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People in San Francisco march during a "Free the Mass" demonstration Sept. 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Dennis Callahan, Archdiocese of San Francisco)

Ever since cities and states first restricted public gatherings in response to Covid-19, some religious people have complained that worshipping communities have faced unfairly harsh regulations. Even so, many of us live in places where there are at most very limited restrictions on in-person worship.

The recent United States Supreme Court decision means more of us may soon be in the same situation. Rightly, the court ruled that religious worship must not be treated more restrictively than other comparable activities but that states also have the right to impose restrictions on attendance at religious services, as long as they do so without discriminating between people.

Though the legal status of in-person worship is increasingly clear, there is an important difference between having a legal right to do something and it being morally right for you to do it. So, should we be worshipping together under the same roof this Advent and Christmas season?

The pandemic is raging more ferociously than ever. The United States has seen record highs in newly reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 in the last week. The coronavirus is now the leading cause of death in the country. In these grave circumstances, all people have a moral obligation to their neighbors—whoever they are—to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid large gatherings. Christians, of all people, should recognize and respect that obligation.

Though the legal status of in-person worship is increasingly clear, there is an important difference between having a legal right to do something and it being morally right for you to do it.

It is both foolish and irresponsible to take Covid-19 lightly. Consider the disheartening case of Metropolitan Amfilohije Radović of Montenegro and the Littoral, the most senior bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Balkan state. After touting pilgrimages as “God’s vaccine,” he contracted Covid-19 and died. At his public funeral, Patriarch Irinej, the worldwide head of the same church, also became infected with the disease. He, too, died.

As believers, we put not only each other at risk when we gather in person. People infected at church services carry the disease to all interactions they have with people outside the church. To insist on worshipping in person is to insist on doing harm to our neighbors.

Some religious leaders, however, claim that not gathering together causes spiritual damage that is arguably worse than the physical disease and death caused by Covid-19. Exactly, what kind of spiritual damage do they mean?

The Eucharist is a good example, particularly for Catholics. Partaking of the body and blood of Christ is spiritual nourishment. Not being able to receive Communion would seem therefore to be spiritual starvation. Catholic teaching says otherwise.

Here is St. Thomas Aquinas: “There are two ways of receiving this sacrament, namely spiritually and sacramentally,” he writes in The Summa Theologiae. Spiritual eating is a matter of “the desire or yearning for receiving this sacrament,” he argues. Even when you cannot receive sacramentally, you can receive spiritually—that is enough to secure the effect of the sacrament.

The teaching of the Catechism of the Council of Trent on the required frequency of receiving the Eucharist in ordinary times is also helpful. It rules that the faithful should receive Communion more than once a year, but “whether it be more expedient that it should be monthly, weekly, or daily, can be decided by no fixed universal rule.” Surely that means abstinence from receiving the sacrament during a deadly pandemic is acceptable!

The Eucharist is maybe the hardest case. Other forms of spiritual nourishment—preaching, the fellowship of believers, singing in worship—although enhanced by physical presence can still be done online.

All that is to say, any spiritual harm due to refraining from in-person worship is relatively minor and can be offset in other ways. We should, therefore, worship at home and online if we can. While Martin Luther and the Council of Trent had more than their fair share of differences, his stance during the bubonic plague pandemic of 1527 holds wisdom for us today.

“I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed,” Luther wrote, “in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

Not being able to receive Communion would seem therefore to be spiritual starvation. Catholic teaching says otherwise.

What’s more, there is a spiritual benefit for Christians who observe self-restriction in this time: the benefit of accepting a cost for the sake of loving our neighbors—looking not to our own interests but to those of others (Phil 2:4).

Insisting on religious gatherings at this time, when the virus is surging, is morally wrong. It is analogous to the justification that the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan might have given for not helping the wounded man by the wayside: claiming that pressing spiritual needs were more important than saving the wounded man’s life. As Pope Francis reminds us in “Fratelli Tutti,” the parable “shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God.”

Remember: Jesus commended the Samaritan for setting aside his own priorities, favoring those of the man in need. The Samaritan was a true neighbor indeed. Let us stay home and do likewise.

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