The “We Are An Easter People” initiative is asking Catholics to sign an open letter requesting that the bishops do everything they can to make the sacraments available to us during the COVID 19 epidemic. We are asking only for what can be done fully in accord with all civic directives for safety. Considerable confusion has arisen concerning what is being asked.
Let’s try and clear up some of these misconceptions.
Prof Smith, Please clarify a few things for me.
Q. I heard that the editors at the OSV recently wrote a piece where they indicated that they don’t think it is important for dying Catholics to receive the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Can that possibly be true?
JES: Surely you have heard wrong (and that is wrong!). The people at OSV are devout and compassionate Catholics; whatever they said they couldn’t have meant that. Please go back and read what they said and even if it seems they said that, call them to clarify! Don’t make that charge unless you check with them first. I do wish they had contacted someone with We Are An Easter People before they published their editorial.
What I suspect they said/meant was that priests who anoint the dying from the COVID 19 should be provided with Personal Protective Equipment and should be young and not “vulnerable.” And, of course, that is just what “We Are An Easter People” (hereafter “Easter People”) are requesting.
Q: I also heard that OSV thinks those who advocate for accessibility to the sacraments during the COVID 19 believe that the sacraments are like a “magic wand” that will make the virus go away.
JES: That sounds like an accusation you would find in the anti-Catholic Jack Chick screeds. Catholics should never make that charge against fellow Catholics. Catholics believe that God can work miracles and is more likely to work them through his sacraments than any other way since He gave us the sacraments precisely to transform us into Christ, which is a miracle beyond all miracles. The editors of the OSV know that prayer and reception of the sacraments will undoubtedly contribute in countless ways to our successful response to the COVID 19. How could they speak of that as “magic”?
Q: I have heard that the OSV said those questioning the decisions of bishops in respect to the availability of the sacraments during the COVID 19 pandemic are wrong to do so. Are they?
JES: Catholics must always obey their bishops when teaching doctrinally but are perfectly free to question them on matters of prudence. Catholic know that. Moreover, when Catholics do question the bishops, they should do so respectfully and courteously. I am sure the editors of the OSV are familiar with Canon Law 212.2 that recognizes the faithful’s “right to make known their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires to the pastors of the Church.”
“Easter People” have respectfully requested, not demanded, that bishops do everything they can to provide access to the sacraments in full accord with all civic requirements for safety during the COVID 19 pandemic. They are being so respectful that they hope some bishops will thank them for their effort, for all they are trying to do is to convey to bishops their needs and desires in respect to the sacraments.
Q: Do you really think the OSV wouldn’t get behind an effort to provide the sacraments safely during the COVID 19 pandemic? I heard that they accused the “We Are An Easter People” of being willing to risk killing people in order to receive the sacraments. What could they mean?
JES: I think opposition to the “Easter People” request comes largely from misunderstanding what is being requested. It’s hard to understand how anyone could think our requests would put anyone at risk since “Easter People”, on their webpage, in their “Open Letter to the Bishops” and in the explanatory document “Message to the Bishops” repeatedly state that they are requesting that bishops do everything possible within civic regulations for safety, to provide the sacraments.
Q. We notice the We Are An Easter People never used “rights” language in their material. Why not? Yet, the OSV accuses them of thinking of the sacraments as some kind of “inalienable rights”? What is that all about?
JES: I am not quite sure why the OSV makes that accusation. I am sure OSV knows that the Bill of Rights acknowledges that there is a fundamental right to the “free exercise of religion.” Certainly that can be “curtailed” during some kinds of emergency, such as a pandemic. But surely OSV also knows that we should never easily surrender that right, for there are forces afoot in our culture that would gladly suppress all exercise of religion. What “Easter People” are asking is that the bishops fight to have “religious gatherings” recognized as “essential services” – which surely seems in keeping with the First Amendment. In fact, several states have officially acknowledged that, though the bishops in those states have not yet lifted restrictions accordingly. Again, and again, and again, “Easter People” are asking that those religious gatherings which are held, be held fully in accord with all civic safety ordinances – the ones that allow grocery stores and liquor stores to be kept open.
Most importantly,” Easter People” want those who are sick and dying to have access to the Anointing of the Sick – in full accord with all safety regulations. That is a “practice of religion” of extreme importance to Catholics – to have the sacrament that the Church makes available to strengthen us in time of sickness and to smooth our path to the final judgment. I have heard from nurses who say the presence of a priest at the bedside of someone with a mortal disease is as important as the presence of a nurse or doctor, since strengthening and even healing take place.
Q: Why don’t the materials of We Are an Easter People note that canon law says that Catholics have a “right” to the sacraments?
JES: Well, we certainly could have used Canon 213, which states: “The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.” Canon 843. § 1. states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” What people find in the Catholic faith that they can find nowhere else is the sacraments, which open the gates of heaven to us. The Church rightly wants to ensure that we have full access to them.
Nonetheless, in the modern world “rights” language sounds demanding – to insist on “rights” seems to be what a dissatisfied individual does in face of injustice, real or perceived, and sometimes seems to pit the individual against an institution. Catholics don’t like to be pitted against the Church.
“Rights” language in the Church doesn’t really have those connotations. It refers to what is “owed” to another. Let’s try this analogy. Parents owe their children food and shelter (among other things) and thus children could be said to have a “right” to food and shelter from their parents–and in fact that law stipulates such, but truly loving parents do not need to have legal threats to feed and shelter their children. Love compels them to do so.
The love of bishops and priests for the faithful should compel them to provide the sacraments to the Faithful. The law serves to underscore how necessary the sacraments are.
We stayed away from that language because we feared some people might mistake it for an appeal to “inalienable rights” – which, sadly, has proven to be a realistic fear.
Q. Do you think people who say we should just stay home and not push for access to the sacraments are wrong?
JES: Well, yes, I do, if they mean that that is what everyone should do, but I respect that view; I know that it comes from a love for people and a desire to keep them healthy and alive and from the knowledge and belief that God can get graces to us in countless ways besides through the sacrament. The We Are An Easter People initiative is NOT saying that everyone must take advantage of parking lot Masses and parking lot Confessions, for instance. They believe that those can be offered safely; thus those who wish to receive them should have access to them. Why deny people what they can safely receive?
Q: Would the OSV editors retract an editorial that is a manifest misreading of the We Are An Easter People initiative, if I wrote to them and asked?
JES: I would hope so. Even the best of people make mistakes and in a time of fear and stress people are especially prone to hear and read things in the wrong way. I know they don’t want to be divisive, and leaving a false reading posted would contribute to that.
Q. Really, how can people object to asking bishops to do everything to provide the sacraments safely?
JES: I don’t think they really do; I believe they worry that it can’t be done safely and we need to be as careful as possible. Again, I respect that. But Jesus came to be with His people and came to protect us from evil. We need that protection now. We need to be with Jesus – as long as that can be done safely.
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