Amelia Monroe Carlson
The Church was bleeding members long before COVID struck the world, but now it could possibly be beyond repair. As COVID fears and fights took over our TV screens, social media feeds, and all aspects of our life, it also began to take over our spiritual life. There has always been a dividing line between the spiritual life and the physical life on earth. That dividing line was blurred even before 2020 but is not so hazy that many do not seem to see or even care about the difference.
COVID is serious. Yes, it certainly is and there is no debating that fact. I am not trying to minimize the severity of the virus nor the countless lives lost as a result. The pain is real for the loved ones left behind who had to sit home while their loved ones were left alone in the hospital fighting this virus. For many, they had to make the decision to let their loved ones go without even being able to say their goodbye. The pain and loss COVID has caused is certainly one that will linger for a long time. For many, it will remain for the rest of their life.
As a result of the virus, Church leadership across the entire world closed parishes, denied faithful Catholics access to the Sacraments, and encouraged parishioners to watch Mass online. When Catholics were allowed to return to the Mass in person, bishops issued dispensations for those who were in fear of the virus. For those who were afraid of getting COVID they were given a pass and were not obligated to attend Sunday Mass. Even with social distance measures in place, mask requirements enforced, hand sanitizer replacing holy water as you enter the parish, and dispensations from the bishop, many congregations experienced a COVID outbreak. In the short term perhaps it seemed like the right decision. However, providing a mass dispensation for someone who is in fear of simply contracting the virus has caused irreparable harm to the Church and its authority.
Canon Law 1247 says we are obligated and bound to participate in Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. The Second Vatican Council calls for our active and full participation in the liturgy. Watching Mass online or on TV does not fulfill the law or satisfy this requirement. It is good and beneficial if you are unable to attend Mass in person to at least watch it online or on TV. However, that does not satisfy your requirement to attend and participate. The Catechism specifices: “The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass."117 "The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day. The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin. Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God's holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the Liturgy of the Word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families.” (CCC 2180-2183)
The Church already provides an excuse for Catholics to be excused, thus not be in danger of mortal sin, for not attending Mass if you are sick or if you are the caregiver of someone who is ill. This would include the flu, a cold, stomach bug, or something as serious as COVID. In fact, if you are sick with it or are caring for someone sick with it then you are not only excused, but are morally obligated not to attend in order to not expose others to the virus. It also provides for the individual to be excused from the obligation if you have a specific condition that compromises your immune system and would make you more vulnerable to the virus, and perhaps make the virus more fatal to you, then you can be excused from attending Mass.
So, if we already have the ability to be excused from the requirement and therefore not under risk of committing a mortal sin, then why a dispensation? The reason, I suspect, most bishops issued a dispensation from attending Mass is the result of fear or public pressure (even perhaps parishioner pressure). The dispensations that I have seen do, however, provide something that current Canon Law or the Catechism does not provide. It provides an excuse for anyone – and everyone – not to come to Mass.
Most of the dispensations I have seen include the stipulation that if you are in fear of contracting the virus, if you fear you might get it, or are “uncomfortable” attending Mass in person because of COVID then you have a dispensation and are not obligated to attend. So, basically, if you are okay going to the grocery store, going to work (for many), and attending family holiday meals over Thanksgiving and Christmas but you’re “uncomfortable” or “in fear” of getting COVID at church then you do not have to attend. Does anyone else see the problem with this logic?
For Protestants, the canceling of in person church services changed virtually nothing when they were able to watch services online. For Catholics, the cancelation of the Sacraments changed everything. As opposed to standing up for the reception of the Eucharist being “essential” and necessary for the spiritual life of the believer, the leadership bent to political and governmental pressure. While Catholic leaders around the country were shutting down parishes and giving dispensations, a prominent Protestant pastor in California was willing to risk going to jail in order to still have service by violating the state’s restriction on public gatherings in order to hold church. Church leadership canceled Christ while the cancel culture of America applauded.
By providing a dispensation for those who are simply afraid they might get the virus it paved the path for fear to be an excuse period. What happens when a flu epidemic hits again (and it will)? Will parishioners feel like their fear of getting the flu should be sufficient enough to have a dispensation? After all, bishops worldwide decided receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus was simply not worth the risk of an earthly virus. The eternal graces received by communion with Christ through reception of the Blessed Sacrament was simply not enough to outweigh the temporal and earthly risk of COVID. Even after opening the Church doors back up, church leaders simply said fear was an excuse not to receive Christ.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2019, just prior to the pandemic, found that 69% of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. Almost seven out of ten Catholics said the bread and wine were simply “symbols” and that transubstantiation is not true. That same survey said only one third of Catholics actually believe in the Real Presence and that it is the “body and blood” of Christ. See the problem yet? Now, fast forward just less than a year later and now bishops are giving dispensations for those too scared to attend Mass because of a virus. Does that send the message the Eucharist is the “body, blood, soul and divinity” of Christ or does it send the message that it’s just a symbol and is optional based on what is happening in the world around you? Priests, deacons, and parishioners are being kidnapped and killed simply for attending Mass or being Catholic in countries such as Nigeria. Are they afraid of losing their life for going to Mass? Probably. Do they go to receive Christ in the Eucharist anyway? Absolutely. That is real fear. However, Mass continues. Along comes 2020 and suddenly terrorists cannot shut down Mass but a virus can. Terrorists cannot cause dispensations for “fear” but a virus can.
Dispensations for “fear” of getting the virus have created another avenue of excuses for those who are looking to not be obedient and serve the Lord. The dispensations have sent a loud message that even church leadership thinks fear should be a legitimate excuse for not attending Mass. Throughout the entire process church leadership has listened to the direction of the Center for Disease Control, government officials, and medical “experts”. Not once did I ever hear a bishop proclaim they were listening to the voice of God. Not once did I ever hear a Church leader say they were following the leading of the Holy Ghost. If so, perhaps Christ would have told them He would prefer to be in communion with His followers rather than shut out from them.
For the one third of Catholics who actually believe in the Real Presence, I wonder how many now are questioning that belief after church leaders seemed to view the threat of a virus more important than not attending Mass. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith. What happens when that summit seems nothing more than a ritual. Well…then we look more like Protestants than Catholics.