“Manage Participants” has nothing really to do with the today’s topic. It does have something to do with the following YouTube video, sent to me by a dear friend and now making the rounds: https://youtu.be/_Ef5dRyvQ1Y
Now I’m going to laugh every time I see manage participants on Zoom. M-a-n-a-g-e P-a-r-t-i-c-i-p-a-n-t-s. Meanwhile, here’s a question: Which is more important? Your spiritual life or your physical life? Most of us would assume that in this context the desired and therefore “correct” answer would be your spiritual life. And in general I’d probably agree that things of the spirit are, at least in the abstract, the more important of the two.
Why even bring this up? Because there’s a small but vocal – loudly vocal – group of well-meaning Catholics out there who are saying it’s wrong for us to restrict the number of people who are able to attend Mass. Not just wrong but even sinful, and not just sinful but part of a massive government conspiracy aimed at shutting down the churches and in particular the Church, for good. The goal? Making American society utterly secular – in other words, the goal is Godlessness. These same well-meaning folks want Catholic churches to be opened up at once, with no restrictions. They believe that to do otherwise would be to deny the People of God the life-giving benefits of the Eucharist. And then some, for I’ve heard some of them say first-hand that receiving the Eucharist is more important than life itself.
We’ll come back to that. You’ll also hear people say that mandatory quarantines violate the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”). In short, they don’t. There may be valid Constitutional arguments to be made against mandated quarantines, but not under the First Amendment. In fact, none of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights is absolute. In any case, it’s not a good idea to latch onto an argument without first evaluating both the argument and the thinking of the person making it.
So what is a human being? Body? Spirit? A spirit without a body is a ghost or perhaps an angel. Neither of these is a human being. A body without a spirit is not a human being but a corpse. So a human being is body and spirit, so entwined and dependent upon each other that neither is a human being without the other.
Which is to say that in the context of the human person it doesn’t really make sense to ask whether one’s spiritual life or physical life is the more important, because one cannot be separated from the other. Yes, my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, but if there’s no me there’s no life and no relationship. Yes, I believe that my relationship with God will not end with death, but it will no longer be a human relationship. As a human being I can’t do anything without a physical body: Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t have feelings, can’t be loving or merciful, can’t pull dandelions, can’t pray, can’t fix the back fence, can’t sing, can’t eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting, and can’t take Rags for a walk on a beautiful spring day. I can’t do any of those things without a spirit, either. Human being = body and spirit, each dependent on the other.
There are things that are more important than life itself, which is to say that there are things that it’s worth losing your life over. But one problem with looking at receiving the Eucharist in the midst of a pandemic as one of them is that the Eucharist has always been meant for human beings. The Eucharist is food from heaven, meant to strengthen us for the journey. The Eucharist is Christ with us in the most intimate way possible – but with us as living human beings and not as abstractions.
If a person should decide – being of sound mind and with conscience intact – that receiving the Eucharist without pandemic-related safeguards would be worth risking their life for, fine. In my opinion not perhaps the best decision, but certainly not mine to make for anyone else – and absolutely not mine to encourage. What’s more, it’s not just one person’s life that would be placed at risk. That’s the nature of a pandemic, and it’s the nature of COVID-19. It has been conclusively demonstrated (scientifically, and I think it’s helpful to bear in mind that God invented science) that asymptomatic people can pass COVID-19 to others. So I go to Mass and receive the Eucharist without any protections in place because someone who should know better told me it was my constitutional right to do so. Just to show ‘em that I’m not worried about any of it I shake a couple of hands while in church. A couple of days later, infected but asymptomatic and feelin’ fine, I head to the Safeway. And pass the disease to…? The checker with an elderly mother at home? The working single parent who doesn’t have the ability to shelter in place? Or the nice young person who helps me get the Froot Loops® from the shelf that is too high for me to reach?
One last thing before I quit and even I didn’t think I’d go on this long but sometimes you get rolling and there you are: Catholic Eucharistic theology teaches that the consecrated bread and wine are in fact and really the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. It still looks, tastes, and acts like bread and wine. Still gets digested. Still a potential problem for those with celiac disease. Still a potential problem for some alcoholics. Still something I wouldn’t give to Rags because of course the Eucharist was meant for human beings but also because dogs bless their canine hearts cannot metabolize alcohol. All of which is to say that the laws of physics don’t quit applying once you pass through the church doors. God loves you so much it hurts, but if you come into contact with someone who’s infected with COVID-19 – even when you’re in church – there’s a good chance you’ll become infected as well. Among other things, it’s just not good theology to think otherwise.
But it is good theology and in fact the best kind of theology to know that you are loved and to trust in God’s mercy.