COVID-19 Lockdown Not a Threat to Religious Liberty, Archbishop Says

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori speaks about religious liberty Nov. 16 during the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (Photo: CNS)

By Christopher White, National Correspondent

NEW YORK — No U.S. Catholic bishop has been associated more closely with religious liberty than Archbishop William Lori and he has a message for Catholics who think the current suspension of the sacraments due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a violation of religious liberty: It’s not – and to argue otherwise puts lives at risk.

Further, he is reminding fellow Catholics that “we are a people of faith and reason” and that heeding the government’s orders to suspend religious services is “eminently reasonable” and “it does not in any way attack or undermine our faith.”

In an interview with The Tablet at the start of Holy Week, Archbishop Lori admits that while this is always a special time of the year for Catholics, this year is particularly special in unforeseen ways.

From his home in Baltimore, he is spending his days on videoconferences and recording daily messages to parishioners in the archdiocese, but he’s also been working his way through the roster of priests in the diocese and calling them to check-in.

Archbishop Lori says there’s one consistent message he’s getting: “They miss being with their people.”

“It really is in our DNA,” he continues, but that doesn’t stop him from making another point that he’s keen to get across at the moment.

What is happening now – the suspension of Masses and other sacraments, says Archbishop Lori – is happening “out of pastoral love for both our people and our priests.”

In recent weeks, some minority Catholic groups have claimed that what is happening is a violation of religious liberty, an argument that is made in the open letter for the launch of a petition titled “We are an Easter People,” which calls upon the bishops to take steps to provide “some form of public celebration of Mass during this time of strife and pandemic.”

Lori – who led the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee and was their point person on the issue during the bishops’ clash with the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate – has another message.

“One of the overriding responsibilities of government is to keep people safe. This is a health and public safety issue. And this is not only a concern that the government has, it’s also a concern of the Church,” he told The Tablet “The Church has to take steps to ensure that we are kept safe and healthy and those steps have to be reasonable, rational. We do not feel as though we have been forced into doing this by the government. We feel like we’re doing the right thing.”

“We’re doing something important for the sake of our people, for the love for our people, recognizing how painful it is to have churches closed and not to be able to receive the sacraments,” he continued.

“Nonetheless, my prayer is that we can minimize the number of deaths and infections and contribute to that day when this pandemic will loosen its grip on us and upon our country and our world. I feel like this is something that we should be doing, and I do not see it at all as a violation of our religious liberties.”

During his time representing the U.S. bishops on the issue, Lori frequently penned op-eds on the issue of religious liberty and testified before U.S. Congress, making his case that Catholics should not be forced to choose between their faith and violating the law.

This, he says, is not one of those times.

“All of our rights and liberties are very important. They are a gift to us from the Creator. They are constitutionally guaranteed, but they are not absolute,” Archbishop Lori said. “No one right is utterly absolute, that includes religious freedom.”

“It’s always been recognized that sometimes there is an overriding concern on the part of the government and that people of faith have to take note of that and abide by it,” he continued. “I have no sense whatsoever that the authorities, especially here in Maryland, have any animus against our faith. I do have a sense from my personal conversations with those who have to make these decisions is that they want to keep people safe.”

Throughout the pandemic there have been calls on social media for priests to rebel and to offer underground Masses, and more recently, last week, the Catholic editor of “First Things” magazine wrote about attending one in New York offered by a priest as a “sensible pastoral response” to the moment.

Archbishop Lori describes such a move, both on the part of parishioners and priests, as irresponsible.

“I think that organizing those kinds of Masses in defiance of legitimate authority, both ecclesial and civil, is a mistake. It puts people’s lives at risk, and I believe it also defies reason,” he told The Tablet.

While he says that he recognizes that here is an understood and legitimate desire for the sacraments, he said that is no excuse for rogue behavior.

“Might [our current circumstances] postpone that which we all hunger for? Yes, it might. Is that difficult for us? Absolutely. Do we feel a deep spiritual hunger and even an anguish until we are able to once again congregate in our churches and celebrate the Mass, the sacraments? Absolutely. Absolutely. But that doesn’t give us the right to take matters in our own hands and to put people’s lives at risk.”

Looking ahead, Archbishop Lori says that now is not the time for Catholics to become divided but to stick together as a “united as a family of faith,” recognizing that what is happening is for the sake of the common good of the whole human family.

Further, he says he’s taken inspiration from Pope Francis who has reminded Catholics that “we are not without resources.”

“In extraordinary circumstances, God’s grace nonetheless reaches us. And we can certainly draw upon this tremendous treasury of holiness and merit unto which the Church has access during this time as part of our faith always has been and always will be,” he said.

Easter, Archbishop Lori continued, “is a message of hope” and though Catholics are “enduring this very, very heavy cross that was laid upon our shoulders,” he is encouraging them to remember that “Jesus shouldered the entire gamut of human suffering and weakness and that on the cross, Jesus overcame our weakness and our sinfulness.

“The Lord is still with us in our sufferings today and the Lord is able in these difficult times to pull good out of evil and to pull blessings out of our sufferings and to pull life out of death,” said Archbishop Lori. “My message is we need to keep our eyes fixed on Christ crucified and risen. There is no cross that we bear today that Lord has not already borne for us and for our salvation.”