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Prudence and Pandemic: Considerations on Coronavirus

This week, as I watch the issue of the COVID-19 coronavirus dominate the online conversation, sparking arguments left and right about what should be done, whether we should be concerned or totally unfazed, and so on, I find myself thinking about an anecdote from popular author and speaker Simon Sinek (whom I’ve referenced here before):

Now, there are probably a number of lessons we could take from this story, but I’d like to focus on just one for the moment.

The epidemiological knowledge we have today is vastly different from what we had a century or two ago. The study of microbiology and the recognition that the simple act of washing your hands can destroy microorganisms that might otherwise prove fatal is still, in the span of history, a remarkably novel concept. As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, we are being reminded of the exact same point that Oliver Wendell Holmes made to those doctors so many years ago: there are certain reasonable, prudent measures that can be taken easily that will have a salutary effect in saving lives.

When it comes to coronavirus, I admit, I brushed it off at first. I’d seen swine flu and SARS and whichever other pandemic scares have come and gone without the promised drama, and I couldn’t get worked up. But as I’ve watched this situation unfold, as I’ve watched the way governments around the world are reacting, as I talk to friends who work in or in conjunction with the medical profession, as I read about the potential this virus has to overwhelm our hospitals, grind our economies to a halt, and generally disrupt our lives in significant ways even if we don’t get a severe infection ourselves, the more I think we need to treat it seriously.

There’s obviously a lot of disagreement about this. There’s a great deal of seemingly contradictory information. There’s also disagreement about how much caution is too much. My purpose today is to promote prudence, and I hope, to that end, you’ll hear me out, even if you think I’m just buying into another overblown health scare designed to induce panic for financial or political ends.

Especially if that’s what you think.

Italy Bans All Masses

When the news broke over the weekend that all public Masses in Italy were being put on hiatus for the rest of this month in response to an Italian government mandate to suspend “civil and religious ceremonies, including funeral ceremonies,” there was an explosion of rage and incredulity in the Catholic world. Accusations of unfaithfulness were leveled at the Italian bishops — and really, based on their track records, who could argue with that? Conspiracy theories and speculation about divine retribution for various sins, including the idolatry at the Amazon Synod, followed soon after. There has even been theorizing that this is part of a long-desired plan to stop Masses throughout the country for good.

It’s easy to understand why people are thinking these things.

The fact is, we’ve become so inured to the prevalence of the weak, effeminate, anti-sacramental strain of Catholicism that dominates our Church that we have a tendency, at times, to overreact in the opposite direction. We think a “masculine” or “authentic” Catholicism is one where we act the way we think heroes act, at all times, against all odds. We have tribal standards whereby we measure our faithfulness against the unwashed masses and, oftentimes, against other members of the tribe itself.

We think that if we fast longer, go to Mass and confession more, pray more rosaries, do more penance, eliminate all worldly things from our lives, boycott every company, dress more modestly, smash our televisions, swear off anything post-conciliar, have the most kids, denounce the most abuses, etc., we have thereby demonstrated that we are among the chosen faithful elite.

Again, there is some truth in all of this. There is virtue in a prudential application of all of these principles. And yet, as St. Thomas teaches, “it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean.”

He explains further, “In things of this sort, evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it; as is clearly the case in all things ruled or measured. Hence it is evident that the good of moral virtue consists in conformity with the rule of reason.”

So as we evaluate what we’re facing with a global illness, let us bring the rule of reason to bear.

Forming a Prudent View of Sunday Obligation

For obvious reasons, Catholics around the world who are reading about Italy — which as of this writing has over 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 631 deaths, with reports that hospitals there are being overwhelmed — are concerned for their Italian co-religionists. They are also can’t help wondering what it would be like if they, too, were prohibited from access to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — for the remainder of Lent, no less.

In response, there’s been a lot of public defiance from faithful Catholics at just the notion of such a thing. I’ve also seen more than one person suggest that it is impossible for the Eucharist, because of the Real Presence, to be a vector of infection. References to historical times of plague and the responses of various saints are popping up across social media. If one skims through all the chatter, it’s hard not to get the impression that if we just had enough Masses of reparation and public Eucharistic processions, we’d beat this disease into submission like proper Catholics.

As one person said to me, in response to my encouragement that people stay home from Mass if they are sick, “no way am I staying away from the Eucharist.”

