When thinking of persecution of the Church, most think about brutal dictators that kill priests and faithful while closing and destroying churches. They tend to believe such situations happen only in countries like Communist China but not here in America.
However, there are other ways to carry out persecutions. One way is to impose so many government restrictions on Church life that it makes ordinary worship impossible. Priests cannot administer the sacraments. Regular services are broken up to the point it is hard to take up collections to sustain the parish financially.
This second “soft” persecution of the Church by strangulation can be just as effective as more brutal and open ways. It may not seem like persecution, but it has the same effects. It is an unbloody, bureaucratic persecution, in which the damage creeps in gradually. No regular parish can survive for a long time under such conditions.
The “Soft” Persecution Continues
Most Americans saw something of this “soft” persecution at the time of the scientifically unwarranted, very harsh lockdowns that ended sacramental life across the nation. With the easing of the lockdowns, the locked-out Church appeared as a dark episode that was left behind. There are still restrictions, but they are a bit more manageable.
However, many Catholics do not realize that the “soft” persecution has not ended. Many California Catholics are still restricted in their options to attend Mass and receive the sacraments. In mid-July, a partial reopening was interrupted in 29 of California’s most populous counties with new restrictions. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom banned all indoor worship services indefinitely. He intimated that many restrictions might remain in place until a vaccine appears or an effective therapy is developed. That is to say that church buildings are closed until further notice.
In a separate action, San Francisco County authorities issued their own guidelines that likewise ban indoor worship and allow only outdoor gatherings—limited to 12 people. For parishes with hundreds of members, most of the faithful are effectively deprived of Mass.
A Need to Push Back
With a few honorable exceptions, Catholic Church authorities have not contested lockdown rulings. During the earlier shutdown, many Church officials were more eager to close the churches than State ones. All dioceses shut down regular services and live-streamed their Masses. Upon reopening, many have even banned communion on the tongue despite no State order or health need to do so.
Because the bans are in place until further notice, the recent restrictions threaten the functioning of the Church in California. Retail stores, abortion clinics and marijuana dispensaries suffer no such restrictions in these times of crisis. Catholic officials need to push back.
Indeed, some Protestant churches are resisting by taking the issue to court. Some are meeting in defiance of the new restrictions. They are quick to point out that religious buildings and secular places are not being treated the same. This discrimination makes it clear that the government’s actions are targeting churches with a “soft” persecution that will strangle them.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has spoken out against the glaring contradictions. He notes the officials are allowing indoor retail stores to operate at 50% capacity, but bans all indoor religious services. A church’s environment can be much more controlled than that of a retail store where shoppers are always moving. However, officials refuse to budge.
The archbishop points out that large “pre-planned and scheduled street protests have been allowed to continue unhindered,” while churches are limited to no more than 12 people outside. An outdoor Mass is much safer than a protest since the congregation is stationary and can observe all health norms. Protesters are continually moving, rarely social distance or follow the norms. Protests also can degenerate into riots and endanger public safety. Nevertheless, officials double down on their unequal handling.
The archbishop reports that he has hit a stone wall in dealing with public officials who insist and even threaten legal action against the archdiocese for failure to comply. He writes that “I have spent countless hours in crafting communications and in telephone conversations and Zoom meetings with city officials, leading health specialists, legal experts, religious leaders and others.” All to no avail.
The Catholic Church maintains the largest private health care facilities in the country. The hospital, as an institution, has its origins in the medieval Church. The Church’s long involvement in health care makes it qualified to develop protocols that will allow Catholics to worship in their churches safely. The State ignores this experience and insists upon subjecting Catholics to discriminating double standards. What makes matters worse is the unreasonable demand that church buildings remain locked down indefinitely, forcing the faithful to fend for themselves.
Catholics need to protest against this blatantly unjust State action. It should be called what it is—persecution. This “soft” persecution may not shoot priests or tear down buildings. However, its shutdown measures strangle devotion and sacramental life. It will lead to the destruction of the Church in California.