Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

Surely we are not loving our neighbors by suspending ecclesial life and ecclesial missions until the state says they may be resumed.

Temporary morgues in New York City are seen May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

“Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This Jesus said to one who wished to see his father safely laid to rest, and properly mourned, before responding to the call to discipleship.

Jesus’ answer would be shockingly unacceptable to many today, as perhaps it was to the aspiring disciple in question.

Today we have seen, in a quite different sense, the dead left to bury their own dead, while people fled to safety from the coronavirus. We have even seen the dying left unshriven, deprived of last rites, because there was no one there to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. We have seen, and are still seeing, people incarcerated in their own homes while their houses of worship are shuttered. “Go home and stay home,” we are told, “so that we don’t have to bury your father.” Thus is proclaimed the kingdom of man, the gospel of the saviour state. For the state cannot overcome death, our last enemy; it plays instead to our fear of death, promising death’s postponement.

In some jurisdictions, thankfully, the most draconian measures are now being lifted. In others they are just beginning, as the state ramps up its surveillance and enforcement mechanisms. But even in the former, they are not generally being lifted from those who have that other kingdom to proclaim, the kingdom of God. New Zealand, for example, has passed its COVID-19 Public Health Response. Religious services are limited to ten people, while movie theatres are permitted one hundred. Britain is rolling out its back-to-work plans. Clergy are placed somewhere near the back of the queue with hairdressers. For the state deems religious gatherings high risk – too social, too dynamic, too intimate – and of no great importance, where not actually a threat.

Operating on the good-neighbor principle, the churches were generally quick to comply with government recommendations and orders. Many are now chafing, however, at the inequitable constraints being placed on them. Some are sending letters and petitions to the authorities, pressing them for permission to meet. Others are even beginning to defy what they consider unconstitutional bans on their meetings. Still others, however, are in no particular rush. Patience is a virtue, after all, and live-streaming from closed buildings for a while longer, perhaps a good while longer, seems not so bad.

I worry about the last of these. They make their appeal to the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And to what Jesus identified as the second Great Commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” These they have merged into a justification for the new COVID commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor by staying well away from him, lest thou pass on a virus that might kill him.” And the COVID commandment, they point out, also remains in force.

We cannot simply dismiss this reasoning, but we ought at least to query it. The fifth commandment, we should observe, forbids unauthorized (or wrongly authorized) actions intended to kill. In short, it forbids murder, which is not in question here. There is, of course, a penumbral reasoning around the fifth commandment that rightly produces many secondary applications related to respect for the Giver and gift of life. These range from not being an accessory to murder, to not depriving the poor of the means to sustain themselves, to not driving drunk, etc. And among these secondary applications is taking care not to infect people with a deadly virus.

Taking care not to infect people with a deadly virus, however, like most of the other penumbral applications, is a matter requiring prudential judgment. If we excuse ourselves from polio quarantine, say, because we have things to do and people to see, we violate both the spirit of the fifth commandment and the substance of the second Great Commandment. We are not loving our neighbor as we ought, unless perchance we are helping our neighbor get to the hospital, say, as my uncle did for my father when polio hit. But if there’s merely a nasty winter flu going around – a flu that, in combination with old age or an existing morbidity factor, might nonetheless lead to another’s death – do we cancel all our gatherings? No, we just take a little more care. We cancel only in time of pandemic; that is to say, when a virus is deadly even to healthy people and when it cannot be dealt with except by preventing social gatherings until we have seen it off.

Exceptions to pandemic regulations and their eventual lifting also require prudential judgment, because it won’t do to protect people from a deadly virus only to hand them over to poverty, famine, tyranny, war, or death by neglect. That isn’t loving the neighbor either. We can be foolish or even selfish by coming together when we shouldn’t or by not coming together when we should. Before we knew that COVID was not generally deadly to healthy people – recent studies indicate that in technologically advanced societies it has a mortality rate under 0.6 percent – and before we had systems in place for helping people to survive it if they needed help, we cancelled nearly everything. Now we are rightly beginning to reverse course, in hopes of rescuing our crumbling social and financial economies.