Dr. Joseph Shaw, head of the Latin Mass Society of England & Wales and signer of both the Theological Censures Document on Amoris Laetitia and the Correctio Filialis to Pope Francis, is, I think it’s fair to say, no modernist limp-wristed pseudo-Catholic. And yet, as he sharply pointed out yesterday, the kind of thinking that is growing in response to prudential action is deeply problematic:

If you can’t make out the image he posted from #1154 of the Baltimore Catechism 3, it reads:

Q. 1154. What must we carefully guard against in all our devotions and religious practices?

A. In all our devotions and religious practices we must carefully guard against expecting God to perform miracles when natural causes may bring about what we hope for. God will sometimes miraculously help us, but, as a rule, only when all natural means have failed.

As Dr. Shaw rightly points out, “people implying that it is pious or traditional to ignore public health concerns about public gatherings and hygiene” is “not the attitude of mature Catholics.”

And yet it is an attitude that is surprisingly common, even in a time when we are aware that this virus, for which there exists no vaccine or known natural immunity, is killing the elderly who are infected at particularly high rates — in excess of 15%. (The young are being infected too, though typically with less severity. Thankfully, young children seem to be least affected.)

Even so, as I said earlier, many of us have a tendency to dismiss all of this. I’ve seen countless iterations over the past few days of “it’s just the elderly who are in danger” — which sounds strangely like a euthanasia argument — or “it’s a media conspiracy designed to induce panic,” etc. And yet I suspect that even the most dismissive people will think differently if it is their mother or father; aunt; grandmother; or immune-compromised spouse, child, or sibling who is dying.

Many Catholics were raised to believe that we had to drag ourselves to Mass if we had a pulse, no matter how sick we were. After all, Jesus died for us; can’t we handle a little flu/strep throat/stomach bug for Him?

My friend John Zmirak wrote a thought-provoking piece on this topic at The Stream yesterday. He tells the story of Fr. Dermot, the “best priest he ever knew,” an Irishman and missionary in Africa, and pastor of a TLM parish in Baton Rouge. Father’s sermons, Zmirak says, “were sharp and exacting. They forced each of us through an examination of conscience, and sometimes made us feel small.”

But then came the “worst sermon” Fr. Dermot ever gave.

Zmirak tells the story:

One sermon Father gave led me astray. He spoke of the “penal times,” when English occupiers had outlawed the Mass. Priests said it on rocks in the hills, on pain of death. Believers would drop everything at the rumor that a priest was nearby. They’d gather in fog and rain to worship outside in the fields. Father recalled this historical trauma to make a simple point. “If you can walk and sit upright, you come to worship God. I don’t care if you have to drag yourself here,” he said. He reminded us of all the men who’d died at the hands of the English to offer such sacraments. Unless our risk was the same, we had no excuse not to come.

That made an impression on me. Too deep, I think. It honestly never occurred to me that by dragging my sick body to church, dipping in the holy water and taking Communion on my tongue, that I was endangering others. Old people, fragile people, folks without my sturdy Slavic immune system. It took my girlfriend getting a medical ban from Mass to drive the point fully home. Now when I think I’m sick at all, I deny myself the pleasure and privilege of going to church. It makes for a sad, solemn Sunday.

I used to have basically the same philosophy that Fr. Dermot espoused. I used to also have a bit of that same magical thinking about the Eucharist. I used to get strep throat extremely badly when I was young — at times I’d become quasi-delusional with the fever and infection. But I remember going to Mass, praying that by reception of the Eucharist, which would be touching my throat on the way down, I would be healed, like the woman with the hemorrhage who touched Jesus’s garment. (I got extra excited if I had it during the blessing of throats on St. Blaise’s feast.)

Only that’s not ordinarily how it works. It never healed me, not even once. I needed the Eucharist to strengthen my soul, not cure my physical ailments. (For the latter, I just needed antibiotics.)

Nor is the Eucharist in some way divinely protected from carrying pathogens. The accidents of bread and wine remain after transubstantiation, and those accidents, if they come into contact with a virus, can spread it. As can the anointed fingers of a priest. Dr. Shaw again:

And I think most of us have heard the case of the alleged “bleeding Eucharist” that turned out to have been infected with a species of red mold.

My own misconception about Mass obligation during illness really only changed when I became friends with a guy who had a little boy with cystic fibrosis. Every common cold or flu could turn into something potentially deadly for his son. Every trip to Mass for them, was, essentially, like having to be wary of a killer virus. He would urge people to stay home from Mass if they were sick.

Like Zmirak and his immune-compromised girlfriend, it took that to wake me up. And to be honest, I still feel guilty if I miss Mass due to illness, or because I have to care for family members who are sick. But the Catechism makes things clear:

2181 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.

