“Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This Jesus said to one who wished to see his father safely laid to rest, and properly mourned, before responding to the call to discipleship.
Jesus’ answer would be shockingly unacceptable to many today, as perhaps it was to the aspiring disciple in question.
Today we have seen, in a quite different sense, the dead left to bury their own dead, while people fled to safety from the coronavirus. We have even seen the dying left unshriven, deprived of last rites, because there was no one there to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. We have seen, and are still seeing, people incarcerated in their own homes while their houses of worship are shuttered. “Go home and stay home,” we are told, “so that we don’t have to bury your father.” Thus is proclaimed the kingdom of man, the gospel of the saviour state. For the state cannot overcome death, our last enemy; it plays instead to our fear of death, promising death’s postponement.
In some jurisdictions, thankfully, the most draconian measures are now being lifted. In others they are just beginning, as the state ramps up its surveillance and enforcement mechanisms. But even in the former, they are not generally being lifted from those who have that other kingdom to proclaim, the kingdom of God. New Zealand, for example, has passed its COVID-19 Public Health Response. Religious services are limited to ten people, while movie theatres are permitted one hundred. Britain is rolling out its back-to-work plans. Clergy are placed somewhere near the back of the queue with hairdressers. For the state deems religious gatherings high risk – too social, too dynamic, too intimate – and of no great importance, where not actually a threat.
Operating on the good-neighbor principle, the churches were generally quick to comply with government recommendations and orders. Many are now chafing, however, at the inequitable constraints being placed on them. Some are sending letters and petitions to the authorities, pressing them for permission to meet. Others are even beginning to defy what they consider unconstitutional bans on their meetings. Still others, however, are in no particular rush. Patience is a virtue, after all, and live-streaming from closed buildings for a while longer, perhaps a good while longer, seems not so bad.
I worry about the last of these. They make their appeal to the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And to what Jesus identified as the second Great Commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” These they have merged into a justification for the new COVID commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor by staying well away from him, lest thou pass on a virus that might kill him.” And the COVID commandment, they point out, also remains in force.
We cannot simply dismiss this reasoning, but we ought at least to query it. The fifth commandment, we should observe, forbids unauthorized (or wrongly authorized) actions intended to kill. In short, it forbids murder, which is not in question here. There is, of course, a penumbral reasoning around the fifth commandment that rightly produces many secondary applications related to respect for the Giver and gift of life. These range from not being an accessory to murder, to not depriving the poor of the means to sustain themselves, to not driving drunk, etc. And among these secondary applications is taking care not to infect people with a deadly virus.
Taking care not to infect people with a deadly virus, however, like most of the other penumbral applications, is a matter requiring prudential judgment. If we excuse ourselves from polio quarantine, say, because we have things to do and people to see, we violate both the spirit of the fifth commandment and the substance of the second Great Commandment. We are not loving our neighbor as we ought, unless perchance we are helping our neighbor get to the hospital, say, as my uncle did for my father when polio hit. But if there’s merely a nasty winter flu going around – a flu that, in combination with old age or an existing morbidity factor, might nonetheless lead to another’s death – do we cancel all our gatherings? No, we just take a little more care. We cancel only in time of pandemic; that is to say, when a virus is deadly even to healthy people and when it cannot be dealt with except by preventing social gatherings until we have seen it off.
Exceptions to pandemic regulations and their eventual lifting also require prudential judgment, because it won’t do to protect people from a deadly virus only to hand them over to poverty, famine, tyranny, war, or death by neglect. That isn’t loving the neighbor either. We can be foolish or even selfish by coming together when we shouldn’t or by not coming together when we should. Before we knew that COVID was not generally deadly to healthy people – recent studies indicate that in technologically advanced societies it has a mortality rate under 0.6 percent – and before we had systems in place for helping people to survive it if they needed help, we cancelled nearly everything. Now we are rightly beginning to reverse course, in hopes of rescuing our crumbling social and financial economies.
So what’s my worry? My worry is that those who live in jurisdictions where draconian restrictions on religious communities – restrictions difficult to justify in the first place – are not being reversed, and who are simply counseling patience with that, have allowed the COVID commandment to become the greatest commandment of all. My worry is that by their compliance they are endorsing, or will be seen to be endorsing, not the gospel of the kingdom but the gospel of the state; that they are making the priorities of the state their own, rather than the priorities of Jesus.
