt thanks to those, starting with Pope Francis, who provided Masses and other religious services on television, Facebook, and other media. On the other hand, I would have welcomed a bit more inventiveness–parking lot Masses and drive-in confessions come to mind–in making spiritual resources available.

It would be helpful if, once the crisis has passed, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or some other agency compiled an experience-based handbook of best practices in meeting pastoral needs in emergencies. In fact, something of the kind might already be useful to pastoral planners in places where the shortage of priests is either already a problem or else will be soon.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Churches could certainly be open for private visitation, even those that usually have large numbers of tourists since tourist industry is closed. And I dont see how a confessional with a screen exposes one to the virus….
    Those advocating complete closure are valuing the life of the body over the life of the soul.

    • Dear Missing, in our case with our parish, two related issues: (1) keeping surfaces clean (door handles, tops of pews, rest rooms, etc.), esp. since the elderly and retired frequent our churches; (2) with collections down, maintaining maintenance staff and/or cleaning service providers. I like Russell’s intimation that we suffer the temporary loss of the sacraments in solidarity with those fighting the virus, and with those losing their lives. That will be my prayer this Good Friday.

    • A screen does nothing to protect either person, and a confessional doesn’t even conform to the 6′ social distancing recommendation. This is being done to stop the spread of the virus. At this juncture it has been established that the virus may well travel at least 27′. Pope Francis is not taking this situation lightly. Be assured of the mercy of our God, especially as He looks down in sorrow at the situation. May God bless you richly. Be assured of my prayers for you and your family!

  2. Thoughtful writing and I agree with the conclusion but (from a retired businessman) PLEASE never use the term “best practices” when recommending pastoral practices. It is a facile term and can lead to great mischief in its application.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. Not a businessman, but a BA/Eng Lit, I cringe when
      vague phrases like this become commonplace, rendering our communication inaccurate.

  3. public masses cancelled? Innovation very lacking! Parking lot masses were all too few. A number of Priests took the initiative. Very few Bishops did! A procedure for just such a time as this should be formulated. We were caught unawares! “They” come up with all sorts of strategies for pushing an agenda they want or for fund raising!God bless and preserve from illness all of Gods people!

  4. Although my state has a government ordered lockdown, the local liquor store has a large banner announcing it is open. A sign in the store window advertises new hiring. I drove by myself to my parish church, hoping to make a private visit. I was not successful. The doors were shut and locked tight.

  5. “The social distancing imposed by COVID-19…”

    GOVERNMENTS are unjustly imposing social distancing, and as far as I can tell, it is an unprecedented action. Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, pretty much the entire economy wasn’t shut down. I also believe that social distancing mandates violates the NATURAL RIGHT of free association.

    There seems to be something sinister at work here. Perhaps there is a hidden “will to power” that has “infected” governments since the last pandemic (about 2009-) which only needed a pretext to start perpetrating injustice.

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