What it came down to was that I had to realize that this wasn’t about me. It wasn’t a test of whether I was tough enough, loved Jesus enough, was Catholic enough. It was about everyone else I might harm unintentionally. It was a test of how much I care about the welfare of others, as the Gospels command that we do.

These days, I have an 87-year-old father in law who lives with us most of the time. For reasons that aren’t entirely medically clear, he’s had a chronic cough for the past six months. I often hear him wheezing. It’s hard enough to get him to realize he’s at risk and that he needs to stay home — he likes to be active. But what happens if me or my wife or our six very active, very hygiene-unconscious children who touch literally everything bring home this virus from our parish? A parish where I have no doubt many of the faithful also come to Mass even when they’re sick because they feel the obligation?

Or what if, like in the cases popping up all over the West Coast here in the States, the people are coming to Mass not even realizing they’re sick, because they’re contagious before symptoms even show up, sometimes as long as 2–3 weeks after infection?

For my father-in-law, this virus would probably be a death sentence. And the more I learn about its effects, the more I don’t want to see any vulnerable person get it.

Why Coronavirus Is a Concern

Dr. Daniele Macchini, a doctor at Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital Bergamo, Italy, posted a long message (original in Italian here) on Facebook describing the situation in his facility that has now been widely shared. He describes how his entire hospital has been converted into an urgent care center for those infected. He writes:

The situation is now nothing short of dramatic. No other words come to mind. The war has literally exploded and the battles are uninterrupted day and night. One after the other the unfortunate poor people come to the emergency room. They have far from the complications of a flu. Let’s stop saying it’s a bad flu. In these 2 years I have learned that the people of Bergamo do not come to the emergency room at all. They did well this time too. They followed all the indications given: a week or ten days at home with a fever without going out and risking contagion, but now they can’t take it anymore. They don’t breathe enough, they need oxygen.

Here, Dr. Macchini addresses something I’ve been hearing a lot: “It’s no worse than the flu.” Clearly, his experience is different. (And while it’s hard to take anything Chinese officials say without some skepticism, the Chinese CDC are now reporting that in fact, coronavirus is “about 20 times more deadly than the common flu.”)

Macchini continues his assessment, focusing on the difficulty of treating this new illness, and the way in which it is overloading the Italian health care system:

Drug therapies for this virus are few. The course mainly depends on our organism. We can only support it when it can’t take it anymore. It is mainly hoped that our body will eradicate the virus on its own, let’s face it. Antiviral therapies are experimental on this virus and we learn its behavior day after day. Staying at home until the symptoms worsen does not change the prognosis of the disease.

Now, however, that need for beds in all its drama has arrived. One after another, the departments that had been emptied are filling up at an impressive rate. The display boards with the names of the sick, of different colors depending on the operating unit they belong to, are now all red and instead of the surgical operation there is the diagnosis, which is always the same curse: bilateral interstitial pneumonia.

According to Dr. Macchini, the virus is destroying the protective barriers of the respiratory tract, allowing bacteria to invade the bronchi and lungs. An article in National Geographic says that in addition, with coronavirus, the immune response can go “haywire” and kill the healthy tissues that would otherwise help to clear the infection out.

Pneumonia fills the lungs with fluid and debris. And the coronavirus, like SARS, because of immune overreaction, can cause permanent damage, eating holes in lung tissue, causing inflammation and more fluid buildup. This makes it so people can’t breathe. In severe cases, it can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Basically, you drown. Not a pleasant way to go.

Dr. Macchini continues:

While there are still people on social networks who pride themselves on not being afraid by ignoring the indications, protesting that their normal lifestyle habits are “temporarily” in crisis, the epidemiological disaster is taking place. And there are no more surgeons, urologists, orthopedists, we are only doctors who suddenly become part of a single team to face this tsunami that has overwhelmed us. The cases multiply, we arrive at the rate of 15–20 hospitalizations a day all for the same reason. The results of the swabs now come one after the other: positive, positive, positive. Suddenly the emergency room is collapsing. …

So have patience, too, that you cannot go to the theater, museums or gym. Try to have mercy on that myriad of older people you could exterminate. It is not your fault, I know, but of those who put it in your head that you are exaggerating and even this testimony may seem like an exaggeration for those who are far from the epidemic, but please, listen to us, try to leave the house only to indispensable things.

So What’s the Catholic Response?

I know many of you are going to disagree with me, but with the understanding I have, I’m struggling to see the temporary suspension of public Masses in Italy, or anywhere, as a faithless, foolish thing. For starters, the Italian bishops are complying with a government order that is intended not to persecute, but to protect. I have been told that throughout Italy, churches are still open for prayer. Adoration is happening, and confessions are still available.They are trying to curtail large gatherings of people in one enclosed space. It’s less clear if priests are still offering private Masses. If not, they should be, although many, I’m told, have been trained not to offer Mass without a congregation. (Another big loss from the pre-conciliar practice.)

