Should we go back to masks at Mass? Some U.S. bishops say yes.
With the Delta variant powering a month-long escalation in Covid-19 cases across the country—especially in states with low vaccination rates—municipal and state officials and national businesses like Home Depot and McDonald’s have restored mask regulations that had been dropped during more optimistic days in May and June.
The Delta variant now dominates nationally, representing more than 93 percent of all confirmed Covid-19 cases, and the United States is once again the world leader in new Covid-19 numbers with a daily average headcount of new cases at more than 96,000.
Delta has proved more virulent than earlier coronavirus strains. It is no surprise that among the hardest hit in this most recent wave have been younger and unvaccinated people.
Mask mandate, for the church at least, in Kentucky
While most dioceses will continue to rely on the judgment of local or state health officials regarding mask-wearing and other Covid-19 safety protocols, at least one bishop felt compelled to do a little more in an effort to barricade parishioners from Delta.
In Kentucky the Delta variant has been powering rising Covid-19 numbers for more than a month. On Aug. 4, state officials reported a Covid-19 positivity rate just over 10 percent, the highest since January—before vaccines were available.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond: “I would hope that people see the need—not just the need for masks, but also the need for vaccinations.”
Though state officials have so far declined to reimpose mask-wearing restrictions and have sent some confounding messages on vaccinations this week—Gov. Andrew Beshear quickly backpedaled from what had been initially described as a vaccine mandate for health care workers—John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., leader of the Diocese of Lexington, on July 30 restored a mask requirement at all liturgies and all other meetings that take place on parish grounds, adding that “congregational singing should be greatly reduced or eliminated until further notice.”
His own recent exposure to individuals who had contracted Covid-19 despite their vaccinations led to two rounds of quarantine for Bishop Stowe. He tested negative in both instances, but the experience brought home the potential calamity in Kentucky because of Delta, he said.
Though some counties in the diocese have higher vaccination rates than rural counties where vaccination percentages have been low, Bishop Stowe wanted a uniform policy across the diocese. “Wearing a mask should not be a major impediment to someone’s participation in the liturgy,” he said in an interview with America, describing the reversal as a small inconvenience to support a greater common good.
Mass dispensation in Lexington has not been lifted as it has in other dioceses around the United States and will remain in place, Bishop Stowe said. He added that he will be closely monitoring the situation in Kentucky, but at this time he is not considering further restrictions like shutting down in-person Mass. “God forbid,” he said.
A politicized Covid response in Florida?
On July 30 Florida reported its highest-ever number of daily Covid-19 cases, recording more than 21,000 new cases, and hospitalizations in the state broke records all week in August.
Despite those escalating numbers—Florida now accounts for about 20 percent of all Covid-19 cases nationally—Gov. Ron DeSantis has resisted restoring mask-wearing and other precautionary measures and has limited local officials’ ability to impose restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19. On July 30 Mr. DeSantis barred Florida school districts from requiring students to wear masks when classes resume next month.
Bishops around the country are reassessing diocesan policies for mask wearing at Mass as the Delta variant propels a new spike in Covid-19 cases, particularly among the unvaccinated.
Political analysts believe the governor may be considering a run for the presidency in 2024, and mask-wearing has become a political totem for the supporters of former President Donald Trump, a powerful bloc in Republican politics. In a fund-raising email appeal on Aug. 4, the governor wrote: “Florida is a free state, and we will empower our people. We will not allow Joe Biden and his bureaucratic flunkies to come in and commandeer the rights and freedoms of Floridians.”
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski finds that kind of politicization of the crisis confounding, recalling that it was the Trump administration’s “warp speed” initiative that delivered the coronavirus vaccines in the first place. “And if Trump had won, you would probably have the Democrats saying, ‘Don’t get vaccinated,’” he said.
Other Florida bishops will have to deliberate whether or not to restore masks at Mass absent more vigorous guidance from the governor’s office, but Archbishop Wenski will not have to confront that dilemma. He never lifted mask restrictions.
