An Opportunity to Peacefully Establish the Boundaries of Civil and Church Authority
The tone of recent communication in both my local Archdiocese and numerous others throughout the world have inspired me to highlight an opportunity Catholic leaders and leaders of all faiths currently have.
Rank and file Catholics are more and more having conversations about what we might and might not be allowed to do to practice our faith as our economies re-open. In almost all instances the authority they are referring to is surprisingly not the Church, but the government. Church leaders seem all too quick to acquiesce with statements that allude to us complying with government orders and waiting to see what plans governors have for us. I am concerned this narrative will create a status quo of governors believing they have an authority they simply do not have.
Numerous examples of government restricting Catholics’ ability to practice their faith have occurred in recent years. And the next challenge is likely not too far away. We have today, an opportunity to set a tone in the Church/State relationship that could be pivotal in determining the next attempt to restrict our religious freedoms. The changes in tone are subtle. But the impact could be enormous.
Whether the decision to suspend public celebration of the mass was correct or not is not the topic of this letter, but rather - who has the authority to make such a decision?
What if Church leaders’ message to civil authorities was, “We look forward to learning from your expertise and findings, so that we can make the best decisions for our people about whether we will continue to celebrate the sacraments or not.” And then those same Church leaders could communicate to their people that, “In light of the unprecedented events in our world, and after our consultation with the civil and medical authorities, it is the decision of our Church that to protect at-risk populations we will suspend the sacrament of the Eucharist until this pandemic subsides.”
That way we would establish that it is Church leaders and no one else who make decisions about when and how to offer sacraments. And because we would be making this statement at a time in which our Church happens to agree with civil authorities, nearly everyone would accept this language. We would have laid a firm precedent and reminder about the boundaries of civil and church authority that would hopefully ward off future restrictions for those of all faiths for years to come.