There is a great deal of turmoil and anger in our churches and congregations at the moment about the temporary suspension of the public celebration of worship services and the closing of church buildings by various pastors and bishops.
A number of religious leaders and laity across the nation have voiced dissatisfaction with these precautions. On any level of faith, this discomfort is understandable, since for Americans, the right to freedom of worship and freedom to assemble peacefully are constitutional rights. Yet I would like to take a moment to defend this difficult decision and respond to several accusations, noting of course that any view expressed here is my own and not necessarily that of the Diocese of San Bernardino.
A number of voices have asserted that in times past the Church never locked its doors in time of plague. This is generally true. The great Martin Luther himself advised pastors not to flee in time of plague because those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry, such as preachers and pastors, must adhere to a plain command from Christ: “‘A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” (John 10:11). For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.’”
However, to this we must reply that gathering the faithful together for prayer was probably one of the reasons why some of the epidemics of the past were so severe. Many today have argued that the people of faith of the past went directly to the aid of the diseased rather than withdrawing the support of the houses of worship. Certainly, these men and women were holy and well-intentioned, but it is entirely likely that they did more to spread disease than cure it. The powers of prayer are absolutely most powerful in freeing us from spiritual evil. But as the people in the great plague might tell you, they are not an immunization from temporal ills including disease. Others have argued that if the faithful had better access to their churches and chapels then the plagues’ pain connected to pestilence would be easier to bear. To this, we must reply that religious devotion and attendance at public worship did not stop the vast sufferings of the bubonic plague of 1347, in spite of it being one of the most devout periods of all ecclesiastical history.
Why did churches and other houses of worship have a policy of remaining open in times of pestilence and refuse to suspend services? Because in ages past religious leaders made policy decisions based on their older ideas of how hygiene and disease worked. We must remember that germ theory, the principle that microscopic critters spread disease, is a very recent discovery. The research of Louis Pasteur in France in the 1860s demonstrated the existence of germs, which can cause infection by a number of means. The existence of viruses was not discovered until 1892, by Martinus Beijerinck in Amsterdam. This modern understanding of the cause of disease and infection was absolutely unknown to the saints and bishops of past eras. For example, in our own nation’s history, we know that tens of thousands of wounded soldiers died in the U.S. Civil War simply because doctors did not yet know that they should boil their surgical instruments before using them, and they simply used the same filthy instruments for soldier after soldier. This had a negative result for the patients.
What did the great and heroic religious leaders of the past believe about disease? Before Dr. Pasteur, the dominant theory of disease was called the Miasma Theory. This charming theory stipulated that people became sick because of mists or smoke that arose from the dark depths of the earth, crypts or decaying bodies. Since the “miasma mists” came from the ground directly to the patient, the infection could not be passed from person to person. One of the common preventions for the plague was to breathe through clusters of flowers, which was the “pocket full of posies” in the child’s rhyme, “Ring around the rosy.” They also believed in the existence of “humors” in the body. These were thought to be the four major juices balanced inside us, being blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and each of these determined health, moods, sexuality and attitudes. Contact with a miasma or just falling off a horse could knock the humors out of balance, thus causing illness. Cures included such things as the drinking of excessive amounts of water, or bleeding a patient, to restore harmony in the humors. George Washington and King Louis XIV of France were probably hastened to their death by their doctors opening veins to remove “excess” blood.
I have seen numerous postings by good and devout people citing people like St. Pope Gregory the Great refusing to abandon the city of Rome or close churches in time of the plague of 590 AD and leading processions through the streets to call on the mercy of God. But he may very well have been infecting people as he walked by them. He was doubtless a holy man, and I am even named after him. Yet this same holy pontiff also believed that volcanos were windows into hell and had never heard of the existence of virus. Several people have posted a video on Facebook of a modern priest recounting a famous story of St. John Bosco, who allegedly promised teens that if they took the Eucharist before burying the bodies of plague victims, they would not catch the deadly virus. I somehow doubt the accuracy of this story because St. John Bosco died in 1888 and as I said above, the existence of viruses was not discovered for another four years until 1892.
Because of such pious tales, both as a Catholic priest and a sometime professor of history, I argue that medical advice is better taken from modern doctors and scientists than the clergy on the internet.
To cite a local example, my own bishop, the Most Reverend Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, along with most other Catholic bishops, made a hard decision to curtail public worship. Priests have been ordered not to do weddings, funerals, say Mass in public or hear confessions. A lot of people are very angry about this, although I must admit it made my life a lot quieter. But Barnes and other religious leaders must make their policy based on modern understandings of epidemiology, derived from the scientific community. It is not that they are unconcerned about the spiritual needs of their people.
Those who accuse pastors who suspend public meetings of being cruel are themselves cold-hearted to the innocent people they are trying to protect from infection, which we now understand far better than in the past.
Suspending public worship is a tough call. The financial impact on a congregation where the weekly collection vanishes will be devastating unless the faithful remember to mail in their offerings. Nonetheless, I join my bishop in calling for people to stay at home, wash hands frequently, and avoid all unnecessary contact until this modern pestilence is passed. Such a decision will spare many lives and end the coronavirus all the faster.