The beginning of the 2020 pandemic was rough on everyone. But for Catholics, there was an additional pain point. In many cities, churches were shuttered for months and the sacraments were out of reach.
At times, government regulations forced bishops to do this. Bishops may have the authority to close churches, but does the government? It’s one thing to encourage churches to implement social distancing. It’s another to completely cut off people’s access to the sacraments.
Here are two reasons to be extremely careful about how much authority you let the government have over churches.
Some of the sacraments are necessary for salvation.
For Catholics, the sacraments are not just symbolic ceremonies. They actually communicate God’s grace to us. One of the sacraments — baptism — is necessary for salvation because it washes away Original Sin and gives us a share of God’s divine life.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is necessary if we’ve committed a mortal sin. Christ said of the Eucharist that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
It’s true that God can save us in other ways if we’re cut off from the sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.”
Still, the ordinary means of salvation is through the sacraments. Governments need to keep this in mind when enacting public health policies — even in a pandemic.
History shows the horrific consequences of giving the government power over church attendance.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Church history knows that bad things often happen when the government gets too much power over the Church. In the Roman Empire, Christians were seen as subverters of society. At times, they were forbidden from meeting in common for worship. Those who disobeyed faced horrible consequences.
Then there’s King Henry VIII during the Reformation. He declared himself to be the head of the Church of England. Catholics who refused to recognize his authority over their worship were often sentenced to death.
Of course, most governments today don’t execute Christians for worshiping as Christ commanded. Still, we are seeing many disturbing intrusions into our freedom, especially when it comes to sharing the truth on abortion, transgenderism, euthanasia, and other highly controversial issues.
That means there can be legitimate trust issues when it comes to government regulations or decrees affecting religious practice.
Again, we’re not saying that governments shouldn’t enact health policies that affect churches. But we need to be extremely careful with just how much power we allow them to have. History offers dozens of warnings of government overreach. If we’re not watchful, we may end up handing too much of our God-given religious freedom to those who don’t respect it.