Kevin ClarkeAugust 26, 2021
Faithful in Miami sing during Mass at St. Mary Cathedral on the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 2021. (CNS photo/Marlene Quaroni, Florida Catholic)Faithful in Miami sing during Mass at St. Mary Cathedral on the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 2021. (CNS photo/Marlene Quaroni, Florida Catholic)

It was not supposed to be this way. Back in more optimistic days in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that America’s fully vaccinated could strip off their masks and cease social distancing in most settings. (Unvaccinated people, per C.D.C. guidance, had to remain masked indoors and still do.) Dioceses around the country rushed to re-establish the old rite—that is, the pre-2020 liturgy that did not include choirless, mask-wearing, socially distanced celebrations.

But the Delta variant soon made a mockery of the nation’s progress against Covid-19. By July 27, with case numbers rising dramatically—primarily among unvaccinated people in an emerging Delta belt from Arizona to Florida—the C.D.C. revised its guidance, and indoor mask-wearing for even fully vaccinated people in high-risk counties was back. But by that mid-summer revision, many dioceses had ended Mass dispensations and many thousands of Catholics had returned to church without masks. Can they be persuaded now to restore those pandemic precautions?

By the C.D.C.’s mid-summer revised guidance on face masks, many thousands of Catholics had returned to church without masks. Can they be persuaded now to restore pandemic precautions?

Maybe. A parishioner from Iowa, where mask mandates in school districts are illegal, writes: “My bishop announced two weeks ago that masks are strongly encouraged.…and yesterday 3/4 of the people had masks.” Others from around the country similarly report that friends and neighbors in their parishes have accepted the need to return to masks without too much grumbling and even without a diocesan-wide mandate.

But at some parishes a battle line has been drawn between parishioners willing to mask up again and those who perceive masks as unnecessary, ineffective or, at worst, a violation of their freedom.

To mask or not to mask

“Last week there were no masked parishioners in church save for the clergy distributing Communion,” Theresa Maccarone of Rochester, N.Y., said, responding to America on Twitter. “I’ve decided to view Sunday Mass from home again since I don’t trust that all unmasked Catholics are fully vaccinated.

“I’m hoping our new bishop will allow outdoor liturgies,” she added.

“We had masking early on with no problems,” Dean Astumian of Orono, Me., wrote on Twitter, “but as soon as the C.D.C. made its fateful pronouncement, people abandoned masking, and I haven’t returned to in-person Mass.”

Another Twitter user noted that the situation was the same at his church: “Once people had ‘permission,’ there was no going back…. No more spacing, nobody’s in masks (’cept my family).”

At some parishes a battle line has been drawn between parishioners willing to mask up again and those who perceive masks as unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of their freedom.

“I don’t understand it,” Mr. Astumian added. “We will certainly need to resume masking. It will certainly be much more difficult than it would have been if we had continued masking. I guess there is such a desire to pretend the pandemic is over.”

That emerging divide over masking and other precautionary measures has become a source of pain for many Catholics.

“Sean,” who asked to remain anonymous, is a youth minister at a large parish in Pennsylvania. “The past two weeks have become more and more uncomfortable at Mass,” he writes. “Our bishop lifted the mask mandate in early July, and this past weekend, Aug. 15, dispensation from attending Mass was lifted. On Aug. 12, the bishop asked priests and lay ministers to again wear masks during the distribution of the Eucharist, which I have never stopped doing.”

“What I’ve noticed from talking with parishioners is that the ones who wish for masks to be mandated during Mass are no longer attending our parish but would rather watch online. The anti-mask/anti-vax group continue to flood the pews and that is who the pastor is preaching to and taking advice from.

“It’s hard to watch. I’ve been working and serving the church for over 20 years and even the [Pennsylvania] grand jury report [on sexual abuse] didn’t create this much animosity toward each other and clergy.”