So what’s my worry? My worry is that those who live in jurisdictions where draconian restrictions on religious communities – restrictions difficult to justify in the first place – are not being reversed, and who are simply counseling patience with that, have allowed the COVID commandment to become the greatest commandment of all. My worry is that by their compliance they are endorsing, or will be seen to be endorsing, not the gospel of the kingdom but the gospel of the state; that they are making the priorities of the state their own, rather than the priorities of Jesus.

Let’s think a little harder about those Great Commandments. The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is, as Augustine taught, a command to love the neighbor as the creature God made him to be; that is, as “a rational soul with a body in its service.” The love directed to the body he called medicine, and the love directed to the soul he called discipline. Because the soul is greater than the body, medicine must always be in service to discipline. When we attempt to do good to the neighbor’s body at the expense of a good that requires to be done to the neighbor’s soul, we are not keeping the second Great Commandment but violating it.

Christian prudential judgment, then, cannot take the form of scrupulous regard for the body without still more scrupulous regard for the soul. The welfare of both must be taken into account, just because man is a rational animal; but there is a clear priority here, an indisputable hierarchy. What is done for the body is done for the sake of the man whose body it is. Nothing should be done for or to the body that generates real risks for or to the soul. (Still less can one do something for one’s own body at the risk of another’s soul, though there are valid exceptions to that rule.) We only love the neighbor properly, insists Augustine, when we help him learn, as we ourselves must learn, to keep the first and greatest commandment, to love the Lord God with all the heart; for this God is his God, too, whether he knows it or not. And that is why we must, in Jesus’ sense, let the dead bury their own dead and go about the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Now, I ask you: Do we do that by allowing that churches should remain shuttered, and home discipleship groups banned, and charity work forbidden, while people go to malls and theatres and restaurants? Do we do that by practicing the kind of generosity that allows the state to dictate the terms on which the Church fulfills – or does not fulfill – its own mission, the terms on which it carries out – or does not carry out – its own ambassadorial mandate from its Lord and God?

In “Easter without Mass” I asked on what grounds, what properly ecclesial grounds, the Eucharist is celebrated but the faithful barred from attending. I have seen only three answers. The first is precedent, which begs the question. The second is that of Cardinal Mueller: there are in fact no grounds. The third is this appeal to “Love thy neighbor.” But surely we are not loving our neighbors by suspending ecclesial life and ecclesial missions until the state says they may be resumed. Given the way many states are going about this – or rather not going about it – we are simply confirming to our neighbors, and to ourselves, that the Church is largely irrelevant to public life and to the common good; that it operates with the same motives and fears as everyone else; that it reads the second Great Commandment, not in light of the first, but without reference to the first; that it requires no properly ecclesial grounds for its actions; that it has other gods to direct it.

Am I calling for civil disobedience, then? Am I siding with those prepared to practice it? Yes I am, if and where that becomes necessary. Am I saying that prudence may now be set aside, either in matters of health or in matters of law, in determining whether it is necessary? Of course not. I am urging bishops and pastors and lay leaders, if they are not already doing so, to make clear to civil authorities that, in the matter of their own ecclesial mission, they cannot and will not accept being sent to the back of the queue. They can do without a haircut and without the movie theatre, for that matter. But they can’t do without the freedom to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and tend to their flocks.

