Q: Archbishop J, not giving precious Blood …is that a lack of faith?
The Archdiocesan policy on COVID-19 has spawned much comment on digital media. It brings to the fore our underlying beliefs and assumptions about the Eucharist. The disappointment of some to the temporary change in liturgical practice also highlights aspects of personal piety around the Eucharist.
One argument goes: It is after all, the Eucharist, so it is impossible to be infected if I have faith. With it has come feelings of anger at having to receive Communion in the hand and not on the tongue; frustration at not being able to receive the Precious Blood; and disenchantment with the Church (that would be me) for having no faith and thus offering bad example.
Let us begin by acknowledging there is a lot of hype and anxiety about COVID-19. To date, however, the virus is less of a threat than the common cold, heart attack, suicide, vehicle accident or stroke. At this time all of these are more likely to kill you.
More importantly, COVID-19 has a mortality rate of two per cent of infected people or less. The numbers we have suggests: 81 per cent of the cases are mild, 14 per cent are moderate and 5 per cent are critical. So why the hype?
What we also know is that the most at-risk people are the already infirmed and the elderly. When the two come together, infirmed and elderly, there is much greater risk, and therefore our response has to take this very important group of parishioners into account.
Diseases are rated by their capacity to spread easily and infect other people. The measure is called R0 (R-nought). It measures the likelihood of one person infecting other persons if contaminated by a virus.
An article in livescience.com, speaking about the R0 of COVID-19, says “a single infected person will infect about 2.2 others, on average. By comparison, the flu has an R0 of 1.3”.
The media hype is because COVID-19 is very contagious. To understand this, we need to understand exponential acceleration or compound interest.
The man who invented the chessboard was asked by his country’s emperor (so the story goes): “What can I give you?” The man was simple and said he required no payment. The emperor insisted. So, the man said, “What about some rice?” The emperor agreed. “How much?” asked the emperor. “What if you give me one grain on the first square and two on the second and four on the third and keep doubling it?” The emperor agreed.
The chess board only has 64 squares. But, the total number of grains would have amounted to more than 18,000,000,000,000,000,000.
This is the problem of exponential acceleration. It gets out of hand quickly.
Yes, the common cold killed much more people in January than COVID-19. But COVID-19 will outstrip the common cold very quickly if it is not contained.
Our response to the threat posed by disease must be just. We Catholics have a social justice principle of preferential option for the poor and marginalised. We have to think with the interest of the infirmed and elderly in mind first.
We know a droplet from a sneeze can cause infection. If it gets on the infected person’s hand the disease can be transmitted. We also know if that person touches a surface, the virus is alive on that surface for several hours. So, if an elderly person touches the surface and gets infected it can create a critical medical challenge for them. So why not treat the elderly differently then?
We have another social justice principle—solidarity. We are our neighbour’s keeper. St Paul expressed this in relation to food. He said: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (cf.1Cor 8:9,13).
But, perhaps, you are young and fit and, even if you are sick, you will soon get better. Why should COVID-19 affect how you receive Communion—you aren’t a senior or infirmed?
We have a third social justice principle: the common good. If you were making a decision that concerns only yourself, you are free to do so. Although the risk for infected young persons is small, what if one of the 2.2 others they infect is an elderly person who dies? What then? Who wants to be culpable of the death of an elderly person! As a Catholic community we think first of the common good—the good of the whole community, especially the most vulnerable.
A deep spiritual problem
The digital media posts suggest a deep spiritual problem that needs to be addressed. One young person, hyped by all the social media comments, in a display of “faith in the Eucharist”, accused the Church of disappointing her and having no faith. Should Catholics stand as willing accusers though?
Before entering the conversation, there seems to be a presumption or judgement on others. Remember Jesus’s instruction: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37).
The posts pose a second spiritual problem regarding the nature of faith. What is the boundary between common sense and faith; between care of the vulnerable and faith? Some postings seem to flirt with the second temptation when the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and, quoting Scripture, told Him to jump. Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Mt 4:7).
Are those advocating precaution lacking faith? Are those advocating, ‘Leave things as they are’, putting the Lord their God to the test? Remember, faith is often paradoxical, holding tension between two contrary positions.
At the end of the day, my responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in our Church and nation, in accordance with the teachings and principles of the Church, remains the deciding factor.
Let us build solidarity through compassion in the face of this challenge. Please continue to pray for me as I shepherd our Church.
Key Message: The Church is guided by a number of principles in making important decisions with a social consequence.
Action Step: When you find yourself at odds with the thinking of the Church, step back and enquire about the principles used to make the decision.
Scripture Reading: 1 Cor 9:9–13; Mt 4:6–7