The Most Essential Service

Having received the latest scoldings from Little Greta and my pope, I consulted a message from the public health bureaucracy. My plan was to live dangerously: to go out for a walk.

I could perhaps cover this activity by choosing a supermarket as my destination. If the police stopped me, I’d have groceries and a receipt in hand. Several squad cars passed on my way. Two bicycle cops were distracted by another customer.

At one point in my journey, I realized to my (affected) horror that I had come within a yard of another human being. By sheer luck, I wasn’t spotted. The other fellow didn’t look like the sort I’d like to occupy a jail cell with.

Toronto, where I’m locked down – “under house arrest” as I like to put it – has been fairly easy-going by comparison with some other jurisdictions. Our mayor is a control freak by nature, but the provincial premier is only doing what he must. Panicked by progressive media, filling our faces with their scare stories, the tyranny comes at public demand.

But it has limits. The authorities haven’t dared to shut the (state-owned) liquor stores; and they’ll let us buy groceries and drugs, if we line up correctly.

Churches, of course, have been closed. All Masses through Easter were canceled. The bishop wrote a sensitive memo to us. He was not so rude as to attempt any resistance, when what he would do was “suggested” by the secular authorities.

I am not that bishop (a very nice man, unlike me); but were I, there’d be trouble. I would want to know why “licker” is an essential service, and the Mass is not? I would want to know, practically, how a crowd in a liquor store, or a Walmart for that matter, is any less susceptible to the Batflu than any comparable number in a church?

And I’d have many other questions, including: Who says faithful Catholics, or any other Christians, would be less assiduous in taking health precautions than people who want to restock their booze? (Not that I object to letting them do so.)

Under what legal authority is the “suggestion” made? What would happen if we ignored it?

Perhaps it could be taken as a “teachable moment” for the politician in question, about the claims of Christ, and how they transcend his.

More fundamental, is the question of independence, to be confronted eventually, after generations of letting it slide. Why do we allow the state to intimately regulate our affairs? For we are two radically different institutions, under different masters.

My own deep suspicion is that the modern fecklessness of the Church is related to this slide. We have surrendered our responsibilities and, with these, our identity. For all practical purposes, we’ve let go of the duty to discipline ourselves. We’ve invited the godless into our vacuum and now defer to their auditors and judges.


But this goes beyond the question of the moment, and as there seems to be some sort of emergency, we will put it off for now. Leave it to some day when we forego what is urgent, to discuss what’s important, instead.

Immediate charity would dictate that we take a pandemic as seriously as any politicians would do. We can count on their instinct for biological survival to make people look out for themselves, being eager to alert them to the care of others.

But are we any longer qualified to do this?

We are, after all, the divine but also worldly institution that founded the first hospitals and trained the first dedicated doctors and nursing sisters. We dominated this trade for many centuries. A large part of the medical and welfare infrastructure of the planet still belongs to us; much of the rest did until it was expropriated.

A journalist friend of mine – no Catholic – has covered several dozen warzones, famines, natural catastrophes, epidemics, all over the world. He told me that in every single one he had found heroic Christian volunteers; usually Catholic.

We are actually more familiar with disaster and disease than any secular power – more likely to throw its weight into causing them.

And we’ve been expert at singing the Mass in the most unlikely places and times, under such difficulties as bombardment. Why do we pretend to be such ingénues now? To be taking instructions instead of giving them, in the pressure of events?

Or to put this question another way, are we Catholic? Are we called, or are we called?

It is typical of political debate that the arguments are made by posturing. (“What is more important, health or money?”) It is typical that everything proposed requires a new bureaucracy or the expansion of an old one. It is typical of modern medicine that there are few volunteers, for efforts that are tightly regulated. In this latest outbreak, as in the half-dozen that I remember, the authorities are caught unsupplied and unprepared.

That bureaucracy will always fail the test is more or less a fact of nature. Its rise to an occasion is temporary, under the force of some personality; when he is gone, hope is gone.

But now the bureaucracy is in the Church. We work on rules and protocols, and meet, if we do, “professional standards.” We’re arranged in departments, very much indoors, in a world changed from when the Church could look inspired; for she is not a department but a mission.

Now, at our best, we are back in mission territory. There is, through our consumerist neo-pagan West, an underlying sadness and despair, as I think there was in the later ancient world. People are lost, without direction. I am not the first to say this.

The mission that we have is urgent and important. For the truth is that our most essential service is being abandoned with all the many others. Our churches are only closed because they CAN be closed.


*Image: St. Roch in the Hospital by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), 1549 [Church of San Rocco, Venice]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: