As America continues to succumb to the ravages of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, nowhere is it more intense than here in New York City.

My wife is a pediatric intensive care unit nurse at one of the city’s major hospitals that is swamped with victims, while refrigerated trucks are parked outside serving as a makeshift morgue. I am a 59 year-old Ph.D. microbiologist with a few comorbidities that ensure me a difficult time should I contract this virus.

For us it’s as real as it gets, and the peak death rate is still weeks away. We know several people who are in the hospital fighting for their lives, including two priests from the same parish.

People are frightened at the seemingly random nature of who gets infected and the increasing number of younger adults in perfect health who are dying. This fear, this random tap on the shoulder by the contagion and the immediacy of eternity, has prompted many to evaluate their lives and their relationship with God, as they sense they could be meeting him face-to-face sooner rather than later.

For many Catholics, confession and Mass have become even more urgent priorities. And just when this great revival is underway, they find our churches have been closed. No public Masses in any diocese, and in some, no confessions or anointing of the dying either.

The shuttering of churches in the face of the virus has shocked the minds and souls of clergy, religious, and faithful alike. Not a few on social media have attacked the bishops for making these decisions. Jesus would never allow the transmission of this virus through the Eucharist, some are arguing.

As a Catholic and microbiologist, I’m not so certain about such sentiments.

In 14th-century Europe, monasteries were devastated by the Black Death or bubonic plague, as the monks went out to tend to the sick and bury the dead. In the current pandemic, more than 80 priests have died already in Italy.

The simple truth is that physicians, nurses, first responders, and clergy all die standing at their posts in pandemics. It’s the heroic part of their heroic virtue.

Priests as lethal vectors

Here in the United States, the bishops are looking at a graying population of priests with an average age nearing 70, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the danger zone for dying from this virus because of their age and underlying health conditions. If the laity are upset by the temporary suspension of public Masses and eucharistic reception, what do we think will happen if a significant portion of our clergy die?

A Communion line exposes the priest or deacon to hundreds of people who increasingly may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. If one of these carriers accidentally touches the priest or deacon’s hands with their lips, tongues, or hands, this would not only transmit contagion to the clergy, but also to any eucharistic host in the ciborium.

And how about this horrifying thought: One asymptomatic infected priest or deacon, or one whose fingers have been contaminated by a communicant, could spread this virus to hundreds, maybe even thousands of people before falling ill himself. Equally horrifying is the thought that our clergy and fellow congregants could be felled by the seemingly healthy but infected among us.

The priest or deacon as a lethal vector at the distribution of communion. Let that sink in.

Yes, that could happen while distributing the Eucharist. Just ask the thousands of monks who died in the plagues of medieval Europe, or the scores of dead priests in Northern Italy.

And so it is for good cause that the bishops in our country have made the difficult decision to suspend public worship until this virus can be contained. “From God the doctor has wisdom,” the Scriptures tell us.

The bishops heed that advice. Though it was a tough call, it was absolutely the right one to make, one supported by all that we know about how this contagion is transmitted: Group activities are lethal.

The laity derive all the spiritual benefits of the Masses said in private and can participate via the internet. They may also make a spiritual communion, which is real and efficacious.

Confessions, anointings, and takeout

More difficult to square with our knowledge of how this contagion is transmitted is the prohibition on confessions in some dioceses.

To be certain, confessionals are death traps in the current pandemic. The enclosed space, the proximity of priest and penitent are a guarantee of disease transmission. From all that we know, a healthy minimum distance of 6 feet of space in open air between persons is consistent with nontransmission of disease. Eight to 10 feet would be even better.

In some parts of the country, priests have improvised, creating drive-thru confessionals where they stand a good 8 feet from the penitent’s car. Others have penitents sit on one end of a pew, while they sit about 8 feet away. The pews are wiped clean with disinfectant wipes after each confession.

Such healthy, sensible innovations make it possible for the Church to be there for people in a time when the world economy and individual lives seem to be hanging by a thread, when people need the solace of the sacraments more than ever, and when many have come looking for that solace after being away for decades.

From a strictly scientific perspective, there doesn’t appear to be any good pandemic-related reason to deny the faithful the sacrament of confession. People assume infinitely greater risks going to stores for food and other “essential” services, and stand in long lines with others in close quarters.

Picking up food in a drive-thru restaurant comes with the guarantee that several people have breathed on and touched the food or its containers during preparation, packaging, and delivery through the window.

Obviously, this increases the possibility for transmission of contagion with every individual who comes in physical contact with the product. No such vector transmission of contagion exists in drive-thru confessionals.

When fast food is there for the laity and the Church is not, it’s time for a reconsideration by the Church. Beyond innovative modes of confession, nothing is more important for the laity than anointing and absolving the sins of the dying in the midst of pandemic.

What about the sacraments of anointing and the distribution of the viaticum?

It makes sense medically, that priests be able to suitably gown, glove, and mask and stand at the same bedside, just as my wife and other medical professionals do.

My wife puts her life — and our children’s and mine by extension — on the line each and every night. A priest’s contact with patients is far less extensive. Certainly our younger priests are in a better position from a health perspective to perform this vital ministry than their older brother priests. It certainly wouldn’t be advisable for all priests, but this ministry should be permissible for priests who wish to do so on a voluntary basis.

What America’s bishops cannot afford to do right now is retreat and leave the laity to fend for themselves. Televised Mass and spiritual communion are fine in a time like this, as there is simply no safe way to do Mass and Communion. They spare the congregation and clergy from massive transmission of contagion.

But telling the laity that confession in your bedroom suffices in time of crisis, and denying the anointing of the sick seems, to this faithful layman, to run the risk of institutional suicide. It is an act of abandonment, and not prudence. 

So far, Catholic bishops in this country have shown themselves to be thoughtful and vigilant in their concern for the faithful. But this is also the time for fortitude, and when it comes to completely shutting the door to the possibility of sacramental confession and the anointing of the sick, as a seasoned professor of microbiology I respectfully invite them to reconsider.

This pandemic gives our bishops an opportunity to redeem a multitude of past failings by courageously and heroically putting it all on the line for the people at a time when the people need the Church the most.

The sight of bishops in the hospitals anointing the dying, hearing confessions, ministering to the medical personnel, putting their own lives on the line — this is an opportunity that they simply cannot let pass by.

This should be their finest hour. The alternative is unthinkable.