As the tumultuous Spring 2021 General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fades, I propose a topic for the Fall meeting that may make the recent debate over Eucharistic coherence look like a walk in the park. Let’s review the bishops’ performance during the pandemic.
More bishops are rescinding dispensations from the dominical precept and restoring the canonical obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Barring some unforeseen turn of events (like the resurgence of COVID or one of its mutations) dioceses should be “back to normal” and the bishops able to gather once more in person in November.
And there’s the rub. We need an honest discussion of “back to normal.” Is “back to normal” a return to the pre-March 2020 malaise – maybe 20 percent of Catholics attending Mass, while not knowing what the “Real Presence” means? Or is “back to normal” a more thoroughgoing probe of a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of the Catholic Church in the United States?
I’ve generally thought that the annual shindigs of the American Episcopate in Baltimore hotels are a gross waste of money, given the participants are furiously selling off property. Couldn’t some underused high school or college accommodate their graces for three days? But I have to say I welcome the sacramental value of the bishops getting together physically this fall, because it was that crucial physicality that was lost in the great Mass shutdown.
Some bishops invoked the virtual nature of the spring meeting as an excuse to try and ward off any discussion of “Eucharistic coherence.” But if those pastors feigned discomfort in “virtually” discussing a (long overdue) teaching document, why didn’t they show similar concern about prolonging Catholics’ online separation from Mass?
If some bishops worried about a potential patchwork of episcopal exchanges across the country, are they similarly concerned about the patchwork of sacramental responses that followed the great Mass shutdown? Churches closed in the middle of Lent 2020. Diocese A continued normal Lenten practices by drive-in confessions; neighboring Diocese B forbade such accompaniment of the faithful. Some bishops found courageous and charitable priests to anoint the dying; others invalidated the sacrament by trying to delegate actual anointing to health-care personnel; still others simply abandoned the sacrament (and the sick) to “spiritual” anointing.
Most bishops hid behind Caesar’s skirts, throwing up their hands about what they could or could not do. When the first lawsuits against excessive COVID restrictions reached the Supreme Court in May and July 2020, they came from evangelical Protestants, not Catholic bishops or their well-funded “public affairs” arms in state Catholic conferences.
Let me acknowledge, however, two important examples of early episcopal leadership. When Governor Tom Walz loosened commercial restrictions but retained a lockdown on churches in May 2020, Minnesota’s Catholic bishops defied him. And the Diocese of Brooklyn was a litigant in a key November 2020 Supreme Court case that reversed a troubling deference to executive abridgement of religious freedom.
It’s a normal thing, after a crisis, to do a post-mortem. What could we have done better?
Real hospitals, after a crisis, take stock of their performance. Were we prepared? Was the ER properly staffed? Did we have protocols? Were we flexible and creative enough to adapt those protocols when they reality hit? What do we do the next time we face a crisis?
Will the ecclesiastical “field hospital” do any similar self-assessment? Was it prepared? Were priests properly deployed? Did we know how to provide sacraments where we could, think outside the box, deliver spiritual care? What will we do the next time we face a crisis?
Or, in the best clerical tradition, will we simply insist that a “field hospital” that struck the tent, closed its doors, and retreated from the battlefield is the paradigm for next time?
How about engaging in some “dialogue” with those Catholics who stayed and came back? Most pastors report that Sunday Mass attendance is down, even compared to anemic pre-COVID numbers. Since many bishops spoke during the debate about the need to “listen,” how about doing that with those faithful Catholics still with you? You might even consider it your own quasi “synodal way!”
My guess is that there won’t be much of an appetite for that. Unlike Germany’s paid ecclesiastical bureaucrats who can be counted on to lead the “synodal way” down “progressive” paths, the remnant of American Catholics, still filling the pews, might not sing along with bishops and their chanceries.
Still, COVID is – to borrow a currently chic Washington term – an “inflection point.” The Catholic Church is never going to be the same post-COVID as it was pre-COVID, which is why I have argued  we need to mark the return to Sunday Mass with more than just an episcopal letter revoking a dispensation. To pretend that we can go back to things as they were – especially without engagement of the faithful’s views – is profoundly unjust, perhaps even deafness to the Spirit.
Some questions need discussion:
– How do we maintain the Church’s sacramental (i.e., physical) presence amidst pandemics?
– How do we administer the sacraments, especially to those in danger of death?
– How do we keep the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life?” Do we need to find parks or parking lots to distribute Communion?
– If we provide the opportunity for Catholics to view Mass online, how do we ensure that crutch does not become a substitute for “the Real Presence?”
– And how do we respond to overbearing civil intrusion abridging our Constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion? Do we need to pursue legislation now to curtail those “emergency powers?”
These should be normal post-crisis questions. They should be on the fall U.S. Bishops’ in-person agenda.
*Image: His Eminence Returns  by Jehan-Georges Vibert, c; 1865 [Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA]