Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said Friday that the city’s current restrictions on public worship— which prohibit indoor services of any kind, as opposed to other entities such as retail which have been allowed to reopen indoor operations— show “callous unconcern” for people’s spiritual needs.
“Let alone the fact that the city is judging religious services as less important, and treating them more harshly than other activities— the city has no authority at all over the Church’s right to worship,” Archbishop Cordileone told CNA Sept. 4.
“It is not the job of the state to decide what religious services are essential or inessential: that is the Church’s job.”
The San Francisco County Department of Health is currently limiting outdoor worship services to 12 people, with indoor worship services prohibited. The archdiocese covers the city and county of San Francisco— where the cathedral is located— as well as San Mateo and Marin counties.
The state’s legitimate concern for health and safety does have some bearing on how the Church operates, he said— for example, there are good reasons why church buildings must be built with respect to code.
“But the state does not tell the Church how to arrange the liturgical space—that pertains to the internal life of the Church, over which the state has no authority. The same principle applies to worship services: the state has no right whatsoever to tell the Church it cannot worship, but it has every right and responsibility to tell the Church which practices it must observe to keep people safe during worship,” Cordileone continued.
“Those practices, though, cannot be so restrictive as to effectively ban public worship, such as only outdoors with no more than 12 people.”
Cordileone said priests at many parishes around the archdiocese, including the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, are celebrating multiple Masses every Sunday— outside, and spaced out— in order to adapt to the restrictions.
“The Body and Blood of Christ is the source and summit of our Faith. People are hungry for the Eucharist, and many priests are responding to the call as best they can,” he said.
The City of San Francisco has been closely monitoring Catholic churches in the city and has repeatedly issued warnings to the archdiocese for apparent health order violations.
Cordileone said he himself has noted “very few” violations of the city’s health orders by parishes in the archdiocese, although the few that have occurred have garnered heavy criticism in the secular press.
Even while protesting the city’s apparent unequal application of health restrictions, the archbishop has encouraged his priests to lead their parishes in following the city’s guidelines.
“Wearing a face covering is one of the simplest and most effective things you can do. And if that is not enough, then wear one simply for the sake of good manners,” he appealed.
“Do not show a lack of compassion for people who are afraid of catching a disease that is quite deadly to many people with comorbidities and the elderly, which we Catholics should particularly respect and protect.”
While Cordileone said city officials have been “cordial and respectful” in their dialogue with the archdiocese, Cordileone said the city still has not responded to the archdiocese’ safety plan— outlining how churches could be safely opened for indoor services— which they submitted in May.
“Whereas retail stores sent in safety plans, had them approved by the City, and then resumed indoor retail at 50% capacity. And yet, churches can be safer environments than stores,’ Cordileone noted.
In a letter to San Francisco's Mayor London Breed and other city officials, Cordileone last week called on the city’s secular authorities to, “at a minimum, remove the excessive limits on outdoor public worship.”
“Particularly for us as Catholics, attending the Mass and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in person is the source and the summit of our faith, and we have shown we can celebrate the Mass safely,” Cordileone wrote Aug. 31.
He cited a recent article on Mass attendance and COVID-19, authored Aug. 19 by doctors Thomas McGovern, Deacon Timothy Flanigan, and Paul Cieslak for Real Clear Science.
Over the last 14 weeks, the doctors said, approximately 17,000 parishes have held three or more Masses each weekend, as well as daily services, combining to equal more than 1 million public Masses celebrated across the United States since shelter-in-place orders were lifted.
By following public health guidelines, these Masses have largely avoided viral spread. The doctors said in their article that there is no evidence that church services are higher risk than similar activities when guidelines are followed, and no coronavirus outbreaks have yet been linked to the celebration of the Mass.
“Catholics have developed responsible safety protocols to conduct the Mass safely. The evidence shows these protocols are working,” Cordileone told CNA.
“San Francisco’s excessive limits on the Mass are not only a violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights, they show a kind of callous unconcern for our parishioners’ emotional and spiritual needs.”
In a July 30 memo, Cordileone exhorted his priests to be as diligent as possible in bringing the sacraments to their people, including celebrating outdoor Masses each Sunday, and providing Confession in a safe manner as often as possible.
“Please regularly remind people to follow the safety practices necessary to curb the spread of the virus. This is real, it is dangerous, and it has to be taken seriously,” he added.
“The resurgence is due in no small part to people becoming lax once the shelter-in-place rules began to be lifted. Please urge these practices upon them; absolutely do not give them the impression that the coronavirus is not a serious threat to the physical health of our community.”
The Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, which provides liturgical resources in the archdiocese, shared a petition Aug. 31 in support of Cordileone’s statement calling for the lifting of restrictions on the Mass. To date more than 1,400 people have signed.