Whatever else a new world might be, it would be reductionistic to see it only in terms of improved economic and distribution systems. Indeed, the greatest problem that the poor face today is not material. The worse of all inequalities is that the most vulnerable are frequently spiritually neglected and under served. God’s indwelling presence that is given to us by the Risen Christ compels us to address the needs of those in the greatest need, especially their spiritual needs.
During this pandemic, while ecclesial officials navigate local policies and public safety, the poor are the ones who inevitably suffer the most. In the midst of this crisis, the Church faces severe obstacles in providing housing, shelter, food, medical care and clothing for the poor at a time when there is a growing need. Extra generosity is needed by all believers. When, however, public worship is limited, the poor are cut off of the one place where their dignity is upheld as they share equally with the rest of society in offering to God what belongs to Him. In other words, the poor are carrying an undo burden for the rest of society when they are prohibited from gathering in worship even if this must be done for public safety. How do we deal with this?
At a time when an abundance of caution is duly called for, we also must be vigilant about the freedom to pray, not only in private, but together in public worship. This is not a selfish individual right – this is a public good, a great good especially for the poorest among us. To forego such a noble purpose anywhere for any length of time can only be justified under the most extreme circumstances. Yes, there have been other moments in history when such action No doubt we are facing extreme circumstances in many communities – but do these circumstances exist in all communities in the same way. On this point, I have found little scientific consensus. To prolong the suspension of public worship indefinitely based on the conflicting opinions among various experts should be concerning. To permit such a state of affairs merely out of concern for the optics or because voices in the media might ridicule public worship – this is a grave sin. We must not neglect to plan for the restoration of public worship in a responsible way, a way that protects the health and dignity of all the faithful.
What does it mean that policies are in place whereby, no matter the local circumstances, public worship in all localities is discouraged if not outright forbidden? Perhaps the circumstances exist that justify such policies. The experts have the obligation to resolve differences in opinion and come to a clearer consensus for the sake of society. Media have the responsibility not to sensationalize the truth or to shame into silence those who have a legitimate difference in opinion. Public officials also have the responsibility to safeguard our right to worship and assure its restoration as soon as is prudent to do so – any other behavior is simply oppressive. If there is justification for suspending public worship in a way the precludes the poor, as people of faith, we have an obligation to ask questions and to understand clearly what these circumstances are and how to deal with them to protect the vulnerable among us.