But here a word to fellow sheep from those still-scattered flocks: A good case can be made that our sacramental life is suffering, and our neighborhood missions too, not merely because of the coronavirus and heavy-handed official responses to it, conceded by timid shepherds. Perhaps, on a much deeper level, we are being permitted by God to suffer these things because we have abused the gifts and the mandate entrusted to us laity. Perhaps our Lord is pointing out to us that we have not been loving our neighbors as ourselves, that we haven’t cared much for their souls or made any great effort to inculcate in them the love and gratitude to God that the first and greatest commandment requires. Perhaps we are being asked to consider whether we ourselves have been quite content to live in a putatively “secular” society, a society in which it is convenient to go little further in the love of neighbor than the false compassion expected of us there. Perhaps the Good Shepherd himself is rebuking us, through the state and through leaders inclined to defer too readily to the state, for our own failure to think and act on the basis of the first Great Commandment.

Easter is well behind us. The Solemnity of the Ascension approaches, and then very quickly Pentecost. Will there be a gathered church to celebrate these great feasts? What witness will we give to the nations respecting the one who sits at God’s right hand? What signs of the power of his Spirit? What messages will we ourselves be given from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven candlesticks,” discerning hearts and weighing deeds?

Are we listening? Have we ears to hear? Or are we merely sheltering in place, in a quite private upper room where the doors remain closed, like the tomb of Jesus, by order of the state? If so, our neighbors may be forgiven for supposing that we fear the state, rather than God, and that we prefer our pre-Pentecost condition. Let prudence speak as prudence must, where both the virus and the state are concerned, but only that prudence infused by the love of God that casts out fear.


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About Dr. Douglas Farrow 10 Articles
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018).

14 Comments

  1. “Perhaps, on a much deeper level, we are being permitted by God to suffer these things because we have abused the gifts and the mandate entrusted to us laity. Perhaps our Lord is pointing out to us that we have not been loving our neighbors as ourselves, that we haven’t cared much for their souls or made any great effort to inculcate in them the love and gratitude to God …” And, maybe, God has permitted this pandemic because we have abused that most sacred gift of all: the Holy Eucharist. Maybe He has been offended by our lukewarmness, our ingratitude and our indifference in strolling up the aisle, refusing to take time for any meaningful prayer of thanksgiving and for an utter lack of preparation to receive His Body and Blood. Maybe, before we go back to our Masses, we need to dig deep into our own hearts to prepare for Him, to welcome Him and then to adore Him lovingly after we receive Him.

  2. For the state deems religious gatherings high risk – too social, too dynamic, too intimate – and of no great importance, where not actually a threat (Dr Farrow). Agreed in principle, not in fact. In principle for reason given in fact due to the extraordinary physical medical profile of active Catholic priests in America. Two surveys, Florida State 2016, USCCB 2018 are in virtual agreement that the average age by 2019 will be at least 50% 70 years or older [FSU] 90% over 60 [USCCB Survey of Ordinands USCCB 2018]. Today a year beyond it’s higher. Where I’m located W NYS I can vouch for these statistics. Furthermore, at least half present an underlying medical condition. Each diocese has its own peculiar conditions for example NYC the Archdiocesan seat is densely populated, whereas in W NYS not quite. Bishops have one commodity that is not expendable, except during emergency and most dioceses have a proviso. NYC has a team of young priests to visit, anoint the sick and dying in Med enters. Here there are no healthy young priests. Although we hear confessions per request and anoint when practicable [we can’t trespass quarantines]. The large majority then are high risk category as were priests in N Italy where losses were catastrophic. Replacements from Nigeria, Mexico for example are under restriction during the pandemic. Some dioceses [Tyler TX is one] have begun offering Mass with parishioners following ‘applicable’ CDC guidelines. I’m confidant most priests are willing to take the risk and accept death for sake of Christ and the faithful. Essentially my point is that bishops are not cowardly, rather because of our hands on service to the faithful, the virulent transmission and deadly effect for those in high risk category they must act with greater prudence than virtually all other service related communities. There is no satisfaction for virtual live stream participation except as a temporary devise. Most clergy and parishioners yearn for a fully active Church, an apparent positive development as compared to previous lukewarmness. Given time that will occur and likely with greater participation.

