President Donald Trump was widely criticized after he said that “I’d love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” The most important holiday on the Christian calendar, he added later, would be a “beautiful time” to have “packed churches.”
For some, the president’s suggestion about an Easter reopening was a subset of his seeming overeagerness to revive the economy by easing social distancing and other restrictions introduced to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there were also specifically Christian objections to Trump’s vision of Americans assembling in churches and cathedrals in their Easter finery.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina pastor and activist, thundered: “It is the height of hypocrisy for Trump to suggest that Easter is a time to defy public health recommendations and ‘reopen’ America.”
But forget Trump for a minute. There is a serious discussion among believing Christians about whether closing churches — as many denominations have done — is consistent with the church’s mission. It’s a debate that is taking place, with different theological emphases, among Protestants and Catholics.
Among Catholics, the debate over the closing of churches tracks a familiar fault line between defenders of Pope Francis’ liberalizing ways and the pope’s conservative critics. The Vatican has announced that Holy Week services there, including Easter Mass, will be conducted without public participation. Earlier this month, the Italian bishops’ conference canceled all public Masses until April 3. (Easter falls this year on April 12.)
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former archbishop of St. Louis and Vatican official who is a hero to conservative Catholics, expressed concern about the shutdown of churches and the inability of Catholics to gather for worship.
“Even as we have found a way to provide for food and medicine and other necessities of life during a time of contagion, without irresponsibly risking the spread of the contagion, so, in a similar way, we can find a way to provide for the necessities of our spiritual life,” Burke wrote on his blog.
He added: “We can provide more opportunities for the Holy Mass and devotions at which a number of faithful can participate without violating necessary precautions against the spread of contagion. Many of our churches and chapels are very large. They permit a group of the faithful to gather for prayer and worship without violating the requirements of social distance.”
Burke’s bottom line: “In considering what is needed to live, we must not forget that our first consideration is our relationship with God.”
A similar argument, though one not so steeped in Catholic theology, was offered in Foreign Policy magazine by Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. After reviewing a history of efforts by Christians to minister to victims of plague, Stone wrote:
“We don’t cancel church. The whole motivation of personal sacrifice to care for others, and other-regarding measures to reduce infection, presupposes the existence of a community in which we’re all stakeholders. Even as we take Communion from separate plates and cups to minimize risk, forgo hand-shaking or hugging, and sit at a distance from each other, we still commune.”
Partly in response to Stone, the magazine Christianity Today published an editorial defending the suspension of church services. It said that “even if we do practice stringent hygiene and social distancing, coming together as congregations in the face of this pandemic actually mars our witness. Rather than looking courageous and faithful, we come off looking callous and even foolish, not unlike the snake handlers who insisted on playing with poison as a proof of true faith.”
Contrary to the caricature of Christianity subscribed to by some atheists, none of the participants in this debate seem to assume that divine intervention will immunize worshipers from infection so that precautions are unnecessary. Given that Jesus is recorded in the New Testament as healing the sick, that might seem incongruous. But if the church subscribed to a simplistic notion of divine intervention, there wouldn’t be Catholic hospitals.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.
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