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Opinion: It’s prudent to extend general lockdown, keep churches closed

It’s important to realize that this is the sort of controversy in which common sense and moral reasoning are more to the point than arguments about law.

(Image: CNA)

It now appears that the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic is going to include an ongoing, sometimes ugly debate on the merits of closing churches and suspending religious services to halt the spread of COVID-19. The argument is one of those unfortunate cases where two important goods–here, religious liberty and public health–are set in opposition, with no one likely to emerge a clear winner.

Here are a few straws in the wind. Protestant pastors in California and New Mexico and possibly other states are suing to protest church shutdowns. In Kentucky, a Baptist church was said to be planning a federal lawsuit after state troopers were told to note the license numbers of cars parked outside Easter services with a view to telling owners to self-quarantine for two weeks.

In the Catholic sector, things have generally been calmer–but not much. Virtually all pastors followed their bishops’ orders to close their churches and suspend public Masses and other ceremonies or allow them only under the most stringent limits. There was–still is–some grumbling about this, but few visible acts of non-compliance.

The first diocese in the country to relax the church lockdown was Las Cruces, New Mexico, where shortly after Easter Bishop Peter Baldacchino ordered a limited reopening of churches for Mass, with no more than five people allowed inside and other congregants staying in their cars. First Things editor R.R. Reno, usually a serious commentator on religious affairs, hailed this as “prudent, decisive leadership.” Conceding good intentions on the bishop’s part, others nonetheless wondered.

People who object to forced church closings regularly argue their case in terms of religious liberty. This presumably is what lay behind a Justice Department spokesperson’s announcement that Attorney General William Barr was “monitoring” the situation. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency,” the spokesperson added, “they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out religious organizations.”

Who can argue with that? Bishop. Baldacchino made essentially the same point when he told a Catholic News Agency interviewer that people in his state were free to buy liquor but couldn’t go to Mass.

Obviously there are real legal issues here that need to be examined. At the same time, though, it’s important to realize that this is the sort of controversy in which common sense and moral reasoning are more to the point than arguments about law.

When people insist that churches should stay open come what may—“physical health must not be pursued to the exclusion of spiritual health,” Reno lectured—they ignore the fact that someone who goes to a church service and comes home carrying the novel coronavirus may be bringing a potentially deadly disease to his or her family and friends.

That points to an obvious conclusion.

Lacking a truly compelling reason like saving lives, knowingly acting in a way that risks spreading a potentially deadly disease to others is morally irresponsible. The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself has far more weight than any law, whether civil or canonical, or even the First Amendment. And if realistic love of neighbor requires keeping churches closed a while longer, then the churches should stay closed.

Extending the general lockdown—including church closings—also carries the advantage of spreading out the incidence of new cases of COVID-19 until improved treatment and, later, a reliable vaccine are available. There are no certainties, but this cautious approach seems measurably preferable to impetuously letting down our guard in the name of religious liberty or anything else.

Related reading: Opinion: It’s time to pursue a ‘re-opening’ of the Mass” | By Fr. Thomas More Garrett, OP

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About Russell Shaw 275 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. This appears to be an incredibly contagious disease but its severity varies greatly from person to person. If everyone was affected in a similar way, opening churches or not would be an easy call.
    I wish it were simpler.
    But I don’t see the harm in drive-in outdoor worship for now. Banning even that seems overreach.

  2. From the dark side of the moon, we read: “The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself has far more weight than any law, whether civil or canonical, or even the First Amendment.”

    Any law? What about the real-world “law of unintended consequences”?

    Aside from fractional question of churches open or closed, for example, what is to be said about the scourge of unemployment and its consequences–layoffs, not furloughs!, and in advance of a later but non-hiring economy that will be on the ropes for a long time–and such details as continuing mortgage payments, etc. etc? Who’s keeping track of the trend line in abortions, or maybe suicides, or crisis helpline phone calls? Anybody? Just wondering.

    Also wondering why the banks don’t just step up and redo the paperwork on home loans and car loans and credit card debt. Instead of pretending that $1,200 of gummint monopoly money means anything when, say, when things open up…three months of non-payment all becomes due at the same time, from folks with no recent income? Why not, instead, simply extend the end date for such loan repayments?

