Cancelling Public Masses, Natural and Political Justice

In the past weeks, ever more dioceses around the world have cancelled Masses either in conformity with civil law forbidding public gatherings, or on their own initative to help slow down the spread of the new corona virus SARS-CoV-2. Among not a few faithful churchgowers, this step has been hard to accept. Some have criticized it, on the grounds that, in the face of hardshpis, threats to man's physical health, and the like, the faithful need the sacraments and the public prayer of the Church MORE, not less, and that, in the past, when the Church was more conscious of its spiritual mission, this was its response to epidemics. This article by Msgr. Charles Pope, and this one by Fr. Jerry Pokorsky are fairly representative of the arguments made.

Some good responses have been made, such as Steve Skojec's or Rebecca Weiss's articles

Here I don't want to get into the details, but rather look more closely at the substance of the argument that cancelling public Masses can be reasonable and indeed obligatory, by reason of natural justice that prohibits risking the health of others without their consent except for a proportionate good in the same order. One might, legitimately, risk one's own health to some extent for the sake of spiritual goods (though even this can easily be excessive), one may not, except by way of just punishment, do bodily harm or induce grave risk of bodily harm to another merely for the sake of spiritual benefit.

The argument has two basic premises:

The minor premise: The gathering together of persons at Mass, even after taking the precautions that are in the power of church authorities (and even after taking the precautions that are in the power of each individual), poses a grave risk in the mid-term to the health and life of persons who have not chosen to accept this risk for the sake of spiritual benefit.
It is NOT merely a matter of the risk posed to those attending Mass; if that were to be the case, it might well be enough, at least in some cases, to ensure that those attending Mass are informed of the risk they are taking. The risk is that, as COVID-19 is infectious even before the onset of symptoms, one or more persons could be infected with COVID-19, quite possibly even without having any symptoms yet, and infect others present at Mass, and that these others will in turn infect others NOT present at Mass.

Note: If a similar risk would be present whether or not gatherings at Mass occur, the risk could not properly be attributed to the celebration of public Masses. So, if no other steps were being taken to mitigate the spread of the virus and sickness, the Mass probably could not be considered a great additional risk. The greater that steps are taken in other contexts to minimize risk of infection, the greater significance will the risk involved in the celebration of public Mass have.

The major premise: To cause grave risk to the health of persons who have not consented to accept this risk, except for the sake of bodily health or countering a greater risk of bodily harm, is contrary to natural justice and the fifth commandment.

Therefore, given the stated circumstances, for persons to come together for Mass is contrary to natural justice.

In some cases, such as in Italy or Germany, public Masses have been forbidden by political authorities. At least abstractly, the political authority, rather than the Church, is the competent authority to determine what means are required in relation to the end of bodily health of its citizens, and in this sense, given that the law is fair, not imposing an undue burden on one group as a means to the end (for example, prohibiting Masses but allowing sport events), the State does have competence to make such statutes. Of course if the state were to abuse its authority by imposing manifestly unreasonable statutes, neither the Church nor individuals would be bound to obey them. But given that the laws or statutes are in themselves reasonable or plausibly so, the Church does right, as a rule, follow them.

19.03.2020 – St. Joseph — quiet and steadfast

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, a man of whom no words are recorded in tradition, a man who quietly listens to God's voice and does with resolve that to which the Holy Spirit moved him and was necessary to protect his family. Scarcely had the joy of Jesus's birth come, Joseph heard the prophecy made to Mary, that a sword would pierce her heart. How difficult must it have been for him to hear such words! He heard from an angel in a dream, that the child's life was in danger and that they should flee to Egypt. In all of this St. Joseph remained steadfast.

Today we may feel particularly close to St. Joseph and can learn much from him. Day-to-day life is quieter, as many activities can't or shouldn't take place. We ourselves make have more leisure to focus on what is essential, to give more heed to distinguish what is truly important from what is superfluous, give up many things that formerly claimed our attention. That can itself be rather strenuous: some persons are already feeling cabin fever… but this new "emptiness" and quiet in society and in our own life can also be a chance to listen to our dreams, to our heart, and above all, to God Himself.

