Thursday, April 2, 2020

How Some Catholics Are Doing Their Bit to Defy Medical Advice and Government Guidelines and Own the Libs During This Pandemic

As McKay Coppins noted two days ago in an article "The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun," in the first part of March, it appeared that Americans across ideological lines might be getting the imperative need to practice social distancing. Widely circulated photos of those partying on beaches or Bourbon Street seemed to capture the reactions of younger people who were not acting out political defiance, but who had simply not gotten the message about the need for social distancing to flatten the pandemic curve.

Then, as Coppins notes, the person in the White House tweeted in all caps that we cannot allow the cure to be worse than the problem and babbled to the media about "opening" the country for business and packing churches on Easter, and Americans began to harden their stances on social distancing along party lines, and the entire question of practicing social distance to flatten the pandemic curve became a new culture-war battle.

On this blog, I've been tracking the response of some American churches to the expectation that they contribute to the effort of society at large to flatten the curve by practicing social distance. My post yesterday focused on the backlash to this expectation in certain sectors of the US evangelical world. But since the American Catholic bishops hitched their wagon to that evangelical world in the latter part of the 20th century, the backlash to social responsibility and concern for the common good is, as one might expect, hardly confined right now to evangelicals.

The backlash is occurring in the Catholic world, too, where there are increasing pressures to skirt guidelines to keep churches closed and to cease holding religious gatherings. A petition is circulating in the last few days from an unidentified group calling itself an "Easter People 2020" — the website, to which I refuse to link, provides no information about who's sponsoring this initiative and has a contact page which pretends to list sponsors but does not do so. The group is circulating a public letter to the US bishops asking that they press for hospitals and government officials to allow priests to enter hospital rooms and anoint the sick.

Not even family members and loved ones are allowed access to COVID patients, for very sound reasons. Access to hospitals is being very carefully restricted right now for sound reasons.

The open letter to the bishops waves the "religious liberty" flag and pretends that the prohibition against priests going into hospital rooms of COVID patients is a violation of religious liberty.

The letter furthermore asks that bishops in states that prohibit public gatherings push against that prohibition and demand that Catholic churches can celebrate Masses at which people gather. The website offering the public letter for people to sign proposes, too, that when such public religious gatherings are not permitted, priests might broadcast Masses to people sitting outside their churches in cars, and priests can then walk out from the Mass and distribute communion as the "participants" stand — or kneel — outside their cars. The recommendations include an option for communion on the tongue, with the priest possibly using a pair of tongs that he sterilizes between each administration of the sacrament.

The open letter to the bishops praises Catholic officials who are flying over their flocks in airplanes holding a monstrance to bless their flocks. It suggests that public processions with the monstrance be mounted as often as possible now. (Presumably, blessings of the faithful do not work unless a monstrance is involved and unless the indispensable clerics holding the monstrances are in some physical contact with the faithful even to the extent of flying over the faithful holding the monstrance. And presumably, faithful Catholics can find no spiritual consolation or enrichment as they meditate on Jesus' injunction to his followers to pray in the privacy of their closets. Spiritual consolation or enrichment comes solely from contact with the ordained.)

As this letter circulates, I'm seeing on Twitter notices of Catholic churches that had been closed for public gatherings now reopening for people to pray as the host is exposed in a monstrance in these churches. 

The communion-in-the-car shtick may be borrowing a page from the book of the Fort Worth, Texas, diocese, where the bishop recently proposed allowing people to stand outside churches as Mass is celebrated privately, and then have communion distributed to them as they stand in designated places. The bishop's statement about this explicitly eschews the car notion. It also leaves up to each individual priest the question of precisely how he's to manage the distribution of communion — a clear recipe for disaster, it seems to me.

CDC guidelines recommend the cancellation of gatherings of more than 10 people, and the strict practice of social distance when gatherings of fewer than 10 people are held. These guidelines are imperative when, as Caroline Chen reports today

[I]f you're standing right next to someone who is infected and they're talking to you, or, say, if you're in a room full of singers who are projecting their voices in an enclosed space, there are going to be droplets in the air, and yes, you could inhale them. 
What's still fuzzy is exactly how far one needs to stand in order to be ideally protected from coronavirus droplets. The WHO says 1 meter, or 3.2 feet. The CDC says 6 feet. Lydia Bourouiba, a fluid dynamics expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper last week that said that "peak exhalation speeds" can create "a cloud that can span approximately 23 to 27 feet." Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, later called the study "terribly misleading." 
While the exact measurements are being debated, the experts I spoke to said that if you have to leave home, staying outdoors is the safest bet, since open air can help to "dilute" any potential microbes that reach you. While, of course, this isn't free of risk, one has to balance that risk against, for example, the mental and physical health benefits of going out for a run. So keep going out to exercise, the experts said. Maintain a 6 foot distance, at least.

It would seem that all these scientific data would make it extremely risky for churches to be sponsoring gatherings of any sort at all — say, gatherings in which four or five people sing together in the enclosed space of the church, even if they are practicing social distance. At any such gathering, or any gathering of people to receive communion after priests celebrate a "private" Mass inside a church, the possibilities of infection are manifold — from a priest who has no idea he's infected and who then distributes communion either by mouth or hand; from a parishioner who has no idea she's infected and who then transmits the virus to the priest, who moves on to another, and then another, parishioner, coming into close personal contact in the process of giving communion.

If all these worshipers could simply be confined in the spaces in which they choose to worship, and not allowed to go anywhere outside that space, then perhaps their penchant for defying best medical advice and government guidelines to continue their public worship practices might be shrugged off, no matter how distasteful it is for people of faith who espouse a pro-life ethic to be giving such ugly public witness to the community at large. But these folks will then go from their sing-ins at cathedrals and their communion gatherings and have contact with other people.

And this is precisely how the virus spreads and outbreak centers are created, such as the one in Cleburne County, Arkansas, where an outbreak within a church that began in early March has now spread into the wider community so that now, as data from Johns Hopkins medical school shows, this rural, unpopulous county ranks 14th in the nation for per capita cases of COVID.

Speaking of those "private" Masses Catholic churches and cathedrals are sponsoring: it has been reported in comments here that in at least one diocese, some four or five people are in attendance at these "private" Masses daily. Guidelines of the diocese of Albany recommend that "private" Masses in this time of pandemic include at least a priest-celebrant, a lector, a cantor, an organist, a server, and a camera operator.

Are other dioceses permitting select lay Catholics to be invited to such "private" Masses, and if so, who is getting such invitations, and why? Would such invitations be extended primarily to impoverished lay Catholics, or to the sort who have money enough, oh, I don't know, to jet off to Africa and participate in safaris in which they shoot hapless wild animals and have photos taken of themselves with those poor beasts lying at their feet as they brandish their rifles?

Just asking.

All this is so eminently silly and so eminently ugly and so eminently hateful — this belligerent insistence on continuing religious gatherings as if Christian faith cannot be sustained without them, when any gathering of any sort threatens to spread infection at a time when the opposite is direly needed, if we care anything about a pro-life ethic.

Many US Christians need to grow up spiritually and get a life, it seems to me.

And when the very same set of US Catholics who recently turned a deaf ear to the pleas of Amazonian Catholics for more priests to make the sacraments available to them shed crocodile tears over barriers to sacramental life for themselves, I tend to turn a deaf ear back.

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