A word in defense of the bishops

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Guest post by Gerard M. Nadal.

The most difficult thing to imagine is churches with no daily or Sunday Masses. No sacraments. The recent shutterings in the face of this virus have shocked the minds and the souls of clergy, religious, and faithful alike, and not a few on social media have attacked the bishops. Some have said that Jesus would never allow for transmission of this virus during the Mass.

As both a Catholic and a microbiologist, I’m not so certain about such sentiment.

During the Black Death in Europe monasteries were devastated by the bubonic plague when the monks went out to tend to the sick and bury the dead. I recall hearing of one monastery where the monks all died. Dead to the last man. I call upon Mike Aquilina, who wrote the history of how the Church invented and built Western Medicine from the first century, recounted brilliantly in his book, The Healing Imperative, and ask that he supplement with his knowledge on the matter.

The simple truth is that physicians, nurses, first responders, and clergy all die standing their posts in pandemics. It’s the heroic part of their heroic virtue.

The bishops are looking at a graying population of priests, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the danger zone for dying from this virus because of their age and underlying health conditions. If the laity are upset by the temporary suspension of public masses and Eucharistic reception, what do we think will happen if a significant portion of our clergy die? Further, how horrifying a thought that an asymptomatic infected priest or deacon could spread this virus to hundreds, or even thousands of people before falling ill himself.

The priest/deacon as lethal vector.

Yes, it can happen in the midst of performing the sacraments. Just ask the thousands of monks who died in the plagues of Medieval Europe. Ask the 80% of Eastern European priests and religious slaughtered by the Nazi’s for helping the Jews.

The only thing worse and more heartbreaking than a priest or deacon going down in the line of duty during a pandemic is the thought that through his sacramental ministry he became a lethal vector. And so it is that the bishops made the difficult but proper decision. Consistent with Sirach 38, they heeded God’s admonition to consult and listen to the physician in time of illness.

It was a tough call, but absolutely the right one to make.


Dr. Gerard M. Nadal currently serves as the President and CEO of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer. He blogs at Coming Home: Science in Service of the Pro-Life Movement.

Photo: Lourdes Church, Malta by Reuben Farrugia, Unsplash / PD-US.
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8 thoughts on “A word in defense of the bishops”

  1. Avatar

    Faithful Catholics must respect our bishops and certainly should recognize the most difficult options they faced in making decisions to close the celebration of mass to the laity, and then, in many areas, to close down churches completely, even for private adoration and prayer.

    Doing so however, still allows for consideration of whether serious repercussions will naturally flow from these decisions. For one, the appearance has arguably been created that mass and public worship are ultimately matters for which permission of secular authorities is required. Has an appearance been created that we worship at the leave of secular, civil authorities. To the contrary of course, we worship at the behest of almighty God. But has that case; that our right and duty to worship comes from God almighty and not from any earthly power, been strengthened or weakened by these actions and decisions? Was any serious attempt made to make that very case?

    Further, after passage of this crisis, how are we to make the case to prospective converts that membership in the Catholic Church is essential to their spiritual welfare when it wasn’t a matter of compelling importance to stay open during this time? In other words, will the closing off of the mass and virtual shuttering of our churches create, unwittingly, a perception of indifference that may well weaken the faith of many?

    Certainly the threat of a pandemic warrants due discretion in allowing public worship. But so arguably, at least in the minds of our secular rulers, do other matters as well. And it is undeniable that those who attack the Church have many issues from which to choose and to bring to the forefront. For example, if secular rulers decree in the future that the common good requires ordination of women, recognition of gay/lesbian “marriage” or in the breaking of the seal of confession with respect to matters of sexual deviance, might not the defense of Freedom of Religion, be made all the weaker because of these decisions and actions? These matters have been raised by very many who are clearly hostile to Christ and His Church, including by major world leaders and authorities. Will they simply stop after this immediate crisis has passed? Or will they look for every opportunity to press on in their determination to remake the Church in their own image and likeness?

    After all, no serious attempt was made to continue public celebration of the mass, irrespective of already existing First Amendment protections that would have exempted religious gatherings as most state and local “lockdown” orders acknowledged. Further, there was no serious attempt to continue public worship even within the guidelines and orders that were issued. No serious attempt to make the case for example, that public worship is “essential” to the welfare of attendees, albeit of a different sort than that which was envisioned by these orders. Nor was a serious attempt made to continue public celebration of the mass within the parameters of those orders. If only gatherings of 25 or 10 were allowed, why were efforts not made to continue within those parameters? Certainly not all could be allowed in. But at least an important point could have been reinforced: that the contribution of the laity, while not strictly necessary for a valid mass, is nevertheless of such grave importance that it must be allowed to continue if at all possible albeit within the parameters of the order of our civil authorities. If no serious attempts were made to keep our churches open and functioning, albeit within constrained limitations, why should it be assumed that the next declared “crisis”; discrimination against women, gays/lesbians etc, shouldn’t also merit state intervention?

    Or how about the normal communion practices of allowing the taking from the chalice or even reception by the laity of the Holy Eucharist generally? During a typical flu season, considering the numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, why wouldn’t public health authorities have a legitimate interest in regulating Church practices?

