It now appears that the legacy of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is going to include an ongoing, sometimes ugly debate on the merits of closing churches and suspending religious services to halt the spread of COVID-19. The argument is one of those unfortunate cases where two important goods — here, religious liberty and public health — are set in opposition, with no one likely to emerge a clear winner.
Here are a few straws in the wind. Protestant pastors in California have sued, unsuccessfully, to protest church shutdowns. In Kentucky, a Baptist church was said to be planning a federal lawsuit after state troopers were told to note the license numbers of cars parked outside Easter services with a view to telling owners to self-quarantine for two weeks.
In the Catholic sector, things have generally been calmer, but not much. Virtually all pastors followed their bishops’ orders to close their churches and suspend public Masses and other ceremonies or allow them only under the most stringent limits. There was — still is — some grumbling about this, but few visible acts of noncompliance.
The first diocese in the country to relax the church lockdown was Las Cruces, New Mexico, where shortly after Easter Bishop Peter Baldacchino ordered a limited reopening of churches for Mass, with no more than five people allowed inside and other congregants staying in their cars. First Things editor R.R. Reno, usually a serious commentator on religious affairs, hailed this as “prudent, decisive leadership.” Conceding good intentions on the bishop’s part, others nonetheless wondered.
People who object to forced church closings regularly argue their case in terms of religious liberty. This presumably is what lay behind a Justice Department spokesperson’s announcement that Attorney General William Barr was “monitoring” the situation. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency,” the spokesperson added, “they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out religious organizations.”
Who can argue with that? Bishop Baldacchino made essentially the same point when he told a Catholic News Agency interviewer that people in his state were free to buy liquor but couldn’t go to Mass.
Obviously there are real legal issues here that need to be examined. At the same time, though, it’s important to realize that this is the sort of controversy in which common sense and moral reasoning are more to the point than arguments about law.
When people insist that churches should stay open come what may — “physical health must not be pursued to the exclusion of spiritual health,” Reno lectured — they ignore the fact that someone who goes to a church service and comes home carrying the novel coronavirus may be bringing a potentially deadly disease to his or her family and friends.
That points to an obvious conclusion.
Lacking a truly compelling reason like saving lives, knowingly acting in a way that risks spreading a potentially deadly disease to others is morally irresponsible. The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself has far more weight than any law, whether civil or canonical, or even the First Amendment. And if realistic love of neighbor requires keeping churches closed a while longer, then the churches should stay closed.
Extending the general lockdown — including church closings — also carries the advantage of spreading out the incidence of new cases of COVID-19 until improved treatment and, later, a reliable vaccine are available. There are no certainties, but this cautious approach seems measurably preferable to impetuously letting down our guard in the name of religious liberty or anything else.