by Felix de St. Vincent
The local executive of the civil authority invokes emergency powers to ban public assemblies of more than ten people and urges residents to “shelter in place.” The local ordinary not only dispenses Catholics from the obligation to attend Mass, but also cancels public Mass through Eastertide. In a matter of hours, the unthinkable becomes the new normal. All of a sudden, in dioceses across the world, Catholics are encountering acts of civil and ecclesiastic authority that are unprecedented, at least in the memory of the living.
Does the governor have the authority to tell the bishop that the faithful cannot attend Easter Mass? Can the bishop say, when it is all over someday, “My hands were tied, a decision was made by the public authority?”
The short answer is yes. The temporal power has the authority and the competence in emergency situations to suspend established laws for the sake of the common good according to a special habit of political prudence that they ought to have (ST II-II q.47 a.11). St. Thomas’s classic example is an official who, although the law says the city gates must be closed, opens them to save citizens fleeing home from an enemy army (e.g., ST I-II q. 96, a. 6). Obviously, an epidemic calls for political prudence.
However, the short answer sits uncomfortably with us. It sits uncomfortably with integralists, for whom the civil authority is subordinated to the ecclesiastical. What does subordination mean if the civil authority can bar the faithful from Easter Mass?
If we return to St. Thomas’s example, the official in question is “one subject to the law” who nonetheless can suspend the law for the sake of the common good. In the integralist understanding, the civil authority is subject to the law of the ecclesiastical authority. In Immortale dei, Leo XIII reminds us that nature and reason confirm that “we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will” (Par. 6). The civil authority, moreover, must understand that everything pertaining to the worship of God and the salvation of souls “is subject to the power and judgment of the Church” (Par. 14). Can this absolute obligation be changed in the form it takes, subject to the power and judgment of the Church? Yes.
The Church recognizes the competence of the civil authority in these matters and can modify its judgment about how the faithful are to worship God. If it changes the law of religious obligation in deference to the political prudence of the civil authority, it must do so in a way that remains deferential to the canonical right of the laity to the sacraments (Canon 915). Deference is also due from the civil authority, who cannot prohibit Mass as readily as a sporting event or a concert, because these activities are neither absolutely required nor essentially directed to the God Who is our common good and the source of all public power (Immortale dei, Par. 3).
The scandal of the “neutral” secular perspective is that, in a state of emergency, it cannot see the difference between prohibiting a sporting event or a concert and the Mass. In this state of emergency, which may last many months, secular constitutional protections of religious liberties are insufficient to respect the rights of God or to shield the faithful from state prohibitions of the true worship of God. Perhaps the Church now looks for a spiritual power she now needs, which goes beyond the power of moral suasion of a quarantined populace rendered impolitical, like one befuddled and groping in the dark for a flashlight. It is time for Catholics to return to the immutable truths that informed an older, richer, and truer understanding of the Church-state relationship.