“Of all the sad and surreal things to happen in the past few months,” writes Mary Wakefield in The Spectator, “the Catholic church’s decision to abandon the dying was, for me, the worst.” Wakefield goes on to explain just how incompatible she finds the COVID-related actions of Catholic and Anglican prelates with the sacramental faith they profess to hold. The money quote comes at the end of this paragraph:
On 5 April, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a statement entitled ‘Revised Hospital Chaplaincy Advice’, which after a paragraph of prevarication produced one clear sentence: ‘Priests and chaplains must follow the visiting instructions from hospital and trust authorities.’ Given that the visiting instructions in hospitals were not to visit at all, this, for the most part, put paid to anointing of the sick (or extreme unction), the sacrament that we’re told has the effect of uniting the sick person with Christ, giving them the strength, peace and courage to endure suffering, forgiving their sins and preparing them for eternal life. Priests can offer telephone support instead, said the bishops. Always good to chat when you’re on a ventilator.
I read Wakefield’s commentary shortly after reading a story from Guam about a hospital security guard fired from his job for bringing in a priest to minister to a dying woman. The hospital had forbidden such visits, but the man put the obligations of faith and the deepest needs of the patient ahead of his obligation to his employer. The first priest he contacted preferred to pass by on the other side, so to say, and would not violate hospital rules. Fortunately another was found, who came to administer the last rites. The man himself was not so fortunate. It was his last week on the job.
It is more shocking that bishops think pastoral visits to the dying inessential than that hospital administrators do. Yet the apathy and even the animosity of secular authorities to the practice of Christianity is not to be overlooked either, or the fact that some are taking advantage of the health crisis in order to display it. Churches are not only regarded as providing no essential service, they are not even treated on a par with other non-essential services. Nor, it seems, can they be confident of relief from the courts. The United States Supreme Court, for example, recently turned a blind eye to the State of Nevada’s discrimination against churches in the Calvary Chapel case. While Justice Gorsuch wrote in dissent that ”there is no world in which the constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” it seems that there is indeed such a world. And to make things worse, there are, as Wakefield points out, Christian leaders who seem oddly content with it.
In Let the Dead Bury their Dead I criticized those leaders, critiquing what I called the COVID commandment, which manages to turn “love thy neighbour” into “avoid thy neighbour, lest thou make him sick (or he thee).” I want now to take that criticism further, directing it to what I will call the health-first heresy.
Anatomy of a heresy
The health-first heresy seems to have broken out quite spontaneously with COVID itself. It required no heresiarch to cultivate it other than the human fear of suffering and death. Its tell-tale mark is the claim, implicit or explicit, that care for the body trumps care for the soul. A correlative feature, scarcely less visible, is the Rousseauian thesis that the body belongs to the state and is ruled by the state, which will decide for everyone what can and cannot be done in the body – even to the determination of the availability or unavailability of Christian sacraments.
Even in the Church, this deeply disordered anthropology and political philosophy has begun to supplant the truth, which is that the body ought to be ruled by the soul and the soul by God. Here care for the body, whether one’s own body or the body of one’s neighbor, should always have care of the soul as its proper end. It is inconceivable that the former care should be determined independently of the latter. What makes Christian charity Christian is not simply that it is done in love, but that it is done also for love. The body is loved for the sake of the soul, which exists to love and enjoy God. The body follows the soul to just that end. Hence “glorify God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:20) is the rule of thumb, both in life and in death. It is also a rule of the Mass and of all the sacraments, by means of which the soul communes with its Lord in and through the body.
But might care of the body, as many now contend, sometimes require suspension of the Mass, of the public ministry of word and sacrament, of the common prayer through which the soul is nourished and cared for and the Church itself maintained? I don’t mean a temporary, ad hoc suspension, which can occur for any number of reasons: incapacity or incarceration of the requisite ministers, want of a viable meeting place, the ravages of war or deadly pestilence, for example; just as such things may prevent individuals from attending Mass, they may on rare occasions prevent whole communities from holding Mass. I mean rather a general and indefinite suspension of Mass for fear of bringing on some such disaster, which is what fear of the coronavirus has produced in many places and (despite mounting evidence that it is not the deadly pestilence it was cracked up to be) is still producing even now.