“I’ve been working and serving the church for over 20 years and even the [Pennsylvania] grand jury report [on sexual abuse] didn’t create this much animosity toward each other and clergy.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports that the conference does not have the authority to weigh in at the diocesan level on this potentially contentious issue. “It is up to the local bishop to make the decision [on mask requirements] that is best for his diocese, taking into account the guidance of the local health authorities,” the spokesperson said.

And on the issue of vaccine mandates, the spokesperson said the U.S.C.C.B. has no plans at this time to address the issue nationally, noting that “individual bishops are making decisions...that each believes is appropriate for the faithful of his own diocese.”

Pastors weary of arguing over masks may be able to look to state or county health officials to take the debate and drama out of their hands as mask mandates appear likely to return in many communities. U.S. courts have ruled that churches are not exempt from pandemic mandates issued by health authorities.

Responding to the C.D.C.’s latest guidelines, some mayors and state and local health officials already report that they will require both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents to wear masks in indoor public settings. On Aug. 25, Oregon became the latest state to restore masks, going a step beyond the C.D.C. recommendations by including mask requirements in some outdoor settings for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

“The ones who wish for masks to be mandated during Mass are no longer attending but would rather watch online. The anti-mask/anti-vax group continue to flood the pews.”

But in a number of states, new laws or governors’ bans seek to strip school and municipal authorities of the power to restore mask mandates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently contracted Covid-19 himself, have been prominent among Republicans resisting a return to masks even as case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths break records.

A new culture war at Mass?

Comments about the issue at America’s U.S. Catholic Politics group on Facebook suggest that the decision to mask or not to mask remains unsettled across the country, with some parishes restoring mask guidelines—many never dropped them in the first place—and others forging ahead with liturgies without masks.

“My parish dropped the mask mandate,” Liz Blagojevics Fretwell of McLean, Va., reports. “About half of parishioners still wear one. I taught virtual C.C.D. last year, but am expected to teach my seventh grade class in person this year. I will wear a mask at all times and encourage my students to do the same.

“I will be sharing our Holy Father’s P.S.A. [endorsing] vaccines as well,” she adds.

Pastors weary of arguing over masks may be able to look to state or county health officials to take the debate and drama out of their hands as mask mandates appear likely to return in many communities.

Christine Antis writes that her Arizona parish “has weighed heavily on no masks required ever, no reservations, and no guidance on which rows to use for social distancing.”

“Our Pittsburgh diocese has officially reinstated the requirement to attend Mass in person,” Terry Klein reports on Facebook. “The mask mandate and distancing requirements have also been dropped. I have attended Mass virtually during the entire epidemic. I’m still afraid to gather inside in a packed church, which ours typically is. So, what is a senior citizen to do?”

“I live in a sensible state and a diocese led by a sensible and rational bishop,” a Facebook visitor, who asked to remain anonymous, says. “We are not back at the strictest guidelines, but mask wearing is strongly advised in the worship space for all. No social distance (yet), but it may be inevitable. Sad, but necessary.”

The pastor at Peter Schwimer’s church in Staten Island, N.Y., has kept it simple. “No mask, no entry. And no problems either. Social distancing ended about six weeks ago, but folks still spread out.”

The pastor at Peter Schwimer’s church in Staten Island, N.Y., has kept it simple. “No mask, no entry. And no problems either.”

The mask divide has led some to take up parish shopping. At her local parish in Albemarle, N.C., Elizabeth Davis Snow writes: “Those who chose to wear masks had to do the best they could with social distancing. People were actually teased for wearing a mask, so I started attending Mass at another parish where [temperature] screening was done, masks were required and you made reservations for your family in order to promote social distancing.

“At the moment I have returned to online Mass on my own accord as the Delta variant has surged,” adds Ms. Snow, a doctor of nursing practice in life outside her parish. “I believe it is my responsibility to look out for my own health. The area I reside only has a 33 percent full vaccination rate.”

The discord over Covid-19 precautions can at times become heated, and even the sign of peace can become a contested moment. A Knoxville, Tenn., parishioner, who asked that America not use his name, had a run-in with an old high school classmate during a funeral Mass last year, when the classmate reached over the pew to insist on shaking his hand; he declined. In addition to his own health problems, he remains anxious to protect other family members, including grandchildren, from possible contagion.