    Russell, we can do better than simply posturing a simplistic choice between loving, or not, some neighbors (at the hidden expense of others). Maybe, at least, one size does not fit all.

  3. The lockdown must be extended until Bill Gates imposes his vaccine on us?! That could be another year. What does Mr. Shaw think the economic, social and, yes, public health consequences of a prolongation of the lockdowns would be? Does mass starvation qualify as a public health crisis in Mr. Shaw’s mind? I am still trying to figure out what common sense and moral reasoning he is using to arrive at his conclusion. Perhaps they are of the same variety that he and his former employers at the USCCB have used in their pastor letters for the last fifty years.

  4. Statistics out of New York city just yesterday: 94% of those who have required hospitalization from Covid-19 had one or more serious underlying, pre-existing health problems. And this is true of 100% of people requiring a respirator. Based on studies from multiple cities, it is now estimated that up to 100 million Americans are already carriers of the virus, with the overwhelming majority having no symptoms of illness at all. When this is all over, we are going to see study after study asking why we panicked in the face of a contagious but not particularly lethal virus. The Church response in America has been shameful, and it will prove to be very costly.

    • Exactly. New York City, and places like it, are bastions of unhealthy lifestyles. Look at their incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc. Talk about an epidemic. NYC has been having an epidemic of unhealthy lifestyle long before the batvirus arrived. At best, the batvirus is an opportunistic disease i.e. it preferentially picks off the most vulnerable who are those with lifestyle illnesses, those with serious medical conditions like cancer, and the elderly who have exceeded the average age of death. All of these have compromised immune systems. The immediate cause of death is the batvirus but not the underlying reason for their death.

    • I don’t dispute your percentages regarding preexisting conditions and death rates, but I’m afraid your comment gives the impression that these deaths are unimportant.

      • I’m not suggesting any such thing. But during the 2017-18 flu season, when 61,000 Americans died because the flu vaccine was ineffective, did we shut down the entire nation? There were 810,000 hospitalizations that year due to flu, and at least 35,000,000 people diagnosed with it. Just look at the difference in our reaction this year! This is a media driven hysteria.

  5. The argument that the reaction to this crisis has been botched by the public authorities from the start seems to be getting stronger by the day. Sweden has not locked down and its death count is lower than that of comparably-sized Michigan. It is likely that the number of fatalities would not have been materially different if more limited and traditional quarantine measures had been employed. The disastrous side effects, therefore, could have been avoided entirely. The blunt truth probably is that this gift from the Communist government of China was going exact its toll no matter in any event.

    • Sweden also has something like 10 times the number of Covid deaths as its neighbors.
      To be fair, Norway and Finland have smaller populations but still…It looks at this point like the Swedes may have miscalculated but we’ll see.
      It’s a strange virus and perhaps everyone is doing their best in different ways to protect their citizens. Hopefully we can learn from each other for future events.

      • Indeed, thank goodness we have such selfless and prudent public servants like Cuomo, Newsom, Pritzker and Whitmer charting our courses at the state level. Also, let’s not forget about Dr. Fauci, Dr Birx and their esteemed colleagues at the CDC and WHO who have been so honest, consistent and responsible in their warnings and projections. Without the integrity and competence of such dedicated professionals, we really would have quite a mess on our hands.

  6. The almost complete capitulation of the Church to the demands that Masses be suspended shows a stunning lack of courage and imagination on the part of the hierarchy. Here are some practical suggestions that could allow for the resumption of public celebration of the Mass without unduly jeopardizing the health of the congregation and the larger community. First, keep the dispensation in effect. The sick, elderly, those with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the Communist virus, and people who are just fearful of catching it should be strongly encouraged to stay home. Secondly, offer Masses inside the Churches with the proper social distancing in place. Figure out what the maximum capacity is with the increased spacing requirements and limit attendance to that number. Make the Masses shorter so as to reduce the amount of time people are in any kind of proximity to each other and to eliminate the overlap of people leaving an earlier Mass running into people arriving for the next one. Doing away with the ridiculous handshaking at the Sign of Peace would be an excellent step that should outlast this crisis. One thing that is becoming clearer is that the risk of infection from contact with surfaces has been greatly exaggerated, as the recently published study from Germany has concluded. There is no need to fear touching doors, benches, etc. It is high time to be reasonable about this and get over the inordinate fear that is paralyzing everyone.

