In the conclusion to Covid and the Catholic Church, find out who wants to quietly move on… and who is willing to ask hard questions: did the Church go too far in complying with popular and government Covid-19 restrictions? And what lessons can we learn from this episode in American – and global – history?
Untold numbers of Americans had their lives deeply affected by Covid-19 and its accompanying restrictions over a three-year period. There is now, understandably, a widespread desire among some to quietly move on – although this feeling is far from universal, and many people remain deeply frustrated at what they see as a lack of accountability or even honest discussion of how the pandemic was handled.
Both of these popular attitudes – a preference for quietly changing the subject, and a continuing zeal for accountability – now coexist uneasily in the Catholic Church. Notably, it seems that Church leaders, both in the US and in Rome, are not generally interested in a frank discussion of how the pandemic was handled, even as plenty of laypersons would appreciate more candor on the subject.
Avoiding the topic could be a mistake in the long run, especially if America’s Covid-era crisis of trust in institutions were to be replicated within the Church.
The US bishops are prioritizing a three-year program of Eucharistic Revival, which began in June 2022 in response to a crisis of faith in Catholic teaching on the Body and Blood of Christ. To a degree, this program of sacramental revival can be seen as a response to pandemic restrictions that disrupted Mass attendance: for instance, the National Eucharistic Revival cites “the need for recovery and renewal from the pandemic,” and the claim that “more than 30 percent of Catholics have not returned to the pews post-pandemic,” as two of the reasons for its launch. Even so, this program is – at most – a subtle and indirect response to Covid restrictions.
Less optimistically, the new program may enable bishops and Church institutions to ignore the question of how the pandemic was handled in the Church. This is not to disparage the goals of the Eucharistic Revival, of course, but simply to point out what may go unaddressed in the process. The US bishops’ 2023 plenary assembly, held in June, had no agenda items related to how Covid-19 was handled, or how a future pandemic might be, even though the meeting took place two months after Covid was officially deemed no longer a national emergency.
True to form, the outspoken Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput stated publicly in 2021 that some bishops were “too compliant” toward state-imposed Covid restrictions. He was nearly a lone voice in saying this, at the time or subsequently. But Archbishop Chaput was not able to lead by example, having been replaced as Archbishop of Philadelphia shortly before the pandemic was declared in 2020.
Cardinal Dolan’s June 2023 column, asking “Did we go too far with COVID-19 restrictions?”, was an exception to the apparent trend of moving on without much discussion. Jason Shanks of Our Sunday Visitor noted it was “not every day that you see a cardinal publicly do an after-action review on what we got right, and what we could improve upon.”
“I think such self-evaluation, openly and publicly, is healthy, healing, and allows for us collectively to grow and learn,” Shanks wrote. “Sometimes, we never look back, and by not doing so, never learn in our institutional consciousness.”
In Rome, meanwhile, there is virtually no public talk about how the Church handled Covid-19. There is a focus, instead, on the unusual “synodal process” due to run through 2024.
Whatever one thinks of the Vatican’s “synod on synodality” (and many criticisms seem justified, to say the least), its “process of listening and dialogue” appears unlikely to include much, if any, frank discussion of the response to Covid-19. Amid all the talk of a “listening Church,” there is no sign of such concerns being seriously heard.
Some would argue that the Church’s pandemic response – in both its positive and problematic aspects – is among the few subjects on which there probably ought to be an extensive public discussion of where we have been and where we are going.
Some tip-toeing around this subject is understandable, if perhaps unwise. In the US, many Church leaders likely see the discussion of Covid measures as a hopelessly polarized and politicized dead end – a topic bound to generate a great deal of negativity and little else.
This does not have to be the case. As this report highlights, there was plenty of good in the Church’s pandemic response, alongside the questionable or negative aspects. There are cautionary lessons to learn from, but also things done right that should be reinforced and carried forward in the future.