We also experience, as St. Joseph did, much that pains and worries us. At present the spread of the corona virus is all over the news, because it is already impacting our lives here and now and the measures being taken to save human lives may have an even more dramatic effect if we or our neighbors lose our jobs; at the same time the countless other things have not ceased to be cause for concern, the multitudes fleeing from war, terror or starvation, various natural disasters such as the extended fires in the Amazon and Australia, etc. St. Joseph can here be a model for us of remaining steadfast in the midst of many challenges, not talking a lot and making a fuss, but simply doing what it is in our power to do, and trusting in God for the rest.


Faithfulness in little things

We live in interesting times, are in a quite unusual situation. All kinds of worries present themselves at every level: concerns about the spread of coronavirus and the suffering and death for the persons who might be infected by it, but also for our job, for the future of our business, that is forced to close for an indefinite but potentially long period, but also concerns about larger civil and economic relations.

We may feel helpless when thinking about the potential risks and dangers facing us. It may be helpful to consider, on the one hand, the truly big picture, and the other hand, small and daily tasks.

To see the big picture, gives confidence. Humanity and society has mastered far greater problems, we will manage this one as well. Together we will win out over the virus, prevent its swift spread, and, in the long-time, find treatments and/or vaccines.

But more than that, God is with us, who has not only given us "statutes and ordinances" as Moses proclaims to the people, but who is Himself with us in our searching, our uncertainty, in our efforts to hinder the spread of coronavirus while giving attention to and maintaining what is truly necessary for ourselves and society.

In today's Gospel Jesus says "till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." The Salvific message, God who himself turns to his people in love, does not do away with the value of fidelity, fairness, attention to one another and care for another, but confirms it.

So let us look consoled to the little things in our power: the work we can do; the tasks we can take care of for others who can't or shouldn't or don't want to leave their homes; the caring and loving and consoling words we can speak to those suffering from loneliness or fear or sickness. Our fidelity, work, patience, and love, that of each one of us, is of great and enduring value.

17.03.201 – Deprivation of Public Liturgy

For many persons, who find spiritual nourishment in the liturgy of the Church, and especially the Eucharist, it is a great sacrifice and a hard burden to be unable to participate in the Holy Mass at this time. They can identify well with the words of today's reading: "We have… no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you."

This forced deprivation can, however, also be an opportunity to pursue more intensely spiritual practices, that can also unite us with the Lord, which is also the fruit of the liturgy. Public Mass may be cancelled, but we can still make a spiritual date with God. And know that he comes to us, accepts us and unites himself to us, also apart from liturgy. The biblical pray, "let us be received; As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly;" we could render for this situation, "as though it were the celebration of the Mass, so let our faithfulness, our consideration for each other, our patience and our prayer be received by you."

To be a hermit – social distancing and the spiritual life

Some, whether in course of a quarantine or just cancellation of various events, parties or meetings outside the home, might use the time to catch up on various practical matters such as deep cleaning or the house or devote more time to hobbies such as music.

Introverts, who, especially in the USA, have long suffered under society's esteem for extroversion, can now rejoice that the their preferred modes of interaction is now held up as a model for all, as it were.

For those thinking about what to do with the time they otherwise spent in various social activities, the eremitic way of life might provide inspiration, and fit in perfectly with the Lenten season.

Church law states "the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance."

Some persons are called to this life as a permanent state by their free choice. But even for those of us not called to be hermits for life, the involuntary "separation from the world" and a degree of solitude at this time is something we can use to practice inner silence and prayer.

Social events and dinner dates may be cancelled, but we can still make a date with God.

Homily on 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A

Homily given on Sunday, 15.03.2020

Fr. Joseph Bolin

whoever drinks of the water that I give him,
will never thirst again“

In the past few days various measures have been taken that starkly impact daily life. The Church, too, does her part with the decision to celebrate no public liturgies until further notice. For many, these measures are a great sacrifice.