    I will do my best to think and act under the assumption that the actions and decisions of the bishops were correct. But these considerations and questions will remain irrespective of whether or not our bishops acted correctly and irrespective of whether or not I ask them or not.

  2. Avatar

    What the bishops did was not so much the problem, but the WAY that many if not most of them did it.
    They seemed to jump with over-eagerness and alacrity to cancel all public Masses, before the government asked them to and whilst other public gatherings including pubs, bars, restaurants and casinos were still thronging with customers. Almost as if they were only too happy to do it. They didn’t even consider possibilities such as Masses outdoors or for small groups maintaining a distance from each other.
    We saw restaurant owners and such crying as they were forced to close their doors, but not one tear or even any sign of regret or reluctance from many of our bishops. Just a bald written statement looking as if it was written by a health official, basically saying “you’re banned from mass but you can watch it on TV, so suck it up”.
    Worst of all, not one bishop or even priest has publicly objected since our government announced that “non essential” gatherings were banned including church services except weddings and funerals with small numbers present. This is an outrageous breach of the separation of church and state. It is not the role of the civil government to decide which if any religious ceremonies are “essential”!
    In any case, sure the dead have to be buried, but there is no urgency about weddings! Postponing them for a few months would do no harm. Attending Mass and receiving the sacraments of eucharist and confession are far more urgent.

  3. Avatar

    And during those plagues, they did not stop administering the sacraments. We can learn a lot from the early Church. Also, please read Pius X— against modernism.

  4. Avatar

    With proper precautions people do not need to die to receive the Sacraments, nor do the ministers of the Sacraments. I am sad that a doctor and a Catholic cannot understand this. Yes, priests have died administering the Sacraments and maybe so have patients. Those priests who died in Italy ministering to the sick died as martyrs for charity. But that is not important to the author. Did the dying appreciate the Sacraments of the Church, I bet they did.
    Does the body mean more than the soul which is eternal? For some, I guess so.
    We need balance and most bishops have just followed the government which cares nothing for the Church.

    1. Avatar

      One also has to consider whether a bishop, priest or deacon or other minister can be a transmittal agent of the virus. When a priest, deacon, or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion distributes communion, especially when placing the host on the tongue, the minister comes into contact with the breath of the communicant. A transmission occurs whether one wants it or not. As a deacon, I do not want to be the minister who never is sick from the virus myself, but who transmits it to 50 people of my parish. Common sense must prevail.
      Dr. Nadal, Thank you, sir!

  5. Avatar

    Author: You do NOT know if the decision to suspend Holy Mass was, “…absolutely the right one to make.” Everything you stated in your short and historically inadequate commentary is simply YOUR OPINION. Saying your a microbiologist does not make you an infectious disease expert – it is like saying you are a car salesman to someone looking for a mechanic. While we must respect the office of the bishops and the magisterial authority that comes with their office – we are not bound to agree with this ADMINISTRATIVE decision. Here is a simple logic test to gauge the reasonableness of the bishops’ action in this matter: Scenario: This pandemic goes on, and on, and on, – it gets WORSE and not better – more sick, more dead, and no vaccine in sight. What will/should the bishops do in that scenario? Should they continue to suspend Holy Mass for months, years, indefinitely? If it gets worse instead of better and they made their choice to suspend Holy Mass based on the “physicians’ consultation” what do you think the physicians will recommend in a worst-case scenario that drags on? This whole thing centers around a lack of trust in our dear Lord Jesus – who IS 100% body, blood, soul, and divinity present in the Holy Eucharist. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the impermanence of this life and the permanence and personal judgment of the life to come. Perhaps if we still had public Holy Mass priests would get sick and die, and there would be even fewer priests, but we all would still have Jesus in the Holy Eucharist – “the medicine or our bodies and souls – St. Thomas Aquinas.” The reason those holy monks and priests of the middle ages did not tuck tail and run was not that they had no understanding of how infectious diseases could spread and kill – through them or to them. It was because they knew (and the faithful as well) that it was better to “be not afraid” and receive Christ worthily in the Blessed Sacrament than to live in fear cowering the corner. Please wake up! The world is no longer Catholic like in the middle ages – it is the civil state that has all the glory and power and religion is regarded as indifferent – especially something like the Holy Eucharist which is, “The source and summit of our Faith.” (St. JP II).

  6. Avatar

    When the bishops, ALL of the bishops in the U.S. closed the churches, not one had a contingency plan. No Mass. Fine. No Eucharist. Fine. No Marriages. Fine. No Ordinations, Fine. No Baptisms. NOT so fine. No Confession. NOT so fine. No Last Rites. REALLY NOT so fine. The last 3 are life and death issues, a soul’s life or death. The only way that a bishop could ban the last 3 is if he doesn’t believe what the Church teaches. Sure, in a pinch, laity can baptize and one can try to make an Act of Perfect Contrition, but NO ONE but a priest can administer Last Rites. If it’s a matter of a person gaining salvation or the priest preserving his earthly life, how can any priest choose the latter? “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Mark 8:36. To allow someone to die without Last Rites when the priest does not know the state of the person’s soul is, itself, a mortal sin. How will God judge that priest? Whatever happened to priests being servants of the children of God? “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13. Have these bishops who have banned ALL Sacraments regardless of circumstances even read the bible? Their apathy is mind-boggling.

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