I don’t know if we’ll see something so drastic in other countries, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The next two weeks will be telling as the number of infections escalates. American citizens are already bristling at the idea of compulsory anything, and I don’t blame anyone for that reaction. We have an allergy here to bureaucratic overreach. But states of emergency are being called in multiple locations. School systems are shutting down, and universities are canceling classes. Corporations are canceling international travel and telling people to work from home. Conferences are being canceled as well. Amtrak shut down service between D.C. and New York. The governor of New York just created a containment zone in New Rochelle, where 100 cases have broken out. The quarantine there will be enforced by the National Guard.

At this point, we have fewer than a thousand cases and thirty deaths. But those numbers will grow.

When it comes to our dioceses, I haven’t seen much guidance. In an awkward video, Cardinal Dolan of New York abruptly broke with his deacon who had just called for the sign of peace during Mass, saying, “Let’s not, all right? We’re not supposed to with the cautions going on. Agnus dei…” (Too bad they don’t just do away with this entirely, but that’s another article.)

Practically speaking, I think the Sunday obligation should be dispensed on a general basis, so that people who have concerns about becoming sick or carrying infections to vulnerable family members can feel at ease about keeping the Sabbath from home without failing in their obligation.

Because of the fact that the virus can incubate for up to three weeks without symptoms while still being contagious, it’s important to recognize that once people in your parish are already sick, it’s too late to avoid. If you’re breathing within six feet of an infected person, you’re at risk of infection. (See here for a brief description of methods of transmission.)

But even with a dispensed obligation, it’s reasonable to assume that many of the people who will come to Mass anyway are the ones who have the “Fr. Dermot Mentality.” For example, I talked to another fellow over the weekend who insisted on going to Mass even though he knew he had the flu. (Well, hopefully it was just the flu.) He told me there’s no excuse to miss Mass, even sickness, and said his pastor told him the same. He was unpersuaded by my citation of the catechism.

This is why I understand the logic of temporary suspension of public Masses, even though I understand just how dangerous it feels for such a thing to happen. Sick people won’t stop coming unless they can’t.

There is also the problem of funerals, confessions, and baptisms. Although the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, we are only obligated to receive once a year. A spiritual communion made for a short period of time in lieu of physical reception is a sacrifice any of us could make for the greater good of our brothers in Christ. But we are less able to wait on matters of birth, death, and sin. Some reasonable provision will need to be made for these things, and perhaps it’s enough that we don’t attend such sacraments in large groups.

Concluding Thoughts

All of this brings me back to Sinek’s story about the Black Death of Childbed.

When we fail to identify the appropriate measures to take in situations like this, or are dismissive of the warnings we receive, we can create catastrophic results.

We must be careful in only thinking about what we are willing to suffer for the sake of living our faith, but not about what we may be inflicting on others. The 5th Commandment certainly applies here.

Comparisons to Catholic action during historical plagues, of course, fall short, for the reasons mentioned in the video. Even the doctors in that story — Sinek highlights that they saw themselves as “men of science” — didn’t know that washing their hands would stop the very epidemic they were trying to solve.

If the faithful had known in centuries past that they could possibly avoid being infected, could avoid watching their children and other loved ones die horrific, excruciating deaths from terrible diseases, just by staying home or washing their hands, I have zero doubt that many of them would have done so. And yes, the saints who ministered to the sick in those times would have continued their pastoral care, and many likely would have died of illness for love of those souls — a noble, saintly death.

The key here is that the virtue lies in sacrificing ourselves for the care of others, not in allowing our love of the faith to blind us to the fact that we are exposing others to unnecessary risk.

To return to the moral of Sinek’s story: sometimes, we are the problem. This is something we should strive to avoid.

So if the time comes to stay home from Mass, stay home. Pray the rosary. Pray your missal. Take advantage of the fantastic HD-quality streaming Masses from the Fraternity of St. Peter at LiveMass.Net. Unite with your fellow Catholics online and pray for each other’s well-being and intentions.

When all is said and done, the coronavirus may be worse than some thought, or it may not be nearly as bad as others feared. Right now, we don’t know what we don’t know. But to act in an abundance of caution with the intention of preserving life, or of slowing down the spread of the disease so that those who need care can obtain it, is not something we will regret even if the threat turns out to be negligible.

Failing to take it seriously enough if it turns out to be dire, however, certainly will be.

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