Everyone knows I’m a grump and kind of a jerk, but I hope you also know there’s still some love down there in my heart somewhere, and that that’s where this is coming from. Many priests I’ve talked to have shared some sadness or frustration about this about some of their parishioners, so I wanted to share one approach I’ve been thinking about lately.
As American as Eagle Pie
Ok, you’re convinced that COVID is a hoax, or that it’s real and being used as a tool for tyranny, or that the numbers are inflated, or that masks don’t do anything, or something like that. You of course have every right to those beliefs, and to act on them in reasonable ways – post about it on social media, take legal steps to defend your rights, badger the Walmart greeter, etc.
But other people at church don’t necessarily believe what you believe about COVID or masks or any of it, and it’s their right to disagree with you just as much as it’s your right to disagree with them. And it’s the Church’s right to decide whether or not to comply with state mandates about outdoor Masses, or to require you to wear a mask during the liturgy, since it’s an institution with its own rules and its own leaders, like any other. You have rights, and so does everyone else.
But there’s a difference here. The people who disagree with you about the seriousness of COVID or the effectiveness of masks aren’t worried about their rights; they are worried about their life. You have every right to believe they are wrong or misguided, and you might be so confident in your ideas that you’re willing to bet your life on it. But that’s not fair to demand of anyone else. When you wear a mask against your will at Church, you are accepting an annoyance that you don’t believe in. When you don’t wear a mask, you are causing people to fear for their lives. Like I said, you don’t have to agree with them – you might even think they’re idiots for that fear. But there is a difference. The right to safety and security is not the same as the right to expose your mouth and nose when and where you want to.
They might be totally wrong, and you might be totally right. I’m not going to argue about the seriousness of COVID or the effectiveness of masks. It’s not my area, and there’s no reason to. People have the right to disagree with you, and they have the right to feel safe at church. Yes, you also have the right to live the way you wish. But not at church – in fact, not in any public setting where others might be affected, but other places are not my concern. People have the right to come to Mass and feel safe, and that right is more fundamental than your right to come to Mass without a mask on. Life is more fundamental than convenience. I repeat – disagree with the mandates all you want. But the Church isn’t the place to protest, and it’s not an institution to be used for political purposes. There are others for that.
Rights and Graces
But my main point is that this isn’t really about rights at all. When you’re at Church, something else is happening. The foundation of the Church is not individual rights. The foundation of the Church is love of God and neighbor. Love is a different thing than rights. The Gospel is a different thing than the thought of John Locke or Adam Smith. They might be compatible or they might not be, but they are different things. You come to church to hear the Gospel. If you have to bear an annoyance or do something you don’t like or agree with to get there, welcome to the club. At church you sit, stand and kneel when everyone else does. You face the same direction. You say the same words. You dress appropriately. You get there when you’re told. You do a ton of things you wouldn’t do at home. None of this is tyranny – it’s community. None of this is about individual rights. It’s about being with others and caring about them.
I’m not writing this appeal only because I’m annoyed (I’m always annoyed – nothing personal), or because other people complain to us when they see you without a mask on (a lot of them do – way more than you’d guess), or because some people aren’t coming to church because of you (a lot of them aren’t, and yes, that’s your fault).
Save Your Soul
I’m writing this because we, your priests, are watching your minds focus on your own rights so much that it’s making you forget others entirely, and that is a dark place for your soul to be. Of course you should fight for your rights, but I’m worried about something much more important – your souls. Hold strong to your beliefs if you’re convinced of them, but don’t let them destroy your love of neighbor, because you can’t have love of God without it. Fight for your rights as courageously and patriotically as you possibly can. But not at church. At church something bigger is happening – something bigger than you and me and all of our rights combined. That’s because none of us deserve or have ever deserved a single Sacrament or a sentence of the Gospel or a split-second of grace. These are the absolutely free gifts of God – the complete opposite of rights. There would be no Gospel and no Church if everything was about rights. Even if you are completely and totally right about this and everyone else is completely and totally wrong, your heart is still in the wrong place. You are thinking according to the categories of the (modern, post-Enlightenment) world, not according to the mind of Christ.
St. Paul had to deal with what I think are similar issues within the new Christian Church. There were disagreements among the community that caused division and resentment. His solution was to turn their minds back toward love, where they should have been in the first place. In one passage (the first quotation below) he’s talking about people eating or not eating food sacrificed to idols; in the second passage, he’s talking about not eating meat at all, or at least keeping ritual food laws.
These aren’t our conflicts today (thank God), but the same principles apply. In both cases below, the issue is people taking a stand for their individual rights to the detriment of those around them, and in both cases, St. Paul puts this attitude in the garbage where it belongs. Rather, he tells us to avoid doing something that we are free to do so that we don’t cause others who might be weaker or less intelligent or more vulnerable to be harmed, bothered, or scandalized. For the record, I don’t think taking COVID seriously means any of these things. But even if you do think that, wear your mask, literally for the love of God.
Anyway here’s St. Paul. I’m quoting extensively so you see the larger context. But if you’re bored of reading (which you should be after reading me this long), feel free to skip to the stuff I underlined:
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.“