“The former classmate was mad I would not shake his hand and told me he was showing me ‘respect’ and was really a bit belligerent [that] I would not respond…. Well, long story short, I nearly gave him a full-knuckle sign of peace to the jaw.

The discord over Covid-19 precautions can at times become heated, and even the sign of peace can become a contested moment.

“I had too much respect for the guy the Mass was for and his family to follow through, but my blood pressure and heart rate were sky high from that ‘sign of respect’ during the sign of peace. What the heck ever happened to a wave or a peace sign?”

At other parishes, a return to precautionary measures has produced far less drama. “I’m in a small Southern parish,” a Facebook user writes. “We have returned to mask-wearing and are to have conversations outside in the parking lot. Our priest is receiving cancer treatments. And at least 11 parishioners (at least some of which I know were vaccinated) are self-isolating with Covid.”

St. Joseph’s parish in Vancouver, Wash., has consistently followed state health guidelines, a parishioner, Linda Weirather reports. After the state mask mandate expired on June 30, there were still signs at the door saying “Masks strongly recommended,” and most people continued to wear them.

“This past Sunday distancing rows throughout the church were not just marked but actually roped off,” she says, and an announcement was made that with the reinstatement of a statewide mandate, masks would be required again for every church activity and at the parish school beginning on Aug. 23.

“A nurse-practitioner member helped arrange vaccines offered through the county health department on the beautiful church grounds Sunday afternoons Aug. 1 and 22. Our pastor promoted this from the pulpit,” Mrs. Weirather says, adding, “I love my parish and am proud of its work to promote health.”

Mass options for all

Pastors attempting to keep the peace over a public health issue that has become deeply politicized may want to create as many options as possible. “My parish has both indoor (mask required) and outdoor mass (mask not required),” writes Wayne Mortensen from Oakland, Calif. “I attend outdoor and choose to wear a mask, even though I am fully vaccinated, because of my age and the number of people attending.”

“Masks should be required for all until doctors give the OK to remove them.” And the “nonsense” about vaccines “needs to be brought into check.”

Aaron Kinskey and his wife Anna, with their 2-year-old son, attend St. Patrick Church in Urbana, Ill., a college town where “it does seem like our community is generally more interested in following the guidelines that the C.D.C. have been putting out.”

He knows all too well the dangers of the new Delta variant. Both Aaron and Anna were fully vaccinated but became ill with Covid-19 after their son came home with the virus from day care.

All the Kinskeys are recovering, but the episode demonstrated to him that the Delta variant has to be taken seriously. He has been self-quarantining at home as he recovers and has been able to continue to “attend” Mass at St. Patrick’s through its Sunday livestream, a digital addition to the parish’s weekly liturgies that has continued throughout the crisis.

St. Patrick offers an 8 a.m. “masked Mass” for parishioners who prefer that extra precaution. Many at his parish stopped wearing masks in May, and most of the current social distancing during Mass “is self imposed,” but St. Patrick’s keeps a basement area with television monitors open for parishioners who want more social distance or who are not comfortable with singing at this time.

At recent Masses, Mr. Kinskey has noticed an uptick in voluntary mask wearing. Most people in his community, he says, seem ready to follow guidance from health officials.

Mr. Mortensen is ready for more drastic measures at this point. “The time for reasoning and persuading is over,” he writes. “Vaccines should be mandated for all except for those whose medical conditions [who] could be adversely affected…. Masks should be required for all until doctors give the OK to remove them.” And the “nonsense” about vaccines “needs to be brought into check.”

“The fact that politicians and TV news anchors are affecting America’s health is insane and needs to be halted,” Mr. Mortensen says. “No one’s freedom is being affected. We live in societies which have rules to enable people to live together in peace. Vaccines are a part of life in modern communities. Grown ups accept responsibility for self and others.”

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