WASHINGTON — Faced with the daunting challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, dioceses across the globe have suspended the ordinary administration of the sacraments. But an interdisciplinary working group of experts in medicine, infectious disease, science, theology and pastoral care convened by the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C., is providing the Church’s leaders a road map for restoring the celebration of the sacraments.
In this interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith, Dominican Father Dominic Legge discusses the guidelines the institute’s working group has developed so far and published on its website, ThomisticInstitute.org, and why bishops and priests are paying close attention.
Father Legge, tell me about your group that is developing protocols for providing the sacraments safely to people? How did you begin?
Our group is animated by a very strong desire to find a way to bring the sacraments to people. I must say that, on a personal level, one of the great privileges of being a priest is bringing the sacraments to people and being an instrument of God’s work in the world in the sacramental economy. But now, in the midst of what may be the greatest trial for our generation, to find yourself unable to do that because of the nature of the pandemic — this is very painful. So we wanted to do everything we could think of to come up with a plan to bring sacraments and spiritual aid to those in need. We wanted to do this in a responsible way, of course, but we felt very strongly that the sacraments are extremely important and that we had to find a way to bring them to people in this time.
We started with confession. Some bishops learned about the document we wrote and liked what they saw. We then started hearing from bishops, asking us if we had more guidance for other sacraments and to please let them know when that came along. So we stepped up our efforts. One specific request that we had from some bishops was some guidance in respect to reopening Masses. So we made that our next priority. The third document is on anointing, and, as of right now, that is almost ready to be released.
In developing these protocols for the sacraments, what kinds of experts have collaborated?
Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a professor of medicine at Brown University and a leading infectious-disease specialist, who was involved in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, has been one of the leading members. He has real credibility on that issue. The Thomistic Institute for years now has been putting on events on campuses around the country, including at medical schools, and so we’ve developed a network of scientists and medical professionals with whom we’ve collaborated on other projects. That meant that we already had a network for a project like this one. So we thought: We’re well positioned to bring priests and theologians together with medical professionals and the scientific experts to develop some guidelines.
It’s been very enriching, but also, of course, challenging to have an interdisciplinary working group. Each constituency in the group has to be able to lay out what their principal concerns and priorities are. And then we listen to the other experts in the working group so that together we can arrive at a kind of synthesis.
Why is that important?
Often enough, a priest will have in mind the theological requirements or liturgical law for a sacrament, but who isn’t necessarily thinking about public-health requirements, and so may not be able to develop guidelines by himself. And likewise, the public-health expert might have recommendations about what would be a low-risk way to have a pastoral encounter, but may not be focused on what is necessary in view of the liturgical or the sacramental dimensions of the encounter. So I found the interdisciplinary process to be actually very interesting and also enriching.
I think it’s a very important principle that the spiritual good of the faithful is a fundamental criterion. It’s the kind of consideration that isn’t necessarily first of all in the mind of public-health authorities, who are charged with physical health and disease prevention, so we shouldn’t expect public-health authorities to be thinking of this in the first instance. Still, they often would recognize — as many hospitals do — that it is a very important dimension of the human person.
I would argue it’s not just necessary for the human person to worship God and to receive the sacraments instituted by Christ, but it’s far more necessary than the commercial activity which is continuing even in the midst of this pandemic. So, given that, it’s very important for us to find a way to allow people to worship God and to receive the sacraments while recognizing, of course — and I think this is an important point — that we don’t want to ignore the requirements of public health or of bodily safety. We certainly don’t want the Church’s activity or priests to become agents of infection. And so the task is to find responsible ways that we can allow people to have access to the sacraments and the worship of God that doesn’t pose an unreasonable risk. And I think that there are ways to do that. It requires some creativity. It takes some work to think it through. It may not be the way we’re used to doing it, but I think we can find ways to do it.
What have you learned from this process?
I certainly learned a lot more about infectious-disease protocols than I ever expected I would. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the official guidance coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, as well as other federal agencies. We gave some thought to how we would do this, and we settled on the methodology of taking the guidance coming from these official bodies as a principal reference point for our guidelines. This is important, not because we would put public-health requirements above spiritual goods, or because we would put public-health authorities in charge of the Church’s activity or over the bishops — we wouldn’t agree to that. Rather, because the pandemic presents a real threat to health, we want the Church to have the best expertise available to her pastors in order for the Church to make the best judgments about how to bring the sacraments to the faithful in this time. In fact, this is an aspect of valorizing the vocation of medical professionals and scientists and putting it in the service of the whole Body of Christ.