  7. I usually like Mr. Shaw’s writing, but I can’t agree with him at all on this one. The course of action being pursued today is simply unsustainable. People need to be allowed to decide for themselves what is “prudent” and “responsible.” There is no merit in following the dictates of government by fiat; only in free choices can we gain any merit. And right now, we are in grave danger of losing our religious freedom permanently because we didn’t have the courage to defend it.

    • Illinois is shut down because of so many cases. The whole state.

      Except that the cases are mostly in the north. In three of the southernmost counties there are three cases of the virus. One per county. At least one county doesn’t have even one case.

  8. Covid 19 is here to stay and it appears that for most it is not a serious threat. Suicide, depression, substance addiction, and poverty are more serious threats and we need the Sacraments to fight them. Virtual Sacraments will not do.

  9. It is almost as if Mr. Shaw is safely retired does not have to worry about where his next check is coming from to pay the mortgage, feed his family, etc.

  10. This is outrageous and displays and utter lack of supernatural Faith. The Catholic Church should never have shut the doors of her churches anywhere. Thanks be to God for the Polish bishops who understood that the answer was more Masses, not fewer to none. I do not believe what the pope and bishops did was the will of God. Christ is King, Divine Physician and Supreme Lawgiver. In my opinion,the bishops threw Him under the bus and the Faithful with Him.

  11. Before the virus I attended Mass several times during the week. Typically, a few dozen people sat in a building that accommodates several hundred. Social distancing is no problem; spreading out is natural. There is far less social distancing when I go to Wal Mart for food. That’s OK, but worship is not??? Huh?
    My parish church is locked tight. I cannot even make a private visit by myself for prayer when social distancing is not even an issue. On the way home, of course, I pass the local liquor store which has a long wide banner announcing it is open. A smaller sign advertises new hiring.To say the least the contrast is disheartening, as is the silent acquiescence of so many bishops.

  12. The “nanny church” has found a proponent in Russell Shaw? In the face of the date emerging on the character of this disease and its spread?
    Let adults make their own decisions.
    There shouldn’t be too much of a problem since mass attendance is at least half of what it should be. Given that seventy percent of “Catholics” don’t assent to the truth of the the Real Presence I don’t think we’ll be in too much danger since they have now found other satisfactions for a Saturday evening and a Sunday morning.

  13. Even before the lockdown began, a survey showed that 49 percent of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck. As of the week ending April 11, 22 million Americans had filed for unemployment in four weeks.

    Let’s consider the implications. People without a job eventually lose their health insurance. Without an income, many will find it impossible to pay mortgages, real estate taxes or (alternatively) pay rent. The $1200 government stimulus checks will help little in this regard. In March 2020 the average monthly rent for a one-room bedroom apartment in Boston was $2,683, meaning the bailout would cover rent for about 2 weeks. Of course, it’s not just mortgages and rent, it’s utilities, groceries, and other necessities.

    According to a recent study by The Ascent, 52 percent of Americans are maxed out on their credit cards, meaning they cannot even resort to credit to buy essentials. Breadlines have begun forming in America, which increasingly resembles the old Soviet Union. Meanwhile farmers who supply restaurants, schools and theme parks have been forced to throw away thousands of acres of rotting crops.

    According to the American Psychological Association—before the lockdown—the number one cause of stress in America was money problems. Imagine how much the lockdown is amplifying that. And as the quarantine forces distressed people to stay together constantly, domestic abuse cases have spiked. The New York Times reported on April 6:

    In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18 percent more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier. . . .

    On Thursday, the French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30 percent in domestic violence.1

    Calls to suicide hotlines are spiking. With jobs demolished, crime can also be expected to soar.

    The lockdown’s justification is to “protect our heath.” But if masses of people lose their health insurance and homes—becoming homeless—will the impact of that be less than COVID-19, a disease which lasts on average two weeks and that, for most people, resembles a mild to moderate case of the flu (we will amplify on this later)?

    Sure, Uncle Sam can financially “come to the rescue.” But the U.S. government is—officially—over $23 trillion in debt. There is no treasure in the Treasury, no “reserves” to hand out. Anything the government gives the people it must take from the people—either by (1) raising taxes (obviously now impossible) or (2) its favored method: borrowing money from the Federal Reserve, which increases the nation’s debt burden and, by expanding the money supply, devalues the dollar, making prices rise.