Let’s think a little harder about those Great Commandments. The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is, as Augustine taught, a command to love the neighbor as the creature God made him to be; that is, as “a rational soul with a body in its service.” The love directed to the body he called medicine, and the love directed to the soul he called discipline. Because the soul is greater than the body, medicine must always be in service to discipline. When we attempt to do good to the neighbor’s body at the expense of a good that requires to be done to the neighbor’s soul, we are not keeping the second Great Commandment but violating it.
Christian prudential judgment, then, cannot take the form of scrupulous regard for the body without still more scrupulous regard for the soul. The welfare of both must be taken into account, just because man is a rational animal; but there is a clear priority here, an indisputable hierarchy. What is done for the body is done for the sake of the man whose body it is. Nothing should be done for or to the body that generates real risks for or to the soul. (Still less can one do something for one’s own body at the risk of another’s soul, though there are valid exceptions to that rule.) We only love the neighbor properly, insists Augustine, when we help him learn, as we ourselves must learn, to keep the first and greatest commandment, to love the Lord God with all the heart; for this God is his God, too, whether he knows it or not. And that is why we must, in Jesus’ sense, let the dead bury their own dead and go about the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.
Now, I ask you: Do we do that by allowing that churches should remain shuttered, and home discipleship groups banned, and charity work forbidden, while people go to malls and theatres and restaurants? Do we do that by practicing the kind of generosity that allows the state to dictate the terms on which the Church fulfills – or does not fulfill – its own mission, the terms on which it carries out – or does not carry out – its own ambassadorial mandate from its Lord and God?
In “Easter without Mass” I asked on what grounds, what properly ecclesial grounds, the Eucharist is celebrated but the faithful barred from attending. I have seen only three answers. The first is precedent, which begs the question. The second is that of Cardinal Mueller: there are in fact no grounds. The third is this appeal to “Love thy neighbor.” But surely we are not loving our neighbors by suspending ecclesial life and ecclesial missions until the state says they may be resumed. Given the way many states are going about this – or rather not going about it – we are simply confirming to our neighbors, and to ourselves, that the Church is largely irrelevant to public life and to the common good; that it operates with the same motives and fears as everyone else; that it reads the second Great Commandment, not in light of the first, but without reference to the first; that it requires no properly ecclesial grounds for its actions; that it has other gods to direct it.
Am I calling for civil disobedience, then? Am I siding with those prepared to practice it? Yes I am, if and where that becomes necessary. Am I saying that prudence may now be set aside, either in matters of health or in matters of law, in determining whether it is necessary? Of course not. I am urging bishops and pastors and lay leaders, if they are not already doing so, to make clear to civil authorities that, in the matter of their own ecclesial mission, they cannot and will not accept being sent to the back of the queue. They can do without a haircut and without the movie theatre, for that matter. But they can’t do without the freedom to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and tend to their flocks.
But here a word to fellow sheep from those still-scattered flocks: A good case can be made that our sacramental life is suffering, and our neighborhood missions too, not merely because of the coronavirus and heavy-handed official responses to it, conceded by timid shepherds. Perhaps, on a much deeper level, we are being permitted by God to suffer these things because we have abused the gifts and the mandate entrusted to us laity. Perhaps our Lord is pointing out to us that we have not been loving our neighbors as ourselves, that we haven’t cared much for their souls or made any great effort to inculcate in them the love and gratitude to God that the first and greatest commandment requires. Perhaps we are being asked to consider whether we ourselves have been quite content to live in a putatively “secular” society, a society in which it is convenient to go little further in the love of neighbor than the false compassion expected of us there. Perhaps the Good Shepherd himself is rebuking us, through the state and through leaders inclined to defer too readily to the state, for our own failure to think and act on the basis of the first Great Commandment.
Easter is well behind us. The Solemnity of the Ascension approaches, and then very quickly Pentecost. Will there be a gathered church to celebrate these great feasts? What witness will we give to the nations respecting the one who sits at God’s right hand? What signs of the power of his Spirit? What messages will we ourselves be given from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven candlesticks,” discerning hearts and weighing deeds?
Are we listening? Have we ears to hear? Or are we merely sheltering in place, in a quite private upper room where the doors remain closed, like the tomb of Jesus, by order of the state? If so, our neighbors may be forgiven for supposing that we fear the state, rather than God, and that we prefer our pre-Pentecost condition. Let prudence speak as prudence must, where both the virus and the state are concerned, but only that prudence infused by the love of God that casts out fear.
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