This report has focused on four key areas where Church leaders and institutions were most seriously tested, and the Catholic faithful at large were most deeply affected:
The present report is neither a scorecard, nor meant as the final word on these subject areas. Still, hindsight has made some things clear:
The Church had historic success in litigating for religious freedom against government overreach, and in keeping its schools open while a majority of public schools engaged in disastrous closures.
Likewise, many priests stepped up heroically to provide the sacraments in critical situations, and Catholic hospitals did notably better than other facilities in making spiritual care available. That said, problems in the fidelity of some Catholic hospitals were apparent in their flawed handling of sacramental access.
On school mask mandates, many dioceses at least pursued flexible policies of local control. Overall, however, the masking of schoolchildren may have been ineffective and even harmful. Meanwhile, state-imposed mask mandates were uniquely difficult for Church institutions to fight, under modern legal precedents that are often highly deferential to government.
Finally, vaccine mandates caused a sharp and still unresolved division in the Church. Some bishops and Catholic institutions took the Vatican’s teaching as a general opposition to mandates, but other bishops – and ultimately, the Vatican City State itself – imposed them. The teaching may need to be clarified, given how vaccination became an unexpectedly complex and hugely divisive issue for society at large during 2021-2022.
In all of these areas, we hope Church leaders – and the whole People of God – will reflect seriously on the pandemic experience and its meaning for the future.
One of the most important ways for the Church to draw wisdom and strength from the pandemic experience, would be to canonize those who died from Covid-19 in a manner worthy of sainthood.
Among the many Catholics who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems there must be some – among the clergy and consecrated persons, as well as the ordinary lay faithful – who gave their lives heroically for the love of God and their neighbor, and who would be found worthy of eventual canonization if investigated.
In his reflection on whether Covid precautions went too far within the Church, Cardinal Dolan cited canonized saints, and others being considered for sainthood, who made heroic sacrifices to care for others during past outbreaks of deadly diseases.
While he acknowledged the value of many pandemic policies, Cardinal Dolan also said he “worries that future decades will not look back at us with the same admiration we now have for a St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Damien of Molokai, and those young ‘Martyrs of Shreveport.”
It seems very likely, however, that there are such Christ-like figures to be found in the annals of the pandemic – perhaps, for instance, among the hundreds of priests who died from Covid-19 in Italy.
In India, where several hundred Catholic priests and religious likewise died, it has been reported that “many had the opportunity to move to better places for treatment, but they stayed with the people who did not have the luxury of better treatment and eventually died.”
In Canada, an anonymous priest chose to voluntarily be incarcerated in order to continue ministering to prisoners during the pandemic. While he is not known to have died, there may well be others who made similar choices and paid with their lives.
Canonizing the authentic “saints of Covid-19” would benefit the Church in several ways. It would help the Catholic faithful to see the pandemic experience more clearly in the light of the Gospel. It would also offer inspirational contemporary examples for the Church, which has suffered from doctrinal confusion and a weak sense of mission.
Likewise, the investigation and eventual canonization of such saints would help the Church resist a widespread tendency to move on from Covid-19 almost as if it had not occurred. Instead, these figures – though they are not yet known to us now – could serve as a permanent and profound reference point for the work of reflection and correction still to be done in the coming years and decades.
Every moment of our lives is, above all, an opportunity for sanctity in union with Christ – and the most difficult times are often the most important in this regard. In the work of both external evangelization and internal reform, the Church should be able to point to those who lived these Gospel truths to the utmost – even to the point of self-sacrifice – during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We have often been told to “trust the experts” and “follow the science,” and while these simplistic slogans have grown irritating, authentic secular science and expertise certainly have their place. The Catholic Church insists, more completely than any other religion, that faith and reason are harmonious.
However, in regard to what matters most – how to love God above all, and one’s neighbor as oneself – the saints are the greatest experts we can trust in, and theirs is the ultimate science to be followed, in every trial the Church will face until the end of the world.
Hopefully, the next time the Church is hit by a pandemic of historic magnitude, there will be canonized saints of the Covid-19 era to look to for guidance and help.
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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