Clericalism and the Pandemic

April 18, 2020

Fr. Jim Sabak, OFM

As any diocesan director of worship knows, there has been much to navigate during this distorting period in human history. At the center of concerns lay the issue of how to deal with the celebration and administration of the sacraments.

Yet, in my experience, the greatest difficulties lay not in the necessity of adapting to new norms and restrictions, but rather in the unanticipated reactions from clergy to the suggested adaptations. Little did I realize what sort of maelstrom would erupt as we put into place ideas and recommendations precipitated by the need for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The three sacramental areas most in need of attention were, of course, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick. If the virus had not materialized during Lent, Penance might have been less a point of controversy. So with the approval of the bishop, I prepared a memo offering some guidance on how to approach these sacraments given the seriousness of this world-wide pandemic.

For the Eucharist, we moved toward encouraging live-streamed celebrations of the Mass. Given the increasing restrictions limiting the number of people who could gather in public areas, naturally, it made sense. We asked, also, to avoid distribution of communion either before or after Mass, given that this practice isolated the sacramental elements from the context of the sacramental celebration.

For Penance, we asked clergy to discontinue “drive-up” celebrations as not the most appropriate way to celebrate the sacrament.
Additionally, we noted that spacing a penitent six feet from a confessor did not provide for the essential privacy for individual celebration of the sacrament.
For Anointing of the Sick we struggled to envision a manner by which to celebrate the sacrament especially with the terminally ill who had succumbed to the virus. We decided that prayer over the sick and with family would be best, given the problematic situation involved with touching the forehead and palms with the Oil of the Sick.

Within minutes of receiving the memo my email inbox exploded with question after question after question. Some only asked for clarity and expansion on what the memo contained. Other correspondence, however, contained an anger, which source was difficult to discern.

One of the ordained wrote that my suggestions made him question why he ever became a priest in the first place, and that he should have stayed in immigration law. Another sent the memo to the blog of the infamous Fr. Z, who proceeded to “rant,” as he is wont. Fr. Z raved on that these guidelines left the faithful to eternal condemnation because they prohibited the faithful from receiving the necessary sacraments before death.

Many others cited saints and martyrs who defied authorities, swam in shark infested waters and other such feats, to bring communion to the faithful. How could we cave in to secular demands organized to deprive the diocese of its religious freedom? One priest attempted to reason that distributing Communion into the mouth was more sanitary and safer than distribution in the hand.

And then a secret trove of Canon Lawyers came out of the woodwork; all citing canon 1000, section 2, in regard to Anointing of the Sick. The canon states, for grave reason, to use an instrument for the actual anointing. The canon, however, says nothing explicitly about what to do in case of pandemic.

The reactions were both startling and puzzling, not just because they reflected an ignorance of the severity of the pandemic, but because of what they conveyed as an understanding of ordained ministry and of the work of the sacraments. The clergy who demanded to continue “saying” Mass, and “hearing” confessions, and “performing” anointings were doing so, it suggested, because “doing” these ritual actions defined who they are as priests, and only who they are as priests.

Given some of the current trends identifying clerical ministry as a sacramental dispensary, this revelation is nothing new. More critically, though, it inadvertently betrayed a troubling view of ordained ministry and sacramental ministry. A curious form of pandemic clericalism that compels the ordained to attend to the needs of the faithful, but on their own terms. These terms seem to favor ritual enactment over context.

The dominant issue is the prohibition on enacting the sacraments. This enactment, however, focuses less on the truth that sacramental events are communal in nature, than on the necessary role of clerics as ministers of the sacraments. Misunderstanding by the faithful on the role of the ordained only feeds into this weak perception of ministry in the Church. The backlash and objections of the clergy conveyed the conviction that the inability to provide the sacraments in the accustomed fashion left the faithful in some sort of spiritual peril before God. If a priest could not personally through this own agency guide a believer to forgiveness, to healing, to the Eucharistic table, then somehow he neglected his priestly office, and both the cleric and faithful stood accused of giving offense of God.

