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After Trump call to reopen churches, Catholic doctor says it can be done safely

By Michelle La Rosa for CNA

(Image: Andrew Dong | Unsplash.com)

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- While President Donald Trump’s May 22 call to reopen churches has become a source of national controversy, a group of Catholic doctors has offered a plan that could expedite that process.

“I think that if we just use common sense to compare apples to apples for metrics that we know matter – like density, for example – then there’s no real kind of objective scientific reason why Mass is any more dangerous than going to the grocery store. I think the difference here is a perceived risk,” said Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Wang said that while it is impossible to eliminate all risk, there are steps that churches can take to prudently reopen for Mass and Confession.

“If we have best practice for the hospital, for Home Depot, for Chick-fil-A, then why not have best practices for Mass? It just seems like it would follow naturally,” he told CNA.

Wang is one of seven Catholic doctors who released a document entitled “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely.”

The road map says that the sacraments are essential for Catholics, and argues that “churches can operate as safely as other essential services,” as long as care is taken to form and follow careful plans.

Safety protocols should be created with the help of medical experts and may need to be adjusted over time, it says, to reflect the changing realities and medical recommendations in a given area.

The document calls for Mass to be held with social distancing and the use of masks and hand sanitizer. Singing should be avoided, and those who are ill or believe they may have been exposed to the virus should stay home, it says.

It calls for confessions to be held in outdoor or well-ventilated indoor areas, with the use of masks, an impermeable barrier between the priest and penitent, and frequent sanitization of surfaces.

As the novel coronavirus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would, at his direction, be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential,” although a source familiar with the deliberations told CNA that the label is not an official designation by the administration.

Trump’s announcement comes after the CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier this month. On May 7, however, the AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.

Critics of the decision have argued that church gatherings could result in additional outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has led to more than 93,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

However, Wang said that he thinks careful guidelines can aid in efforts to prudently reopen churches. He told CNA that he finds Trump’s announcement “very encouraging.”

“I think those of us who are Catholic would probably view attending Mass as essential,” he commented.

The guidelines laid out in the “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely” are the fruit of careful consideration, he said. They address the major points that are currently known about the transmission of the coronavirus.

In implementing the guidelines, he said, parishes will need to take local context into account. For example, a large suburban church with a sizable parking lot may be able to hold an outdoor Mass, while an urban church may find it more difficult to do so.

He also noted that the road map is “a document made by doctors, not by liturgists, so the considerations are really purely medical” and may need to be adapted as deemed appropriate by Church authorities.

In developing the document, Wang said, “what we spent the lion share of our time on was the Eucharist, because that is a bit of special case that the grocery store or Walmart may not have.”

“The moment where you take the host, that presented really a special challenge…This was discussed at length, so that we all had a consensus on what would be safest practices for that particular moment.”

Ultimately, the group of doctors concluded that the safest recommendation is to receive communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.

Wang referenced a recent study showing it is much easier to pick up the virus from saliva than a nasal swab.

While full information about the risk remains unknown, he said, “receiving on the tongue in this case, with this particular virus, may present higher risk” than reception in the hand.

Although he acknowledged that some people may object to this, Wang said that in his perspective, “it boils down to, is it better to not have communion at all – and by extension not have Mass at all?”

He added that the document’s guidelines are recommendations, but that priests and bishops can do as they see fit.

Wang also addressed the concern that HVAC systems may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, moving contaminated air particles around even if people are spaced out within a church.

Outdoor Mass would be ideal at addressing this particular concern, he said, but it may not be logistically feasible at all parishes.

Still, he said, after a lengthy discussion, “our assessment of the literature was that it was not entirely clear that the circulation of air was necessarily something that would be limiting.” He noted that grocery stories, research labs, and other indoor facilities would also be similarly problematic if HVAC systems played a significant role in spreading the virus.

Ultimately, Wang said, going to church at this time is not risk-free, just as any other public activity is not without risk during a pandemic. He noted that dioceses throughout the country have granted dispensations from the Sunday obligation for those who are unable to attend or are not comfortable with the risk involved.

However, he believes that if churches act prudently, they can implement guidelines to minimize risk, while making the sacraments available to the people of God.

“It just boils down to one of the oldest institutions on earth having some kind of best practices, guidelines, for how one might do this as safely as is possible, based on what we currently know about COVID,” he said.


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13 Comments

  1. Good to hear of this ; unsure if most HVAC systems have atleast the Hepa filters in place , thus turning on the fan in same even when no need for cooling/ heating to help lessen the viral loading in the air .
    The available UV – C lights in the HVAC systems ( while waiting for availability of the reportedly far more powerful and benign Far U.V light systems ) to also help in inactivation of the infectious agents .

    Use of larger capacity /smaller air cleaner machines instead of HVAC ,depending on needs might be a preferable alternative for many , again to hopefully decrease the viral loading in the air as well as to decrease allergy symptoms that can mimic the virus .
    A few more added reminders often enough , on dietary influences , such as less sugars , more greens, vegetable , turmeric etc : too can help , even if persons in authority are limited by the knots of laws and rules from bringing up same officially , yet things such as more Magnesium as various supplements to correct the widely prevalent low Magnesium levels leading to Vit D being not as effective and even use of baking soda, such as for warm compresses for nasal congestion and gargles etc : , the thankfully accepted , prevalent use of Zinc , Vit C etc too would be ways to improve overall health .
    The spiritual benefits of true worship, in Spirit and truth , to also cleanse and heal the wounded hearts and minds – thank God that those in authority such as the Pres. too seeing their responsibilty in love , to recommend same .