  3. ” …recent studies indicate that in technologically advanced societies it has a mortality rate under 0.6 percent – and before we had systems in place for helping people to survive it if they needed help, we cancelled nearly everything.”
    *******

    I’m not sure we’ll know the actual mortality rate for some time but I do agree that we know more about which populations are most vulnerable to the virus & it’s time to reexamine quarantine policies.

    I wish folks could resist making this into a political/philosophical narrative. Conservatives seem to selectively embrace opinions from anyone with an MD after their name, whether or not that person has any expertise in infectious disease. The only qualification appears to be whether a medical source agrees with their desires to open up the economy.

    Friends & family have sent me YouTube videos featuring Covid opinions from a Hoover Institute radiologist & 2 “Doc in the Box” clinic owners.
    Maybe those folks are correct in their observations. I don’t know, but I do know that everyone out there seems to have competing data & narratives & we need to be extremely cautious.

    This virus isn’t smallpox or the Black Death but the mortality rates reflect the quarantines enacted, plus the epidemic started at the tail end of the cold/flu season. We don’t know what will happen in the fall when the weather changes or what the mortality rates will look like then. Please God, we’ll be in better shape in December than we were in April but it’s prudent listen to real epidemiologists & look at past epidemic history in the meantime.

    • mrscracker,
      I completely agree with you about being saddened by people making this political: it shouldn’t be.

      I disagree with you that this comes evenly from both sides or mostly from conservatives. What I’ve noticed is that liberals tend to focus exclusively on death and illness without reference to other factors. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to compare the viral wreckage against the social wreckage of poverty, depression, and abuse. The liberal approach is inherently biased: the conservative approach is reasoned and can lead to a variety of opinion.

      • Steve,
        Thank you for your comments. I think both sides are being driven by an election year narrative. I tend to veer more to the conservative narrative but in either case we should be listening to science and examining history. It’s very dangerous when we mix public health and politics. Of course, poverty and unemployment are bad for global health also.

  4. “It isn’t only fevers, potions and great accidents that upset our judgement; The slightest things in the world spin it around…” – Cicero. The cast of players and background scenery of the set are different but the play itself has not changed. This is why the beautiful teachings of Jesus Christ are comforting no matter what the historical context or circumstance.

  5. Glad to have come across these beautiful meditations too , on the title verse of the article – https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/view.cfm?recnum=3410

    Along with the many efforts in many places and persons to show ( ? reparative ) reverence for the gift of life , the wisdom given us , in the technology such as the amazing effects reported from the use of Far U V light ( mostly only UV C light in air purification in use now ) also sound promising enough – articles on line and might help much , to bring back things to near normal in the near enough future .

    Far U.V light – such as through the cleaning healing rays of The Spirit, may same flow into all aspects of all our lives , to help see every human life , as ensouled holiness in The Son , to accept in warm gratitude His holiness always , to live in fidelity to same .

    Blessings !

  6. Three errors unfortunately typical of many conservative Christians right now:

    1) That the virus is not a major concern because it does not afflict the healthy and most restrictions are therefore unjustified. For anyone who professes to be pro-life or Christian, this is a shocking attitude.

    Defining a pandemic as “when a virus is deadly even to healthy people” is not an accepted definition anywhere. Dr. Farrow also grossly overstates the worst of the restrictions by suggesting that people are “incarcerated in their own homes”, and he doesn’t distinguish between living in “fear of death” and practicing good judgement.

    R.R. Reno of First Things opened a recent piece ((https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/coronavirus-reality-check) with: “The coronavirus pandemic is not and never was a threat to society. COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised.” Consider a parallel statement: “Abortion is not and never was a threat to society. It poses a danger to the unborn.” Or: “Poverty is not and never was a threat to society. It poses a danger to the disadvantaged.”