He recalls Center for Disease Control officials quickly backtracking from a May announcement that vaccinated people could cease wearing masks at indoor gatherings. The archbishop decided then that it would be prudent to refrain from lowering safety protocols until more clarity emerged. The dispensation from Mass attendance continued in Miami, as did policies for social distancing and mask-wearing during in-person liturgies.
Southeast Florida had been hard-hit already by Covid-19, he said, and “I did not see any reason to rush into dropping masks or to change any of the policies that we had for the liturgies.”
“If you rush to take away these policies,” he said, “all you are going to do is make [people already anxious about Covid-19] more nervous and that means they will stop coming to church and doesn’t mean you will get other people coming to church.”
Southeast Florida had been hard-hit already by Covid-19, Archbishop Wenski said, and “I did not see any reason to rush into dropping masks or to change any of the policies that we had for the liturgies.”
Ironically Florida bishops had planned an in-person meeting last week to discuss restoring Covid-19 precautions, Archbishop Wenski said, “but because of the outbreak it was deemed prudent to cancel and regroup at a different time.”
Re-masking in the nation’s capital
The Archdiocese of Washington, in compliance with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s order on July 31 to restore mask-wearing, has reimplemented masks at Mass and “for all of our in-person gatherings,” according to the Rev. Daniel Carson, the archdiocese’s vicar general and moderator of the curia.
“None of us want to put the masks back on,” he said, “but everyone seems to accept this as a step.
“The past weekend it went fine,” he said. “We found no problems with it; there was not any grumbling.” He added that while in Maryland mask-wearing is not mandatory, “more people have been wearing masks on their own.”
According to Father Carson, the archdiocese consults with local municipal and health officials but maintains its own Covid response team staffed with its own medical advisors. A decision to restore Covid-19 precautionary measures in those parishes not covered by Washington’s mask order, he said, will depend on changing local conditions.
“We’re not leaning that way yet, but every day we’re looking at where we are.”
He reports that local vaccination rates have been good, and so far the area around the nation’s capital has not experienced an escalation of new Covid-19 cases like the spikes this month in Louisiana, Florida, Texas and other states. “The numbers aren’t significant at this time, but every day we keep track,” he said. “We’re all anxious; hopefully it doesn’t spike.”
In Washington “the numbers aren’t significant at this time, but every day we keep track. We’re all anxious; hopefully it doesn’t spike.”
The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass was lifted on July 1 in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, though it continues for persons who are ill or immunocompromised. Missouri has been among those states hardest hit by the Delta variant.
In a statement released to America, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said the chancery has declined to issue a blanket restoration of mask-wearing at this time, adding that decisions regarding “social distancing, capacity restrictions and other safety measures are at the discretion of each parish pastor at this time, as he knows his parish community and needs well.”
“Our faithful have been eager to return to Mass in person, while still ensuring Mass is a safe and comfortable experience for all,” the spokesperson said, though many parishes continue to livestream Masses for those who are unable to attend in-person.
“We have advised parishes to follow the local ordinances of the county/city where they reside regarding masks and other safety protocols, and we continue to strongly encourage the use of vaccines to fight the latest surge of the Covd-19 virus,” she said.
In Louisiana, a ‘dire’ situation
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards reinstated a statewide indoor mask mandate on Aug. 2 for all people aged five and older, as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations threaten to overwhelm the state’s health system this week. Louisiana is experiencing its worst surge in Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
The state has the highest per capita daily average rate of infection in the country, with 93 out of 100,000 residents contracting Covid-19. Louisiana also has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. Just under 37 percent of Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated; 43 percent have had at least one coronavirus inoculation; many rushed to do so this week.
“This has been such a horrendous ordeal, but we know there is a way forward,” Washington’s Father Daniel Carson said, acknowledging that “it’s a challenge” to keep the issue from being politicized.
Describing the situation in Louisiana as “dire,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said, “I wholeheartedly support the governor’s mandate [restoring masks]; I think he had no choice.
“We were doing so well, too, that’s what makes it even more disappointing,” he said. Masses will continue as usual in the archdiocese, but “we are asking people to wear masks,” the archbishop said.