  2. I personally have no problem receiving the Eucharist in my hand or on my tongue. As a matter of faith, I strongly believe, that I am receiving the body of Christ. As such, I can not, in any way believe, that Jesus’s Body and/or Blood can be contaminated by any germ or poison and even if it could be, by human malice and hate or even or Satan’s disciples of darkness, that I and/or anyone who receives the purposely contaminated Bread or Wine, in Faith, Love and/or Trust in Jesus’s true Presence, would be protected from bodily or any physical harm, by Jesus and/or one’s Guardian Angel, acting in concert with and for Jesus. This is not rocket science, brain surgery or a spiritual heavy lift. Just true faith in action. “Let Go and Let God” guide us safely through Satan’s daily assaults. Just let God drive the bus and enjoy the ride. Peace, Bob Fallon

    • I am reminded of the people at the baths at Lourdes who, as a way to show their faith, drink some of the water from the bath.

    • The presence of Christ is in the substance of the Eucharist, not the accidents of the consecrated bread and wine. The accidents retain the exact same physical properties that they had prior to consecration: appearance, taste, molecular structure, etc. Yes, even the susceptibility to being contaminated with a virus is retained by the accidents of the sacramental species. If you believe that a virus could not contaminate the accidents of the Eucharistic species, then you do not understand Catholic Eucharistic theology. Drink enough consecrated wine and you will get inebriated. Consume an infected host, and you might get infected.

      • Hi Douglas, You got me on the physical properties of bread and wine as opposed to the Spiritual substance. I know nothing of nor, do I understand “Catholic Eucharistic Theology”. I would believe, that studies therein, are the end products of very learned and well researched findings of those, who developed and directed and introduced the the studies. As such, I have no conflicts with their findings and studies. As such, I am not saying that the bread and/or wine in its natural state, could not be poisoned or contaminated. I am saying, that from my faith based belief, that upon the action of the Priest, Bishop, Cardinal or Pope, Jesus, enters, by Transubstantiation into and changes the physical bodies of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. As such, I further, believe, that Body and Blood, no longer retains any Poison, Germ or other contamination. I further believe, that in its spiritual state of Jesus’s Body and Blood, it may be consumed, without any ill or deadly effects. A serious leap of Faith for some. I am fully cognizant of the legal ramifications introduced by our secular, anti-Catholic, atheistic, “suing society”, hate driven predators could cause our Eucharistic Ministers, Deacons, Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and Holy Father. As such, I understand their reluctance to allow the use of the Cup, during the flu and cold season. There’s a lot of hate out there and less than honorable bottom feeders, looking to enrich themselves and fill their wallets, with our Church’s hard earned money. That being said, I accept your beliefs, knowledge and suggestions, but I will also, live by my faith driven beliefs. Peace, Bob Fallon

  3. No one mentions the critical process that must be considered for the elderly in attendance. They are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, especially seniors with underlying issues.

    • People actually already know all about that. We can trust people of faith to take the necessary precautions in restarting their religious services. If people are particularly vulnerable, they should stay home.

    • morgan,
      Unless your diocese is an outlier, those over 65 already have a dispensation from attendance at Mass.
      No one is forcing older vulnerable people to attend Church before they feel it’s safe. There are a multitude of televised services and Masses available. I hope you were able to locate one today.
      🙂

      • Mrs… regardless that the churches “may be ready”, I suggest, when no mention is made or directions not noted for the elderly I know more caution needs to be taken. Moreover, some poor souls may wish to return and have no instructions. We must be proactive before any life is lost. The USA has a Coronavirus pandemic that has taken nearly 100,000 lives. Please, no more!

  4. I liked this paragraph: “He also noted that the road map is ‘a document made by doctors, not by liturgists, so the considerations are really purely medical’ and may need to be adapted as deemed appropriate by Church authorities.”

    I’m happy to hear Catholic doctors offer their medical recommendations, but they need to be tempered by input from liturgists, priests, and concerned laity as well. That sort of “temperament” is what has been sorely lacking since the end of February, where the medical “experts” have been calling all the shots and ignoring over all other considerations.

  5. “Preferably, younger priests and/or young eucharistic ministers(sic) in good health should distribute communion.” Bullet point 3, Safest Practices for Attending Mass, ROAD MAP TO Re-Opening Our Catholic Churches Safely

    Six “learned” self-proclaimed Catholic doctors and apparently not a single one of them has ever read Redemptionis Sacramentum which unambiguously explains that only a validly ordained Priest may be referred to as a “Eucharistic Minister”. The poorly catechized are, sadly, everywhere.

  6. morganb,
    Good evening!
    I share your safety concerns but from the Masses I’ve watched online it looks like parishes are being quite careful. Much more so than I see at other gatherings or public places. I saw very few older folks at our cathedral’s Mass when I watched it on YouTube this past Sunday. Mostly younger families were attending and every other row of pews was empty with one family per pew.
    Worship is essential and I believe it can be done safely. Those most vulnerable may need to watch from home for now.
    The elderly folks and those with health issues I’ve spoken to seem to understand the guidelines but I’d agree that message needs repeating.
    You have a blessed night!

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