Washington state Catholic leaders would rather stick it to the president than let him defend their right to celebrate Mass. Following President Donald Trump’s direction on Friday for states to allow houses of worship to reopened and to declare public worship as essential, Gov. Jay Inslee immediately thumbed his nose, and Washington bishops quickly follow suit.
In a disappointing response, the bishops demonstrated that rather than stand up for their flock and acknowledge the president’s commitment to religious freedom, they prefer hand-wringing and waffling while they wait for the governor to pass judgement. The bishops have shared with the governor broad practical guidelines outlining how Washington Catholics can “safely return to public worship.” It is their “understanding that these are in review with the Governor’s office now,” and they are “look[ing] forward to his rapid response.”
Why exactly are the bishops waiting? Although insisting that their “love of God and neighbor is always personal and not partisan,” the letter makes it clear that the bishops are giving a big thanks-but-no-thanks to Trump. Instead they are throwing their lot in with a secular state government that is perilously close to violating a constitutionally protected freedom. Bishops are keeping sacraments suspended indefinitely and allowing Washington churches to be treated differently than other establishments in terms of opening.
The governor has been unable to explain why gathering for worship is riskier than shopping in a supermarket or gathering in a restaurant, and the bishops’ continued acceptance of this arbitrary and discriminatory position is a slap in the face to Catholics. Washington bishops need to act faster and with greater valor.
The Bishops Are Bending to Politics
Rather than urging Catholics to defend their faith and right to worship, the bishops’ response Friday reflects the belligerent determination of Washington liberals to undermine their president no matter what and, bizarrely, even when it contradicts their own interest.
That Washingtonians would rejoice in churches remaining closed because Trump has declared they should reopen is a perversity only explained by our relentlessly partisan political climate. The bishops’ letter was more a product of Washington state politics and an understanding of their “constituents” than a reflection of church teaching, a commitment to the sacraments, and a true love of Jesus and their congregants.
Throughout the lockdown, I have participated in livestream Sunday Mass, as well as daily Mass whenever possible. I try to make a habit of praying the rosary, praying with my children, reading the Bible and books on church history and doctrine, and above all seeking a closer relationship with Jesus. It has been essential for me to nurture and strengthen my faith while unable to attend Mass and receive Communion.
The Catholic Church teaches that through the sacrament of the Eucharist, we commune with Jesus Christ by truly partaking in his body and blood, together with his soul and divinity. It is therefore essential to Catholic worship.
Yet I cannot reconcile the Washington bishops’ position with these teachings. Is the Eucharist merely a symbol and therefore not essential and not worth defending? Or are the bishops failing to uphold their apostolic mission? If the Eucharist is truly the source and summit of the Christian life, why are the bishops not doing more to urgently defend our faith?
I understand the need for churches to have been closed at the beginning of the pandemic to help prevent a public health catastrophe, particularly the overloading of our health care system. I accept that the wellbeing and safety of congregants was an urgent concern. However, the data indicate the situation in Washington is steadily improving, with a decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations. It is therefore no longer reasonable to prevent the faithful from gathering to celebrate Mass.
I commend the bishops’ resolve to ensure parishes reopen safely and in a way that ensures the reverence and respect of the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass. But their position that after almost two months of closure, Washington churches must remain entirely shut — even for adoration, personal prayer, and confession — out of respect for human life and health is excessive and unjustified. At this point in the pandemic, the bishops could continue to be “instruments of God’s protection for the vulnerable” and respect our civic responsibilities, while allowing the faithful to return to the sacraments.
Church Is Essential Even When It’s Risky
The bishops run the risk of sending a message to the faithful in Washington that we participate in the sacraments and practice our faith only when it’s safe to do so, never when it’s risky, and not when it may pose a danger. I am not aware of anything in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that supports this rhetoric. Nor can this approach be reconciled with the teachings of St. Paul, the lives of the apostles and early church fathers, the sacrifice of martyrs, the determination of leaders such as young Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), the resolve and self-sacrifice of Mother Theresa, not to mention the example of Jesus Christ himself.
As Catholics, we are absolutely called on to protect the vulnerable, but not to stop practicing our faith when it may be risky.
In this light, the bishops should resubmit to the governor their plan for safely reopening Washington churches with a specific opening date and congregation size. The plan should invite the governor’s response but should not depend on it. Indeed, it should express a commitment to press ahead with reopening regardless of the governor’s views, unless public health data released in the interim persuades the bishops that a period of extended caution is warranted.
Washington bishops should not get drawn into Inslee’s petulant point-scoring performance against Trump, nor the anti-Trump hysteria of leftist Washingtonians.
Catholics believe the Eucharist is the Bread of Life, that it Christifies and eternalizes us, and is thus essential to our lives. This is a sacred truth, for which countless martyrs, saints, and missionaries have risked and often sacrificed their lives over two millennia. It is time for the Washington bishops to boldly proclaim this truth and reopen our churches. To leave the ball in the governor’s court is a pastoral failure.