The answer is No. A general and indefinite suspension of Mass for preventive purposes is a triumph of the health-first heresy, where “health” means merely physical security and “first” means that care for the body is no longer directed to care for the soul but prioritized over it. I call this a heresy (using that word informally) for two reasons.
First, because it is a denial of the Christian doctrine of man, which insists not only that man is a rational animal who may know something of God, but also that this animal is ultimately a eucharistic animal. Humans are called in Adam, in Abraham, and finally in Jesus Christ, to present themselves together with all the saints in the presence of God, to offer thanks before God and to behold his glory. This is their “reasonable service” and indeed their raison d’être (see Romans 1–12 and the letter to the Hebrews). The goals of disease prevention cannot be prioritized over this corporate act of worship without standing man, and the entire cosmos, on its head. Communion can be brought to the sick rather than the sick to communion, yes; but the corporate act of communion cannot, as a matter of course, be denied to the healthy or confined to the clergy (whether in camera or on camera) without upending the Christian view of man and the world.
Second, because prioritizing disease-prevention over corporate worship of God is no different in principle than prioritizing persecution-prevention over corporate worship of God. This point is more controversial and will require more elaboration, but first a word about neighbor love.
Who is my neighbor?
Who is my neighbor? It is tempting to reply that it’s rather difficult to tell these days, since he’s likely wearing a mask. If he’s not wearing a mask, one is advised to cross the road and pass by on the other side. And if perchance he is seen disembarking from a car with an out-of-state plate, well, he’s definitely not a neighbor and shouldn’t be on the road at all. He should just stay home, like everybody else!
Is this not how we have begun to think? We don’t think like the good Samaritan in the parable by which Jesus answered the question. For, truth be told, health first really means me first. The neighbor now appears, if he appears at all, in the role rather of the thief or ruffian who, by his carelessness if not his callousness, might steal my health and leave me in a ditch.
Now, perhaps on the whole it is not quite so bad as that. But honesty compels us to admit that loving the neighbor through lockdowns – complete with suspension of public worship, wherein he is no longer merely a neighbor but a brother in Christ – is neither a good way to serve his soul nor even a good way to serve his body. For we can’t weigh the latter service without considering the principle of proportionality, which the general lockdown is violating by generating serious political, economic, medical, and psychological harms. Though these may not be much noticed by the privileged, at least not for the moment, they are devastating to the poor and needy, especially in countries to the south of us where so many live hand to mouth, completely dependent on the day’s meagre wages.
In these harms, including the extended-care débâcle here at home and our rising rates of suicide, we wealthy and comfortable Christians are complicit by reason of our ready cooperation both with panicking politicians and with Canute-like health authorities, who (having missed King Canute’s lesson) are possessed of the fancy that they can control the ebb and flow of viral tides by issuing draconian stay-at-home orders. Cynical shutdown opportunists have taken advantage of those orders – orders conducive to cycles of poverty and despair, and increased dependence on the state, while saving very few from premature death – to increase their leverage over citizens and states alike. The political and economic consequences remain difficult to calculate. But given the certainty of more severe trials to come, we must assume that they will be considerable.
Our cooperation, which involves cancellation of many of our own charitable activities, helps to legitimize all this. It does absolutely nothing, on the other hand, to challenge our society’s misplaced priorities, its criminal neglect of the elderly, and its grotesque culture of death. Abortion and euthanasia remain “essential services” while public worship of Almighty God is deemed inessential and indeed undesirable? Surely this “neighborly” generosity of ours has only strengthened the hands of those who hate us, and who secretly despise the weak and the vulnerable! Is that not what happens when we lose track of first principles, and of doxology as the principium principiorum? For it is the love and praise of God that produces love of neighbor, not the other way round.
Obeying God by obeying man?
Let us turn to the second and more controversial point. It is not only said that the suspension of public worship, in which God is openly adored, can be justified on the basis of neighbor-love and good citizenship. It is also said that our motivation for cooperating thus with the state, just because it is medical as well as political, exonerates us from any charge that we prefer to obey man rather than God. God instructs us to meet together in his Name, to be sure, for the most holy sacrifice of the Mass. But has God not instructed us also to respect human authority, which in its pursuit of the common good rightly considers health and safety regulations to fall within its remit and, at least to that extent, the oversight of public gatherings? Where word and sacrament are suspended simply because the authorities disapprove of them, that is preferring to obey man rather than God. Where they are suspended in keeping with public health orders, however, God is being obeyed by way of legitimate obedience to man.
