- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

COVID Amnesty for Bishops?

As a student at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1990, I wrote a paper opposing then-Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s gruba kreska.  The “thick line” was a policy Poland’s first free Prime Minister pushed, deciding not to hold to account Communists, who for forty-five years had betrayed their country to the Soviets. He wanted, instead, to draw a “thick line” (gruba kreska) between the past and future.  I called it injustice, because it let off the totalitarians, big and small, from accounting to their victims for their deeds, while leaving those same perpetrators well-positioned to meddle in Poland’s future.

I recall that paper because The Atlantic’s [1]Emily Oster recently argued [1] for a gruba kreska, an “amnesty” for the architects of various COVID policies.  Rather than holding people to account for their decisions and consequences, Oster simply wants us to forget draconian COVID rules and “focus on the future.”


Americans died alone in hospitals.  Americans were concentrated in nursing homes and some politicians even mused about COVID internment camps.  Americans lost jobs and military careers to mandates.  Americans lost their religious freedom.

“Oops, sorry!” just doesn’t cut it.

It particularly doesn’t cut it when some of COVID’s worst policymakers are themselves unapologetic and go so far as to say: “I’d do it all again!”

But I want to shift the focus.  What about an “amnesty” for the U.S. Catholic bishops?

Like zealous COVID politicians, the U.S. bishops have yet even to look at their own record during the “pandemic.” So far, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops hasn’t engaged in self-examination as to whether shutting down Mass and the sacraments from sea to shining sea, in some places for more than a year, was a bad idea. Maybe simply wrong.  They seem to have given themselves a self-pardon.

More than a year ago, I urged the bishops to do a post-mortem [2] on the performance of the “field hospital” that broke camp and left the battlefield in the middle of a war.  That is a normal self-assessment after a crisis.  To date, that’s not happened.  Another fall assembly of the bishops has come and gone in Baltimore this year without any introspection about how the “field hospital” or its administrators behaved.  Nobody has taken responsibility for Catholics being:

There has been no accounting.  Without accounting, we cannot even begin to talk about “amnesty” or pardon.


The refusal to account for the above and much more demonstrates the worst of “clericalism,” which it’s very much in vogue these days to decry everywhere from Rome to local parishes.  Catholics in the United States have essentially been told to “be quiet and move on,” because the bishops have decided among themselves that their policies were right, and the Church always wants to maintain a bella figura.

What is most laughable in all this is that the legitimate demand of God’s People is being ignored in a “listening Synodal Church” that repeatedly invokes the Second Vatican Council, which clearly instructed each bishop not to “refuse to listen to his subjects, whom he [should] cherish as true sons.” (Lumen gentium 27)

The same dogmatic constitution also reminds bishops that the faithful:

have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.” (Lumen gentium, 37, emphasis added)

One would think we ought to be asked about how the bishops “accompanied” or “smelled like their sheep,” who faithfully knocked at locked church doors – doors that the bishops locked – relegated to the “peripheries” by their own shepherds.

Public officials are looking for “amnesty,” if not out of true regret at least out of a healthy sense of covering one’s rear against future liability and accountability.  It’s a kind of secular contrition: healthy self-preservation is perhaps not the most noble of motives, but sufficient for salvation when accompanied by confessing what one did wrong.  In their clerical aloofness, our bishops haven’t even reached that state.

Beyond accountability, however, what both groups (and Catholics in this country) need is protection against future near occasions of sin.  Even if we grant that there’s a modicum of good faith in both state and church officials, we should not just rely on their (in)firm purpose of amendment.  We need to put into place measures (including repeal or at least stringent caps on civil “state-of-emergency” legislation) to prevent these abuses from ever happening again.

The doors of a church should never again be closed to Catholics in a “democratic” country.


*Image: The Comparison by Jehan George Vibert, mid or late 19th century [private collection]

You may also enjoy some of our most popular columns from the last dozen years:

Cardinal Gerhard L. Mueller’s On the New TLM Restrictions [4]

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s A Pastor on the Vaccines [5]

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.