Sadly, one of the most obvious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the extent to which the institutional Church has been secularized. Many are familiar with the term secularization in terms of the broader culture. There is no need to repeat here at great length the scourge of abortion which transforms the womb of life into a place of death, the deconstruction of the family through the fabrication of pseudo-unions between persons of the same sex, the widespread disrespect for human life till its natural end evident in assisted suicide and euthanasia, the exclusion of God from the public sphere, the privatization of faith, and many more indications of the culture of death. In all of this, God’s absence from our world is manifest. The question then becomes: to what extent has the Church been affected by living within a very secular culture? Are we witnessing the secularization of even the Church, the Bride of Christ? It pains me to say that I believe that the answer is, clearly, yes, that the Church has been secularized by the culture. Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not overcome the Church (Gospel According to St. Matthew 16:18) and that the Church would not teach error in faith and morals (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 891) but not that the Church would not be negatively impacted by the surrounding culture.
Now I realize that COVID-19 has caused immense suffering and while earnestly praying for those who are suffering and have died, it seems obvious that the response of most Bishops, however well intentioned, betrays a secularized way of thinking, and more specifically, a deemphasis on the importance of the Eucharist. Perhaps this may seem unfair given the very real fear of COVID-19, but let us look at what is happening. Churches are being shut down and the faithful are being denied the Eucharist, Confession, and in many cases, even access to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Is the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324), less essential to our wellbeing than food? For Catholics who worship the Jesus who proclaimed, “I am the Bread of Life” (Gospel According to St. John 6:35) and who said “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” (Gospel According to St. Matthew 4:4), the Eucharist should be more essential than food. Of course, the secular state is not aware of the importance of the Sacraments, so they are fine with churches being shut down and supermarkets remaining open.
But even the Church is agreeing to close churches and deny the faithful access to the Sacraments. Are the Bishops implicitly saying that food is more essential than the Eucharist for our health? It seems so. It would be hard if not impossible to read their actions any other way. In a crisis, essential services remain available. Does the Church no longer consider the Eucharist an essential aspect of our lives? Can it really be the case that the source and summit of our faith is not essential, or is this simply the secularization of a Church that has forgotten that spiritual food is more essential than physical food, that saving souls is the whole rai·son d’ê·tre of the Church’s existence, that the whole reason she exists is to be the sign and instrument of the salvation of the entire human race. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 775) It sure seems that the Church has deviated from the primacy of the spiritual over the material, from the primacy of the Kingdom of Heaven over the kingdoms of earth, and from the primacy of the Kingship of Jesus over the kingship of medicine and public health. I ask you sincerely, have we as a Church lost our way by imitating the secular culture in considering the spiritual life and the Sacraments as non-essential to our lives as followers of Christ?
One prominent Archbishop has gone on record as saying: “We are aware of the rapidly developing district and state guidelines regarding the coronavirus. My number one priority as your Archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services. Please know that this decision does not come lightly to close our schools or cancel Masses.” With all due respect for our Bishops who deserve our prayers and obedience, these kinds of statements are troubling. They are troubling because His Excellency cannot really mean that ensuring the safety and health of all who attend Mass is the primary purpose of the Church? Surely, saving souls is the number one priority, and it is hard to see how cancelling all masses will lead to more souls being saved. Many have pointed out that God works good from evil, and I agree that this crisis may make people more hungry for the Bread of Life and that is a good thing. But the fact that God works good from evil does not justify what appears to be a very secular approach in lock-step with the secular state. The truth is that the Church is not the state. The number one priority of the state is to protect the lives of its citizens, but the number one priority of the Church is to save the soul of every person.
In truth, every baptized Catholic has the right to receive the Bread of Life. The reason Canon 915 specifies that those who are excommunicated or obstinately persisting in grave sin cannot receive the Eucharist is that it is an exception from a norm, and the norm is that the faithful are to have access to the Sacraments. They should receive the Eucharist frequently (Code of Canon Law, 898). Unfortunately, many totalitarian states deny this right and the faithful risk their lives to celebrate the Mass and receive the Body of Christ. In many countries, this is normative. This is a sad reality and we need to pray hard for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, that they may have the strength to endure. But what is not normative is for the Church to agree with the State in denying the Sacraments to the faithful. This is truly extraordinary, and it is unmistakably a sign of a Church that has succumbed to secularization and a worldly way of thinking.
The mystery of the Church is set forth clearly in Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In Section 8 of that text, we read, “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men.” The Church is supposed to communicate the fruits of salvation, which includes the Sacraments, to all people in poverty and persecution. We could add, “in sickness and in health.” From the Eucharist, we should expect not only the health of our souls, but also physical healing. After all, healing was one of the main apostolates of the Lord while He was on earth, and He is no less present in the Eucharist than He was on earth. There are more than 40 verses in the New Testament of Jesus healing people. Of course, medicine is a gift, but all healing comes from the Lord and it is precisely in a crisis that the faithful most need the Eucharist. Those who are sick should of course be dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass and should be encouraged to stay home. I highly recommend that all the faithful read the recent exhortation of Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Many have insisted that spiritual communion with the Lord is an adequate substitute for receiving Him in the Eucharist. But as Catholics, there can be no substitute for receiving the Bread of Life and the Cup of Eternal Salvation. Sacraments are external signs and instruments of invisible grace (Catechism of the Catholic Church 774), which means that we receive grace by receiving the Sacraments. Although God is sovereign and can choose to bestow His grace outside the Sacraments, it is, nevertheless, true that the Sacraments are the ordinary means of grace, and therefore, of salvation. We must be careful about casually suggesting that spiritual communion can replace the reception of the Holy Eucharist. When Christ said in reference to the Eucharist, “Do this in memory of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24), he was not referring to spiritual communion. The command to celebrate the Eucharist and the promise of grace is attached to the reception of His Body and Blood.
Our Lady is constantly warning us to pray the Rosary for the salvation of souls, as she did at Fatima. She tells us that many souls go to hell because there is no one to pray for them. Do we not perceive that the greatest threat to the Church is not COVID-19 or any illness of the body? The greatest threat to the Church is a secular way of thinking that little by little diminishes our regard for the Sacraments, makes us forget the primacy of the spiritual, and conforms us to the ways of the world. Let us not think that the Church cannot be secularized. We are right now witnessing exactly that, unbelievable as that may seem. The time is now for all of us to repent and return to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. As St. Paul said so eloquently, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).