1. Let us view this sacrifice as a mode of christian fasting, a particularly special lent. Whether we have to cancel a planned vacation or have to give up physical attendance at the Mass, such sacrifice can be a fasting in the service of charity and prayer, in thh service of the mystical and spiritual life.

2. Let us not act from fear, but from love. If we go shopping less frequently, as far it is possible work remotely from home, refrain from shaking hands or hugging on greeting acquiantances or friends, or communicate via electronic means rather than in person, let’s do it not out of fear of a virus, that might be hiding in someone, but out of love for others, whom we might unknowingly infect.

We can show love of neighbor also in helping others who are unable or who should not go out, by taking care of various errands for them.

3. Above all, let us turn in faith and prayer to Jesus, who is always with us, even in the midst of worries and we sometimes inclined to ask, like the Israelites did , “Is the LORD in our midst or not?”

Yes, the LORD is among us, and he longs, in this time, for our faith and love, he longs to be living water for us. His love longs to still the thirst of our hearts, to give us inner peace. We are given to grace to encounter him, the source of living water, not only in the Eucharist, in the Holy Mass, but everywhere, where we seek him with a sincere heart, “in Spirit and truth.” The church building, the physical presence at the liturgy stands in service of this spiritual reality, to be united with Jesus Christ in faith and in love, and with his mystical body, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Certainly the church as a place of a worship can be conducive to prayer and remains open for personal prayer.

In place of the communal celebration of liturgy, not possible at this time, we can use the time for various forms of prayer and meditation, or we might unite ourselves in prayer to a Mass being celebrated and transmitted live over radio, television or internet. In this way we unite ourselves to God, and also remain in spiritual union with one another, even if we cannot come together physically to celebrate liturgy together.

Approaches to the Coronavirus – a Radical Idea

Would you be willing to get sick for a few weeks and risk an approximately 1 in 700 chance of dying, in order to safeguard the lives of elderly and immune-compromised persons, and to return to normality in a month or two, rather than have everything shut down for potentially many months?

Here I want to put out exactly this idea. On the one hand, as a serious suggestion, though I don't think it likely to be taken up on a wide-scale. On a small community scale, I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere some few family groups actually take the proposed step. On the other hand, as food for thought for those unhappy with the measures currently being taken: what is the real alternative, if we don't want to have a pandemic comparable to that of the Spanish flu or the plague?

In attempts to contain or slow down the spread of the new corona virus SARS-CoV-2, governments have been taking fairly strong measures over the past months. Italy has been in varying degrees of lock down for some time. Beginning Monday in Austria, there are to be no public events, including no public Masses, classes in schools will stop beginning Monday or Wednesday depending on the school level (for the upper levels learning is expected to contain with electronic contact with teachers), employers are being encouraged to allow employees to work from home as far as that is possible, etc., to reduce social contact as far as possible, etc.

At least until recently, not a few persons argue that the current number of cases and deaths is still far below that of influenza, and so these measures are excessive.

The goal of these measures is, in most cases, not to stop the spread of the virus altogether or eliminate it, which is almost certainly no longer possible (unless a self-test for the virus that gave immediate results could be mass produced and distributed to all households or something), but to slow it down, to keep hospitals and other medical support systems from being overloaded, so that the mortality rate among those who WILL get sick can be kept as low as possible, and to gain time to test treatments against the sickness COVID-19 and perhaps to develop a vaccine.

In many countries people have been stocking up on non-perishable goods (beans, rice, pasta, toilet paper), though no real shortage of these on the production side is to be expected, and in most cases, even in the event of a quarantine, family or friends would be able to take care of purchasing what was needed. In some respects solidarity in countering the virus has been increasing, but the stocking up or hoarding there still seems to be a bit of the attitude of "every man for himself".