What is more, in the present context, there is a lot of uncertainty and fear. The public-health authorities are trying to give us medically and scientifically vetted guidelines; that helps orient and resolve a lot of questions. If you don’t have that kind of objective reference point, the discussion within the Church about what is responsible and what is risky becomes much more difficult, because you’ll have very different reactions depending on whether one person would be more cautious, another less so — and, often, with only an imperfect grasp of the current state of medical and scientific knowledge about this virus and the present pandemic.
Let’s talk a little about each of these documents, starting with confession. What’s the good news about getting that sacrament to people starved for it?
I think confession is very important for our spiritual lives. It can be one of the most powerful sacraments to receive as an adult. Especially when people are going through a period of real anxiety and crisis, they might be thinking about their life and view of God and the possibility of sickness and death; and so, it’s a very important time to be able to go to confession. It has been very consoling to me to hear from bishops and priests, and also the lay faithful, in reacting to this document on confession with words of gratitude for laying out a way to make confession available.
Are traditional confessionals still possible, or do they have to be retrofitted or reconceived for public-health considerations?
Our guidelines encouraged the priests to remain 6 feet from the penitent. It is conceivable that you could use some kind of modified confessional or something like that, but the fact that the air doesn’t circulate very well in a traditional confessional means there is a risk factor there. So our guidance recommended keeping a 6-foot distance.
Of course, we look forward to the day when we can return to using the confessionals. That is a better way and is the normative place for a confession to take place. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I would never suggest anything else! But our first desire was to find some way, any reasonable way, to offer the sacrament of confession to the faithful in this time, since the medical evidence tells us it is risky to use the confessionals right now.
What could you say about the Thomistic Institute’s guidance on how can we can get back to Mass safely?
The most important thing, I think, is just beginning to make the Mass available in so far as is possible. Right now, in many places, civil law has imposed a strict limit on the number of people who can gather in any one place. And so that makes it very difficult. And yet I think it remains possible to have Mass, even if you can only allow a small number of participants. We’re hopeful that in the fairly short term, some of those restrictions will be relaxed, and that will mean slightly larger gatherings may become possible. And then the key would be maintaining a proper physical distancing among the members of the congregation, not overcrowding the churches, and making sure that we’re cleaning the surfaces that people might touch, and that sort of thing. That will allow the faithful to come to Mass and receive the sacraments, without unreasonable risk.
So your guidelines can show priests how to confer anointing of the sick in line with public-health requirements?
One of the principal things that public-health authorities are asking for is to maintain physical distancing by remaining 6 feet away from people. You cannot confer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from 6 feet away. It requires an actual anointing with oil. Now the rubrics do permit the use of an instrument to anoint — for example, a cotton swab that has been dipped in the holy oil. So with that kind of precaution, you can limit the interaction or the contact, between the priest and the person receiving the sacrament, to just that amount of contact.
But I do think that our infectious-disease specialists have come up with a very reasonable way that you can provide the sacraments.
What are other sacramental guidelines that you’ll be working on next?
We are next working on baptism and bringing Holy Communion to the sick. Holy Communion being brought to a private home — that’s another challenging issue, and so we haven’t tried to tackle that one yet. Then, of course, eventually we want to admit [people] to confirmation, because this is also an issue. Depending on how long these restrictions are in place, there’s a lot of people who are candidates for confirmation awaiting that sacrament.
Any final thoughts that you have about how the Church can provide the sacraments during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There are very many priests who desire with all their heart to provide the sacraments to their people. That’s why priests exist. It’s a great source of pain and sadness for us that we can’t do that. So we’re trying to leave no stone unturned in the search for ways to bring the sacraments to people. Many of them are suffering much more than we are, especially the sick, the poor, the dying and their families and friends. With the help of God, we cannot only make it through this, but find ways that God can help us grow in holiness in the midst of a time of suffering.