Such perspectives and reactions seemed to emphasize a rubricism and legalism, popular in some circles of the Church today. What was most troubling, though, was the primarily supernatural and almost magical approach toward engagement and efficacy of the sacraments. In a fascinating manner, the pandemic seems to have unearthed a Counter-Reformation image of sacramental understanding as medicinal where the clergy act as the earthly physicians of the “Heavenly Physician.” The faithful, because they are fundamentally sinners, need the sacraments to heal them and to maintain an appropriate relationship with God. They also give them a fighting chance for eternal life should they die. The proliferation of an 18th century prayer by Alphonsus Ligouri to alleviate anxiety over the inability to receive Eucharist in these days, which prayer is theologically problematic – it is not Jesus, whom we receive, but the risen Christ – testifies to this.

Nothing in any of these conversations reflected an understanding of sacrament as communal, as an encounter with God, with Christ, for building up of the Reign of God, for the transformation of our lives here and now. While the concern for the faithful and their reception of the sacraments is sincere, this concern emphasized the immortal salvation obtained through sacramental reception and the role of the ordained in providing the means for that salvation. It was cultic in scope, approaching the position that without the clergy there can be no sacramental experience, and thereby no possibility of salvation.

Such interpretations and emphases around sacramental engagement fly in the face of reformed theology after the Second Vatican Council. The ordained sincerely aspire to exercise their role as ministers in this difficult period of social restrictions, but they seek to do so in an almost magical way. This approach projects a view of God who will not suffer the inconveniences of a pandemic to get what this God deserves by way of sacramental obligations.

Most striking in the demands of both the clergy and the faithful for “their sacraments,” is a critical “missing the mark” in appreciating the role of sacraments in the “daily and domestic” lives of believers. To treat these events in human life as principally metaphysical encounters, individually pursued, robs them of their connection to this good earth and the truth revealed that God chooses to act for us through the things of this good earth. It is always God who acts in and through sacramental encounter, the ordained serving as instruments to gather the Church together for the purpose of encountering God’s activity. In these days, this experience must take place beyond the usual sphere of ritual and rubric. Anything else serves only to limit our vital experience of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and love.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Ministers of religion have a bounden duty to bring people the presence of the Risen Christ in this desolate time. But like university teachers, the clergy are being perceived as taking a holiday.

    Social media are part of the answer. We need to get more savvy about them.

  2. Donal Dorr says:

    Thanks for this clearly written and theologically well-informed article. I hope and pray that it will help priests and their parishioners to a deeper understanding of the ministry of priests.

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    This is interesting indeed and feeds into our need to re-examine priesthood as it is perceived to be. Fr Z sounds a frightening, almost demagogic, being.

    “Fr. Z raved on that these guidelines left the faithful to eternal condemnation because they prohibited the faithful from receiving the necessary sacraments before death.”

    Who has the right to claim such a judgment and terrify poor terminally ill people?!

    Absolute rigidity and an inability to adapt to differing and extremely unprecedented circumstances is so dangerous. Surely this is the time to bring the comfort and love of Christ into every situation.

    I must say that here in Armagh parish we have excellent examples of clergy doing exactly that. One of the most uplifting examples was when our Archbishop with two of our priests offered mass for all the departed in our large cemetery. It brought huge comfort to those of us whose loved ones are interred there particularly to those who have suffered a recent bereavement but who, because of Covid restrictions, cannot visit their family graves. We also have daily and evening mass and evening prayers broadcast from our churches. Many other parishes are doing likewise. I know our new auxiliary bishop is also doing sterling work. I am no uncritical supporter of the status quo but I do like to give praise where praise is due!

    If social distancing is to be extended to the end of the year as Chris Whitty, chief medical advisor to the UK government, has suggested, how will that impact on us when churches reopen and masses are as they were before? We have excellent attendances at Sunday masses here, believe it or not, so how do we maintain that social distance and how do we queue up for the Eucharist? That is going to be a difficult hurdle to face given the understandable fears in people at present.

    The need for public safety and for compassion outweighs any ritual enactment and strict adherence to canon law. Any human being brought up to believe in and to follow Christ must react to any situation with the heart first and foremost. You will turn people away from Christ if you prioritise rigid adherence to rules but you will bring Christ to others if you show a little flexibility and compassion like ‘the boss’ in Rome. ( if only he could take that beam out of his eye re women.) ?

    P.S. May I also add my support, along with the others, in congratulating Fr Stephen Farragher on his very Christ like gesture in welcoming the Muslim community in that “ Seeds of Peace” thread.

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