“I would hope that people see the need—not just the need for masks, but also the need for vaccinations,” Archbishop Aymond said. In the last week of July, the state’s unvaccinated residents accounted for 90 percent of new Covid-19 cases, 84 percent of deaths from Covid-19 and 91 percent of the new Covid-19 related hospitalizations.
Archbishop Aymond is aware of various objections that have kept vaccination rates low in Louisiana, “from the political to the personal to the moral to ethical,” but said: “I would hope that it would be a very serious matter for a person not to be vaccinated.”
Sometimes “people think they are above the law; sometimes people think they are above the illness. This is a very contagious variant and it is taking a lot of lives.”
“Everything is politicized nowadays and it’s just unfortunate,” he added. “It is not a healthy society in which we live. Instead of looking at the common good, we look at who is opposed to whom.
“In my mind, vaccination is a way of charity so that we don’t spread the disease, so we don’t catch the Covid,” he said.
“We’re not telling anyone they have to get vaccinated, but we encourage it highly,” Archbishop Wenski said. “There is no moral or ethical objection, from a Catholic point of view, to the vaccinations.”
In Miami, Archbishop Wenski also worried the crisis has become politicized to the detriment of public health, describing the governor as “a bit of an enigma” on Covid-19 policy.
Archbishop Wenski noted that subsidiarity—a concept out of Catholic social teaching that suggests “the people who make the [best] decisions are the people closest to the consequences of the decision”—should be a natural fit for a small government Republican like Mr. DeSantis. “Why make one size fit all?” he wondered.
It may not make sense to institute a mask mandate across Florida, but local officials, he argued, should be free to adjust policies to their conditions.
Reaching the vaccine-hesitant
Assessing the crisis in Louisiana, Archbishop Aymond believes the church “should do whatever we can to promote vaccinations.”
“When it comes to human life and the taking of human life because of Covid and because people are not vaccinated, it is indeed an emergency situation.
“We have to respect conscience,” Archbishop Aymond said, “but let’s be very clear that the church is saying: Be vaccinated. And that’s from the pope down to the local church here.
“The vaccines were definitely acceptable; there were no questions whatsoever about Pfizer or Moderna,” he added. “There were questions about J&J, but what we said from the very beginning is to be aware of the questions about J&J and if that’s all that’s available or if your conscience tells you to, go ahead and take it.”
The Miami archdiocese has been doing what it can to promote vaccinations as the best defense against Covid-19 and has included flyers in parish bulletins that attempt to persuade those still hesitant.
“We’re not telling anyone they have to get vaccinated, but we encourage it highly,” Archbishop Wenski said. “There is no moral or ethical objection, from a Catholic point of view, to the vaccinations,” he emphasized.
“I don’t like getting the shots myself,” he added with a laugh, but he got one in December when the vaccines against Covid-19 first became available. “I had to take some heat from some people saying, ‘Why did you get in the front of the line?’
“I said, ‘I got in the front of the line to encourage other people to get behind me.’”
In cooperation with municipal authorities and other local faith groups, the Archdiocese of Washington has also attempted to promote Covid vaccines, sponsoring vaccination clinics at many parishes, Father Carson said.
“We reached out to neighborhoods where people had a tougher time getting a vaccine,” he added, especially parishes in Washington’s Black Catholic community. Nationally, rates of vaccination among Black Americans have lagged throughout the pandemic, but in recent weeks there has been a significant uptick as worries over the Delta variant seem to have overcome concerns about the vaccine itself, diminished access and distrust of the medical establishment within the Black community.
Citing encouragement from Pope Francis and the church’s common good tradition has helped persuade holdouts to get vaccinated, Father Carson said.
“This has been such a horrendous ordeal, but we know there is a way forward,” he said, acknowledging that “it’s a challenge” to keep the issue from being politicized.
“If our goal is to protect our people, promote good health, to save lives…I would hope that we could rally around the common good and keep working on it,” he said.
“Certainly we don’t want to fall back to further restrictions, if at all possible,” said Father Carson. “Getting back together in person, being back in community was so important, whether it’s for parishes, for schools or just for our faith and our mental health.”
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