    Yes, abortion is a deliberate act, but a true pro-life/Christian ethos is concern for all, and ESPECIALLY the vulnerable. I have a moral responsibility to not deliberately create conditions that have a reasonable possibility of resulting in the death of another. Yes, elderly are and will continue to die from this. My attitude can’t be, ‘oh well’, ‘c’est la vie’, but rather, what can I reasonably do to mitigate their deaths.

    The same R.R. Reno ‘confessed’ (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/05/coronavirus-diary-new-york-may-12) to visiting a NY hospital when visitors weren’t allowed and to subsequently testing positive for CoViD antibodies: how many people did he potentially asymptomatically infect with his cavalier attitude? He boasts that he has access to an ‘underground church’ where he can attend Mass (only possible because he is privileged) and advertises that he is seeking others with whom he can violate civil rules. He recently took down his Twitter account after an ill-advised screed against mask-wearing as an affront to personal freedom and evidence of cowardliness. This from the editor of an important publication that it is now difficult to respect.

    2) That the state is out to get religion. This fear is rooted in too many years of culture wars. We are NOT being persecuted, and it is an affront to the many Christians who are to suggest otherwise.

    Are some in the state dismissive of religion? Certainly. But churches aren’t ‘closed’, you are still allow to pray, you can gather with your household and pray, and you can communicate with others about your faith. In Ontario as part of its phase 1 reopening, drive-in services, with strict conditions, are now permitted. Yes, typical worship has been restricted, but for good reason because it normally checks all four boxes for higher risk of transmission: 1) intimate, 2) stationary 3) expression in an 4) enclosed space. Some of the qualities that make church services so appealing also unfortunately make them dangerous right now. Being in a store, ideally wearing a mask, only involves one risk factor – being in an enclosed space. Attending a movie theatre only adds one additional risk factor – being stationary.

    Opening Wal-Mart but not the church is not evidence of a preference for the economy over religion. Other intimate, mass gatherings, like concerts and sporting events, are also restricted. The state should not restrict religious worship but it can, for a legitimate reason, restrict mass gatherings that include religious worship. Not recognizing that our restrictions are not unique to us makes us look foolish. We need to be careful in criticizing the state, and its officials who enforce its rules – unreasonable demands now will undermine our ability to make reasonable demands later. The church demonstrates its relevance to society not by insisting on its rights but by being at the forefront of addressing the need, for example by finding ways to volunteer – maybe even encouraging our healthy young adults to work in care homes that are short of staff. We can be good disciples even if we aren’t attending services – Christians have found ways to do this throughout history.

    3) That worship can be adapted to meet health requirements. Most churches don’t have the space to allow for adequate physical distancing so either additional services would be necessary or some people would have to be excluded; singing would require additional spacing (see https://www.oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/what-covid-19-means-for-singing-in-church); common touch services like railings, elevators, and washrooms would have either to be restricted or constantly disinfected; those at higher risk, including almost all our elderly, would have to be encouraged to stay away, and maybe even forced to; and socialization after worship would have to be restricted or properly managed, something that is almost impossible with younger children. For a more detailed consideration, see https://kenbraddy.com/2020/04/18/20-questions-your-church-should-answer-before-people-return.

    The sacraments are gifts that God has given us, but He is not restricted to them. Let us not create idols out of them. Let us instead become more attuned to other ways that God’s grace is available to us – in a stronger prayer life, in nature, in our relationships with others. Accept this as a time of penance, a painful time to learn that God is with us no matter what and His grace will always find a way to be sufficient. And let’s be thankful that we have modern technology to help us – with live streaming, recorded services and talks, video and/or audio conversations with other believers, and the ability to listen to beautiful music anywhere.

    The Orthodox bishop of a monastery that suffered from not taking precautions wrote: “We have to have understanding, patience, and humility. Well, and most importantly, repentance. We, my friends, have become very spoiled lately; we have forgotten about the living God, replacing Him with frequent Communion, feasts and pleasant fasts, rites, cross processions, and pilgrimages. This is all of course very good, but what is the aim? The aim is our salvation. So now the Lord has turned us back to that one and only aim toward which we should be striving.” (https://orthochristian.com/130763.html – the full account of what he wrote is disconcerting; for a good analysis, see https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/russian-bishops-covid-19-advice).

