Why are Churches Being Singled Out?
Since the re-opening of our churches last Summer, I’ve made it a point to visit, unannounced, various parishes, in order to celebrate Mass and spend some time with parishioners. At each visit, I am not allowed to enter the church until my temperature is taken; ushers are there to distribute facemasks to anyone who has left theirs at home. Hand sanitizing stations are located around the church, and social distancing and crowd limitations are enforced. When Mass is over, I slip back into the church, and always find eight or so parishioners already hard at work, scrubbing and sanitizing the pews, door handles, and altar area before the next Mass.
When the Coronavirus pandemic surged around the world, there was understandable confusion, uncertainty, and, at times, a sense of panic as people wondered, “What should we do? How do we respond?” Fortunately, medical experts and our elected officials were able to provide guidance on what steps we needed to take to contain the spread of the virus. We thank them.
Here in New York, indeed around the country and world, the Catholic Church responded without delay, as did many others. Our parishes suspended public celebrations of the Mass and sacraments in early March, recognizing that, while our primary duty is to help people get to heaven, we also have an obligation to protect the health and well-being of people here on earth. Our schools in New York closed even before the public schools did, and live stream Mass and remote learning became the norm. We were unable to celebrate Holy Week and Easter Mass in church– and for our Jewish neighbors, the same was true for Passover. Our children had to delay their first communion and confirmation, couples their marriages, and grieving families had to forgo wakes and funeral Masses for their beloved dead. We did all this sacrificially, but willingly and successfully. And it worked!
That is why we planned so carefully for when our churches would be allowed to re-open, and rejoiced so enthusiastically when they were allowed to do so — and why Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and the Diocese of Brooklyn were right to resist the state’s recent order limiting participation at all houses of worship in certain neighborhoods.
Yes, our elected officials have a responsibility to respond to crisis situations, and we expect them to work to preserve the common good, as they have. If any group, organization, or institution is experiencing a rise in cases, or is not following proper safety protocols, it should close down until the situation is rectified. I can assure you that if a parish in the archdiocese was experiencing a spike, we wouldn’t need to be told to close; it would happen automatically.
Is it right, however, for a group, organization, or institution, which is operating safely and has not seen any spike in cases, to be closed down simply because some other group, a half-mile away, is having problems? This is not the time for a “broad-brush” approach, to sweep up everyone within a zip code. We’ve learned some valuable lessons, and have proven that our churches — as well as our schools, by the way – can operate safely and effectively.
Equally disturbing is the fact that these restrictions – no more than 10 people (presumably including the priest, minister, or rabbi) at a service in the red zone, 25 in an orange zone – would have a disproportionate impact on houses of worship. There is sufficient judicial precedent that disallows such targeting of religious services; in fact, given the First Amendment issues here – lest we forget, freedom of religion is the first mentioned in the Bill of Rights – courts have always afforded houses of worship greater latitude in such matters.
The Church in New York has proven time and again its willingness to take all reasonable and responsible steps to protect the health and safety of all. We who have done all this so scrupulously and successfully should not be punished for the failure of others. To have all of the steps we’ve taken be ignored, and to face the prospect of indefinite unreasonable restrictions placed upon our churches is just not fair! Why are churches being singled out? Why especially are those houses of worship that have been exemplary, strict, and successful in heeding all warnings, being shut down again?