Here I want to throw out a radical approach, somewhat akin to the approach Austria is taking, yet still more radical, requiring still greater solidarity and selflessness, but very possibly more effective in the long term. Basically, the idea is that young and healthy persons voluntarily expose themselves to the virus, then remain in strict quarantine until the risk of passing it on the others has passed.

If the reports are correct, the UK is inclined to resign itself to the fact that the virus will be stopped until a kind of herd immunity is reached, and measures are intended only to slow down the infections until that point is reached. Well, why not do it the other way other around, hurry up and get it over with? More rapidly reach herd immunity or resistance, while limiting it to those least affected and least likely to die of it?

The relative newness of the virus means that our data on its transmission, symptoms, treatment, etc. is quite limited.

The measures currently being taken, reducing social contact etc., are only effective for as long as those are in effect. On the other hand, it is highly likely, though not 100% certain, that those who have been infected and recovered, are not able or are unlikely to be reinfected, and so also unlikely to be carriers.

Now, the virus hits older persons much harder than young persons. Current statistics show no deaths for children under 10, a 0,2% death rate in those under 40 years of age who get sick, whereas a death rate rising from 3% to 15% in those 60 to 80+ years of age. And a higher death in those with preexisting conditions. So, finally, it is the elderly and those who preexisting health conditions that one is most concerned with protecting.

The worst case scenario with a uncontrolled spread of the virus would entail around 50-60% of the population getting infected within the next 6 months to 2 years. If 50% of those over 60 get sick, and these make up 15% of the population, that would mean the death of 1% of the population, probably more, given that intensive care could not be provided for all.

So, one possible approach, in the absence of a vaccine (and given that it could quite possibly be a year or more till a vaccine is widely available) to rapidly increasing herd resistance to the virus is to have all, or many of those who are relatively unlikely to die of the sickness (Healthy individuals under 40 with no preexisting conditions), and who are able to stay in strict quarantine for two weeks, to voluntarily expose themselves to the virus. Of course, some small percentage of these would in consequence die, so they would all have to be willing to undergo the risk of their own death for the sake of the common good. Let's say around 25% of the population is young enough, in good health, able to cease work for the next weeks (so probably not those in the medical profession). In terms of overall deaths, that might end up being around 0,05% of the population, much less than the worst case scenario and even less than some of the mid-case.

If such measures were to be taken without delay, there would still be medical facilities available to care for the small proportion of those voluntarily infected individuals who do wind up more seriously effected.

This step would, on the one hand, greater increase herd resistance to the virus, and therefore greatly slow down the spread of the virus. At the same time, since we would have many persons infected at a known point in time and be able to observe them, we would be able to more rapidly acquire knowledge about the virus, and be more quickly equipped to deal with it.

Such a radical step requires, of course, on the economical side, the ability for many working persons to voluntarily take off the next two weeks of work. In the USA this would probably require government intervention, and be politically nearly impossible.

With the social and political system in Austria such a step might be feasible, and, with the right presentation of the idea, might even be acceptable.

Of course, on the social level, the proposed step could be taken in various degrees: families with children under 10 able to stay at home for four weeks could let their children expose themselves to the virus and have their child remain in quarantine for that time, doing everything possible to avoid older children or the parents being infected — to mitigate even the small risk of death for the parents, while increasing the herd resistance. Or again, younger persons in the medical profession might seek immunity through voluntary infection at this time, to ensure that they are able to care for others in the event that many of their colleagues get sick involuntarily.

On the morality of such a step, it seems clear that, if deliberately infecting yourself were, in fact, determined to be the best means of protecting your family members (in particularly the elderly) or society as a whole from the virus, it would be a morally acceptable means. "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) The same applies to risking one's life for others.

Disclaimer: the idea just occurred to me today, I haven't thought through all the implications; there are a lot of uncertainties, including the effectiveness of this step, as it is theoretically possible that those infected and recovered might, after a certain period of time, lose their immune response and be able to be reinfected. I am NOT encouraging any individuals to deliberately expose themselves to the virus, much less encouraging any states to deliberately have people infected.