    Worship is about bringing the community together. Someone not going because they are sick is much different than telling someone not to go because they might get sick. An assembly purposely of healthy people (no elderly, no immunosuppressed, no hard-to-control children) is not church. Yes, we are all suffering, but how awful would it be to be granted the privilege of worship while others are excluded. Worship would, or should, then not be a reason for rejoicing but rather for mourning those who are not present and may, in fact, be suffering more knowing that worship can go ahead without them. We are all in this together by not being together right now. For an example of a church that understands this, see St. Maurice in Ottawa (https://youtu.be/DbryLaBMELE – starting at 1:40, and especially from 2:52 to 4:07).

    Until we are confident that our elderly are at minimal risk of being infected, I will gladly suffer without church services. My prayer at church will not be peaceful anyway, and no amount of grace that may come from being at church will overcome the sadness of discovering this grace was received in a context that led to the death of another (for unfortunate examples, see https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/mobile/i-would-do-anything-for-a-do-over-calgary-church-hopes-others-learn-from-their-tragic-covid-19-experience-1.4933461 and https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-monastery-in-ukraine-once-scoffed-at-coronavirus-measures-now-it-is-a-hot-spot/2020/04/16/265eef7e-7fdd-11ea-84c2-0792d8591911_story.html). It is self-righteous to think that my how I work out my salvation is so important that it should involve taking risks that unreasonably affect others.

    • Harold Visser ,
      Thank you for bringing up some of those points. The “medically compromised” makes up a boatload of people. How many folks do you know who may suffer from diabetes or take hypertension medications but are successfully managing their illness & would generally look forward to living decades longer?

      I know of 3 local Covid victims in their 30’s. One was my son’s coworker, a married father of 2.
      Another man in our community died at 41 & left behind six children. Diabetes shouldn’t be a death sentence nor those who suffer from it seen as expendable.

      I think we can all get into trouble on this issue because we have such strong feelings about worship, freedoms, protecting our health & the health of others, etc. We need to exercise charity in speech.

      I do think the quarantine efforts at this point need to be reexamined. They may have been appropriate early on when experts forecasted 1-2 million deaths but we can’t possible go on this way forever. We also need to find the best ways to protect & identify those at most risk because epidemics have a history of returning when the weather changes & we should be prepared.

  7. Harold Visser ,
    PS, I think you are being a bit hard on Mr. Reno. I may disagree with the wisdom of his choices but I shouldn’t assume he was acting out of privilege.

    • It’s rather curious to me, as I don’t recall Mr. Reno writing this particular essay. Perhaps Mr. Visser would consider engaging with Mr. Farrow’s essay?

  8. As a Catholic I have no quarrel with any State for imposing communal lockdowns as a necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown has in no way diminished my faith, rather it has strengthened it. Now I know I have to build the Church from my home. In other words my family is now a building block for the church as we perform permissible liturgy together. Our Lord Jesus Christ also taught us patience with the State, when he paid State imposed tax. We need to exercise this patience, while praying for a quick decay of the pandemic. There is no point whipping up religious fervour against the State, which also trying to undertake the constituted responsibility of fending for the utmost welfare of the people – even if it is physical welfare.

  9. In considering prudential judgments around resuming the celebration of public Mass, I found this reflection helpful, from which I quote: “One can certainly debate the scientific warrant of a quarantine, its effectiveness in a given region or country, its proportionate value in the face of its economic consequences, and its psychological effects on citizens. Still, in principle, the state may legitimately request Catholic Christians to undertake such a quarantine, in accord with the natural law. There is nothing illegitimate about such a request, if it falls within certain parameters of temporary and just use, nor is it historically unprecedented.” — https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/04/62877/

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