This too is false, however. Not because facts on the ground (as I intimated in the opening section of this essay) increasingly demonstrate that the distinction may be a mere nicety, a distinction without a difference. That might render it false here, but not there. No, it is false everywhere because nothing that falls within the proper remit of secular authorities touches the basic obligation of man to worship God or the libertas ecclesiae by which Christ is honored and proclaimed in the Holy Eucharist. The Church itself cannot touch this obligation but is duty-bound to carry it out. Surely we do not need the pastors of Calvary Chapel or of Grace Community Church to remind us of that which is always right and just, always fitting and our bounden duty? And “the Church,” as already observed, does not mean its clergy only, or its clergy for its laity. Away with such clericalism, which the Second Vatican Council rightly rebuked in all four of its major constitutions!
I say again: Indefinite suspension of its sacramental life is never a legitimate option for the Church, any more than an indefinite fast from food and water is an option for the human body, the diktats of secular authorities notwithstanding. We must expect such diktats from time to time. They have been with us from the beginning (Acts 5:28) and will be with us to the end. Indeed, at the end of the age word and sacrament will first be corrupted, when the man of lawlessness sits in templo Dei (2 Thess. 2:4), then universally forbidden. Why? For the same reason that has led to their corruption or suppression from time to time during the age: because they are the basic means by which the life of the Church is sustained, and therefore a target of those who take offense at the Church or wish to subdue her. That these means should sometimes be withdrawn indefinitely from individuals by the Church’s severe mercy (that is, in excommunication) makes sense. That they should be withdrawn from the Church itself, from the faithful, makes no sense at all, save to the godless state and to those who harbor animosity toward the Church.
In a wartime blackout the faithful may have to get to and from church without lights, and celebrate Mass in the crypt. In a pandemic it may have to hold Masses outdoors, or with various other burdensome adjustments. But if the task of publicly proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments can legitimately be declined or prohibited, the Church has been divided against itself in the most fundamental of ways. How then will it stand? If, to help stave off the risks of our common mortality, the Church agrees to withhold the medicine of immortality to which it alone has access, what is to prevent it from finding a whole series of reasons – all decided, no doubt, in the public interest – for maintaining that posture just a little longer or for taking it up again? The health-first heresy, let it be said, has many sisters. It belongs to a large tribe of pressing public-interest claims. But shall the Church, at the behest of one or another of that tribe, take direction from the state in so high a matter as the holding of Mass or the conduct of other sacraments? No! It must everywhere and always insist on the right to make its own judgments and to do what God has asked of it. Otherwise it shares in the mystery of lawlessness, which Paul tells us is already at work (2 Thess. 2:7).
Getting the church/state dialectic right
From a Catholic perspective, the Rev. John MacArthur and the pastors of Grace Community Church are wrong about a good many things, but they are not wrong about the basic dialectic that must govern church/state relations. On the one hand, “God has ordained human government for the peace and well-being of temporal society… We are to submit to them in the sphere as to which God has designed them to operate. We are to honor them.” On the other hand, the state’s mandate to contain the spread of infectious diseases or to prevent civil disorder or to pursue peace rather than war, etc., while worthy of all respect, does not extend to matters essential to the Church of Jesus Christ and its ambassadorial mission. That is sovereign territory.
Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.
Their conclusion is not invalidated by the fact, as Leo XIII reminded us in Immortale Dei, that there are matters which belong, in different ways, to both church and state. The welfare of families, the education of the young, care for the vulnerable – many illustrations might be supplied where the interests of the two overlap and their respective jurisdictions create tensions requiring negotiation. But Leo’s reminder was to the same effect. The state must leave sufficient room for the unique mandate of the Church and for its own prudential judgments in all these spheres.
