March 2020 saw the first Covid-19 restrictions in the United States. What happened next marked one of the greatest intrusions on civil liberties ever seen in American peacetime, pitting the Catholic Church, hospitals, and schools against public officials, medical institutions, and the government itself. How did the Church respond? What key strengths and weaknesses did our bishops display? And what lessons should the whole Church take from the Covid pandemic?
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What were the key strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic Church’s response to Covid-19 in America? What lessons should the whole Church take – from families in the pews, to the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy – from this historically difficult three-year period?
Some aspects of the Church’s pandemic response are inspiring, and should be remembered as worthy contributions to American Catholic history. First and foremost, several bishops took action against discriminatory lockdown orders that treated churches worse than secular businesses.
One of these challenges – pitting the Diocese of Brooklyn against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – reached the Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark victory for the Diocese. This case laid the foundation for several other victories of religious freedom over unconstitutional Covid restrictions.
Setting an example for the whole country, most Catholic schools remained safely open during the pandemic, even as public school students suffered a historic disruption of their education. Data from the period supports the choice of in-person learning (also made by schools in many other countries), as America’s Catholic schools clearly outperformed public schools academically.
Unfortunately, Catholic schools were often faced with government mask mandates, or had these mandates imposed from within the Church. Many parents’ protests against a policy they saw as unscientific and harmful to children fell on deaf ears.
Despite data that calls school mask mandates into serious question, government mask orders were uniquely hard to fight in court, making public pressure one of the only means of accountability. The defiance of a diocesan school mask mandate, meanwhile, raises complex questions about how to understand and apply the Church’s doctrine of authority and obedience.
In most dioceses, the Church’s early period of voluntary church closure was relatively short – around two months, from March to May of 2020. Theologians and medical experts worked toward a quick resumption of public worship and access to sacraments, as more became known about the new coronavirus. These guidelines enabled nearly 80 percent of dioceses to reopen before June, though some bishops took longer.
Even when this guidance was followed, however, sacraments were often unavailable in settings where they are most important – such as in the case of those hospitalized and critically ill. This was an acute problem in non-Catholic hospitals, though it was found among some Catholic hospitals as well.
The lack of sacramental access in critical settings was a complex problem – caused by government officials, the public health establishment, and medical institutions which are often private and relatively autonomous (such as hospitals and nursing homes). Tragically, the worst denial of spiritual care was found in facilities for the elderly and disabled, where the pandemic’s most extreme isolation measures were imposed in the name of health.
On the other hand, many priests stepped up to offer the sacraments precisely where they were most needed – among seriously ill and dying hospital patients. Many dioceses formed teams of younger and healthier priests to fulfill this role, and their service is another inspiring aspect of the Church’s pandemic response.
Finally, this report explores a divide in how some American bishops handled the issue of vaccination – specifically, whether it can be imposed as mandatory, and whether exemptions should be made available where mandates exist. Some American bishops, citing a portion of the Vatican’s December 2020 statement on the Covid vaccines, supported exemptions for those who determined they should not be vaccinated.
However, other US bishops imposed vaccine mandates on their employees, and the Vatican itself made vaccination mandatory for its workers. There were bishops who cited the same Vatican statement (allowing use of the vaccines, despite moral problems in their development) as grounds for denying religious exemptions to any mandate. Further, not all faithful theologians reached the same conclusion as regards mandatory vaccination.
This division over vaccine mandates, with both sides citing the same teaching, may persist unless the Vatican clarifies that teaching.
Discussions of Covid-19 have grown more difficult over time, but the Catholic Church should not shy away from the subject. As American society faces a broad crisis of trust in many institutions, the country’s Catholic leaders should be candid about both the good and bad of the 2020-2023 period. If such discussions are centered on faith and the life of Christian virtue – as seen in the saints of all ages, including our own – they could serve to strengthen the Church, rather than divide it.
About the Author: Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic and has written for several publications including Catholic News Agency, Catholic Exchange, and Real Clear Religion.
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