    As The Mises Institute’s editors write:

    The shutdown of the American economy by government decree should end. The lasting and far-reaching harms caused by this authoritarian precedent far outweigh those caused by the COVID-19 virus. The American people—individuals, families, businesses—must decide for themselves how and when to reopen society and return to their daily lives.

    Neither the Trump administration nor Congress has the legal authority to shut down American life absent at least baseline due process. As Judge Andrew Napolitano recently wrote, business closures, restrictions on assembly and movement, and quarantines are not constitutionally permissible under some magic “emergency” doctrine. At a minimum, the federal government must show potential imminent harm by specific infected individuals at some form of hearing or trial.

    These due process requirements are not suspended.

    That brings us to the next human implication of the lockdown:

    Destruction of Civil Liberties

    Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Thanks to the “Controlavirus,” martial law has overtaken the planet, curtailing freedom, virtually empowering governments to the point of totalitarianism. Here in America, planks in the Bill of Rights are being shredded. While these prohibitions on rights may not be permanent, they nevertheless represent an unprecedented flirtation with dictatorship.

  14. Edward Peitler:
    “At best, the batvirus is an opportunistic disease i.e. it preferentially picks off the most vulnerable who are those with lifestyle illnesses, those with serious medical conditions like cancer, and the elderly who have exceeded the average age of death.”
    Don’t you think that’s the way many infectious diseases operate?

    How many people do you know that are over 65 and/or are of Hispanic, Asian or African descent,could shed a few pounds, take high blood pressure meds or have to deal with diabetes? That’s a significant segment of the population. And it’s not just about death but about an illness that can leave even younger survivors with permanent lung damage.

    Everyone seems to come at this issue from a different view: those with or without a paycheque,restaurant & business owners, people of faith wanting access to their places of worship, people of color & the elderly who feel they are being thrown under the eugenics bus, etc.

    I don’t have the answers but it should be noted that infectious disease experts warn this may start all over again in the fall when the weather changes. Drier air allows greater spread of viruses. This could especially affect northern US locations. I hope they are wrong.

  15. Absolutely. An energetically careful & prudent effort to keep the Sacraments available to the faithful & the dying during a health crisis is only what the Church practiced in the past, that fortunately we’ve outgrown. We now know it is experts we must trust, however ridiculous their predictions have proved, & since these comprehensively dismiss any efficacy to be found in Christ’s Sacraments, we can only be grateful our current Sanhedrin defers to that view, while kindly offering us, should they ever get around to it, their far more efficacious thoughts & prayers.

  16. “At the same time, though, it’s important to realize that this is the sort of controversy in which common sense and moral reasoning are more to the point than arguments about law.” Moral reasoning?

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Dispense those who are impaired, even if by fear alone, or who are vulnerable. Wear PPE and open the doors. The Constitution IS a moral document and right now is being violated.

  17. There are more place in the United States than just New York or New Jersey. While it may be prudent to maintain the sacramental “lock down” in those places right now, I don’t think it’s right to deny the Eucharist to the faithful in, say, Wyoming or North Dakota where the situation is not the same. Am I the only one who thinks this way?

  18. We are still waiting for a vaccination against HIV for the past 20 years. Don’t hold your breath that vaccination awaits us after 18 months of this. Far better to have the masses open up with some common sense distancing and allow people’s souls to be fed. Starvation and diseases killed 1/3 of the people in Palestine at the time of Jesus according to the Roman historian, and recent archeologist. Jesus still gathered people to himself and didn’t stop preaching due to the diseases that he didn’t cure. Time to be a Christian and to preach the gospels, visit the sick, and care for one another. Those who want to stay at home can. Others should be allowed to assemble.

  19. “Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops”

    Nuff said. Small wonder the author would agree with the USCCB, who, being in a large part funded by government grants, is hardly inclined to bite the hands that feeds. When government says “jump,” bishops scream “how high!”

    Now that they convinced most faithful that church attendance is non-essential, good luck bringing the attendance back to pre-hysteria levels when the dust settles. And, as a slap to the face of all faithful, I’m wiling to bet McCarrick got to attend services through it all, unlike the rest of us…

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