Take, for example, a relatively simple matter such as zoning laws. Surely the creation of zoning laws is a proper function of the state, requiring the deference of churches even when it impinges on their need for meeting places. (Would that Protestants had kept that in mind in Prague in 1618!) But if a state, say, as presently in China, creates and enforces zoning laws that result in the bulldozing of churches where worship has not been sufficiently Sinicized, is that state still operating within its God-given mandate? Is it leaving room for the Church to be the Church? Of course not. It must be resisted by prayer and all morally licit means, including costly civil disobedience.
Likewise, then, when the state, as presently in California, requires churches to cease meeting altogether or imposes other disabling conditions upon them that violate their own God-given mandate and jurisdiction; that it does so in the name of COVID-prevention rather than of the Communist Party does not excuse it. Churches must carry on doing what they are divinely called to do, even if for a time they are forced to do it secretly rather than openly, or through tribulation and legal travail. Whether the state’s objective is political unity, religious conformity, economic power, or health and safety makes no difference where the ministry of word and sacrament are at stake.
Abandoning the empty dream of a neutral state
In Rome these days, alas, that is no longer understood, at least not where is China concerned; bad-faith negotiations continue while in far away places ecclesial rights are trampled and churches demolished. In North America, however, where things are not quite so dire, there have been signs lately that Catholics, like Protestants, are plucking up the courage to confront state overreach, even if that courage falls far short of what their Chinese brethren have shown.
Admitting that partnership with the state during the pandemic has not proved an exercise in mutual respect for the common good, but rather an exercise in betrayal by the state, Cardinal Lacroix last week voiced an emotional plea to Quebec authorities: L’état est laïc, mais la société ne l’est pas! “The state is secular, but society is not! … Please, let us breathe!”
But note well: If the Church really is to breathe, it will have to resist vigorously both the health-first heresy and the suffocating myth of the secular state. For the state cannot in fact be laïc; that is, altogether neutral or non-confessional, untouched by religion and unengaged with religion. Its pretence of neutrality, as I tried to show in Desiring a Better Country, only serves to obscure the state’s actual commitments, which – where laïcité or some other radical form of church-state separation is professed and pursued – are bound to produce such betrayals.
A properly Christian concern for the vulnerable – for the unborn that are aborted daily in their thousands and tens of thousands, for the elderly who have died unattended in “care” homes, for the poor who have been deprived of their livelihoods, for the sick who have been refused treatments or operations, for the lonely who are being offered assisted-suicide as a solution – does not come from nowhere. Neither does a genuine appreciation for religious freedom. These things are not neutral at all, but the consequence of a biblical and eucharistic world view that the state refuses to own or even to acknowledge.
It is precisely where people have been taught to believe in the neutral state, and to cede to this state full responsibility for education and health care, that these things are disappearing. It is precisely there that the health-first heresy can take hold and the Church be asked to embrace it. Why wouldn’t care for the body trump care for the soul, within a state or regime that insists on being so “neutral” as to decline to affirm or deny that human beings actually have souls? That such a state regards the medicine of immortality, and the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as something purely esoteric and inessential – perhaps even as corrosive or subversive, which is how Rousseau himself regarded it – is hardly a wonder. That it treats churches with the disdain to which Cardinal Lacroix objects is no surprise. That its subjects, in whom forgetfulness of the Great Deliverance has been systematically cultivated, are again “subject to life-long bondage” through fear of death (Heb. 2:15) is only to be expected. That even many Catholics, themselves half-blinded by this “strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2:11), have succumbed is little more remarkable.
So, if we are looking for heresiarchs, perhaps we may fix after all on those who are chiefly responsible: the men of the Enlightenment who brought us their grand experiment in liberal reason and the neutral state, and those churchmen who have mistaken that experiment for a success, compounding the problem of betrayal by the state with betrayals by the churches themselves – the kind of betrayal that so distresses Mary Wakefield, wherein even bishops show themselves more scrupulous about hygiene than about holiness, about human liturgies of disease-prevention than about the divine liturgies of human salvation.
That the latter can save body and soul together, while the former cannot even save the body, does not seem to have occurred to them. They are worried about becoming men without lungs, but their susceptibility to the health-first heresy suggests that they are already men without chests, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase. They lack Christian instincts for what is truly good and for what really matters. They lack the Christian heart by which a Christian head ought to rule the mortal body, with its mortal fears. They look and sound more and more like other denizens of the secular state, uncertain whether souls, if they exist, actually matter.
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