R. R. Reno is demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to the coronavirus. Instead of closing churches and cancelling services, the Church should aim “to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.” As the world grows increasingly hysterical, “churches must not join in the stampede of fear.” Bishops have taken excessive and “paternalistic” measures, capitulating to the spirit of an age obsessed with health and PR and neglecting their more vital duty to provide spiritual resources and a prophetic witness.

This is not an accurate characterization of the Church’s response, and Reno’s article misses a few key points.

Looking at the Response

First, keeping the elderly out of Church is not necessarily paternalistic.

In general, all Catholics, including the elderly, have the right to risk their health in pursuit of the sacraments; indeed, the Church has canonized many saints like Francis of Assisi, Marianne Cope, and Damien of Molokai who risked (and sometimes ruined) their health to pursue union with God or fraternal charity. But this doesn’t mean that we have an unlimited right to endanger the health of others.

The way in which the elderly present a unique risk on this front may not be obvious to them: if infected, they are much more likely to become severely ill. This means they are disproportionately likely to be hospitalized. This presents a danger to medical staff, and consequently may endanger other patients. They could contract the disease from medical staff, or they may simply fail to receive necessary medical care if staff are home sick with the virus. If hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed--which remains an unfortunate possibility, despite recent efforts at social distancing--an elderly person who contracts COVID-19 may displace another needy person from a hospital bed, a respirator, or other medical supplies.

If the elderly are sick, they are also more likely than a younger Catholic to require Last Rites, thus exposing priests to the virus. As part of their Christian and priestly vocation, priests must be willing to serve the faithful even at the risk of infection, but we should still try to minimize this risk. For one thing, it would be unwise for a priest with COVID-19 to say a public Mass, or to minister to anyone who doesn’t have the virus (unless that person is definitely dying). For another, some priests—particularly elderly priests—will probably die of the virus.

Admittedly, when priests show courage and willingly suffer death and hardship for the faithful, this often spurs on priestly vocations. So we shouldn’t be worried at the level of “Church strategy” about exacerbating the priest shortage. But we should nonetheless take what steps we can to preserve the lives of the priests we have. It is certainly not “paternalism” when bishops take steps to prevent the elderly from endangering the lives of priests when all the faithful rely on the priests to provide sacraments.

On the question of prudent stewardship of resources, bishops and pastors should be developing explicit strategies for ministering to the faithful once COVID-19 has spread to a larger percentage of the population. The sensible thing would be to designate the young priests as the coronavirus priests: they will provide Last Rites to the infected faithful who are in danger of death, and they will probably get it themselves. They should be quarantined from the other priests until they are no longer contagious, ministering exclusively to other people who also have the virus. Since the virus is much less dangerous to the young, they will almost certainly get better, and then regain their ability to serve without risk of conveying their own illness to the rest of the faithful.

Finding Room for the Faith

I agree with Reno that churches can stay open for Eucharistic adoration without posing excessive risk, but I am more skeptical about public Masses, at least Masses at which everyone (and the elderly in particular) are allowed to receive Communion. For a careful person, receiving Communion is by far the riskiest element of going to Mass. You can wear gloves, stand far away from other people, and not shake hands or touch the holy water. But if you receive Communion, you simply cannot be sure of the state of the hands of the priest or Eucharistic minister. Even if his hands were clean at the start of Communion, they have brushed against dozens (or hundreds) of hands, some of which may have been rubbed against coronavirus -infected faces. Because of this, bishops are right to be concerned about the dangers involved, particularly to the elderly and vulnerable, in receiving Communion.

The final problem with Reno’s argument is that he conflates caution with hysteria, and misses the fact that limiting access to the sacraments for reasons of health is compatible with the proposition that eternal life is more important than earthly life. (Indeed, this is why the faithful are generally permitted and encouraged to stay home from Church when going poses a risk to their health and, especially, to the health of others.) It’s possible to take substantial steps to minimize death without getting particularly anxious about it.

Indeed, this is how we are called to pursue any good work, and it hardly requires that we make an idol of earthly life. Like pro-life activism, serving the homeless, or even our efforts to receive the sacraments, our efforts to decrease the death toll of COVID-19 must be carried out with simplicity and detachment. If we find ourselves anxious about the disease--or about the bishops’ response to it--this is an opportunity to grow in detachment. There are many wonderful books on the subject, from classics by St. Teresa of Avila to contemporary works by Fr. Jacques Philippe. Lent is a great time to take up spiritual reading; so is quarantine.