It’s Not Demonic to Close Churches to Protect Human Lives and the Vulnerable

In First Things, RR Reno writes, “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” Is this sentimentalism? Or is it the care for the human person that Jesus showed by healing the sick? Jesus identifies his mission as the promotion of life in abundance (John 10:10). The Catechism states that our vocation is life in the Holy Spirit, expressed by divine charity and human solidarity (CCC 1699). The Holy Spirit will not abandon us even while churches remain closed.

His colleague Matthew Schmitz writes, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.” Why this dualism between earthly and eternal life? Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), so care for our health is a spiritual duty. While it is true that bodies do not have an absolute value (CCC, 2289) this immediately follows: “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (2288).

Church closings ensure public health as a safeguard for the most vulnerable. If the quarantine were lifted and the coronavirus spread, we don’t have the capacity to care for the sick and the dying. Such a disregard for the sanctity of life and the common good would be sinful.

Schmitz says that since breweries and supermarkets remain open, churches should be too. But churches are not places for consumption; parishes are not places where sacraments get dispensed. We go to church to gather and that is the exact risk of spreading the coronavirus. One can pick up beer or buy groceries without interacting with anyone else, but liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” It is a corporate event: we pray together, sing together; by standing and sitting together, we demonstrate our communal worship together. We don’t go to church to “get” the Eucharist; we go to church to be reminded who we are before our God, what God has done for us, and to petition God’s presence and power. Augustine tells us to “become what you receive” in the Eucharist: churches form us as the Body of Christ.

Do I miss Eucharist? Absolutely. And this experience puts me in touch with millions of Catholics all over the world who cannot count on receiving the Eucharist on a daily or weekly or monthly basis because they cannot get to a church or the Sacrament cannot get to them.

I am consoled by the Catechism, as it reminds us the Mass is a cosmic event, taking place across space and time. It unites us with the whole church—past, present & future—so that we participate in every celebration of thanksgiving, past, present, and future (nos. 1367-1372). The Catechism also reminds us that our conscience—the Vicar of Christ—must be ordered to the good of all (2039). We are responsible for each other (2259) and for establishing peace and justice, including the commutative justice of rightly relating to each other (2304).

Healthcare experts tell us that quarantine is necessary for the preservation of life and that this time is the most essential for protecting the vulnerable and preventing the overloading of our healthcare system. It would be sinful and barbaric to reject this counsel. God knows what’s in our hearts and the impact of our decisions on others, especially the least among us (with whom Jesus identifies in Mt 25:31-46). God is not offended by us being unable to celebrate Eucharist, especially when we do this for the good of the People of God. Because love of God is also love of neighbor (John 15:12). God holds us in this difficult time, sustaining us by the grace that is always and everywhere present, reflected in the imago dei of each and the community of persons that reflects our Triune God (CCC 1702). We can and should be witnesses of the essential nature of being church, even while the buildings are closed. According to Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Stay home. Save lives.