Q&A: What churches ought to be doing in a pandemic

Written by William C. Duncan

June 10, 2020

No topic is more prominent in current discussions of religious freedom than the closure of worship services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ongoing and future lawsuits will likely determine the contours of what the state can and cannot do in restricting religious services for public health reasons.

There is another critical question, though: what churches should do during a pandemic. As closures were ordered, most complied, but there was some vocal protest – some of it vociferous.

Maggie Gallagher, a prominent Catholic intellectual and executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, responded to this in a powerful article, “What Do Christians Do in a Plague?” published in Public Discourse. In response to those arguing that religious gatherings should continue, Gallagher said, “Let me beg to differ. And I do mean beg, because the stakes are high. And this epidemic may not be the last one.”

The article reviewed the response of Catholic bishops to the 1918 flu and the example of St. Charles Borromeo to the Plague of 1576. Gallagher summarizes: “The traditional Christian response in an epidemic is clear: Serve. Share. Sacrifice. Pray.”

Responding to those who clamored for public gatherings to continue, she wrote:

I am astonished by how many people think a deadly pandemic is the right time to foment the spirit of rebellion and pick a fight with the government over what many will inevitably see as our right to infect others. That’s what it looks like to our neighbors. They do not see this as a testimony of our unshakable faith, but as evidence of callous unconcern for their lives and the lives of the police, grocery workers, mailmen, health workers, and garbage men with whom we all interact.

Gallagher’s insight is particularly important because, as she notes, this may not be the last pandemic or similar emergency that will require people of faith and religious organizations to decide how to respond.

We asked Gallagher some critical questions:

Q: What motivated you to write the piece for Public Discourse?

A: In the early days of a pandemic caused by a new virus, I did not like the instant reaction of rebellion I saw on the part of many Christian leaders and intellectuals (not all of them, by any means). We’ve lost our collective cultural memory of what happens during a deadly epidemic (thanks to antibiotics primarily). Things that struck many as “unprecedented violations of liberty” are actually a return to normalcy – for most of human history.

Q: What stood out to you in the Catholic response to the 1918 epidemic? 

A: Catholic bishops responded by shutting down churches, offering church property to city officials as hospitals, and asking our nuns (who are not cloistered) to staff them and also go to poor neighborhoods to take care of the sick and dying. Share, serve, sacrifice and, of course, pray. These seem to me to be the heroic and authentic Christian response to a crisis like this.

Q: Are there government restrictions that you think are a threat to religious liberty? 

A: As the weeks drag into months, and governments are picking and choosing what kind of crowds may gather, the appearance at least of specially disfavoring religious groups is clearly an emerging problem. We can’t really say yes, you can sit in a restaurant for an hour, but no, you may not go to church. The recent Supreme Court decision denying an emergency injunction to California probably represents an immediate punt and not the settled law that will emerge. As the months stretch on, we learn more about the novel coronavirus and how to adjust.

Q: How do you think religious groups could appropriately appeal to religious liberty without creating a perception of selfishness?

A: I’m not sure we can change appearances. Even though many Christian groups are heroically sacrificing to serve the vulnerable, they don’t make news cycles these days. We may have to just do the right thing, and know that God sees.

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