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Getting a jump on Catholic consequences of the coronavirus

Mar 15, 2020

ROME – It’s only been three months since the origin of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, China, and it’s only been a few weeks since what was originally perceived as largely a Chinese problem became a global phenomenon.

The effects of the pandemic are being felt well beyond the toll in terms of the number of infections and deaths, as alarming as those totals undeniably are. Economically, concerns about lost income and productivity have caused stock markets to plunge, losing $16 trillion in value in less than a month, and estimates are that it’s cost global value chains $50 billion in lost exports.

Smack dab in the middle of a crisis is always the wrong time to evaluate its long-term significance, and it’s probably premature to begin comparing the coronavirus to, say, the agricultural revolution or the invention of the printing press in terms of its lasting impact.

Still, in Catholic terms, there are certain consequences one can begin to anticipate now – some almost certain, some merely possible and dependent on other factors that can’t presently be anticipated. Here’s a pair of each.

Likely Consequences

(1) Focus on Health Care

Globally, the Catholic Church operates 18,000 health care clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and those with special needs, and 5,500 hospitals, with 65 percent of them located in developing countries. It’s by far the largest non-governmental provider of health care in the world.

Despite that staggering infrastructure, the reality is that relationships between those facilities and the institutional Church tends to be fairly loose, with leaders on either side often not thinking about, or talking to, their counterparts on the other.

The impact of a global pandemic almost certainly will change that calculus. Bishops will realize they need to know more about public health readiness and how the Church can help respond in moments of emergency, and Catholic hospital leaders will be anxious to make friends anywhere they can, since they’re as overwhelmed right now as everyone else in the field.

Certainly the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which is responsible for health care, will want to get in on the act. It’s already issued one lengthy statement on the coronavirus pandemic, and once it begins to ebb, they’re likely feel the need to say something about its lessons and implications.

(2) Focus on the Elderly

The coronavirus is a disease that strikes disproportionately at the elderly, at least in terms of fatalities, and it’s exposed ways in which elderly persons are often vulnerable and isolated when facing health care emergencies.

Pope Francis repeatedly has called for greater respect and veneration for the elderly, both in society and in the Church. In a 2015 general audience, he called neglect of the elderly a “sin.”

“While we are young we are tempted to ignore old age as if it were an illness to hold at bay,” he said. “But when we become old, especially if we are poor, sick and alone, we experience the failures of a society programmed for efficiency, which consequently ignores the elderly.”

“Where the elderly are not honored,” he said, “there is no future for the young.”

At one stage, Francis suggested that World Youth Day be reconceived as a festival celebrating the bond between the young and the old. That might be an idea the pope will be tempted to revisit in the wake of this crisis.

Possible Consequences

(1) Theology of “Spiritual Communion”

From a Catholic point of view, perhaps the single most direct consequence of the lockdowns currently being imposed to fight the disease is the inability to get to Mass on Sunday. Moreover, it’s happening during Lent, and there’s the very real prospect that many Catholics may be forced to watch Holy Week liturgies on TV or their computers rather than attending in person and receiving the Eucharist.

In light of the restrictions, many pastors and theologians have suggested this may be a good time to dust off the traditional concept of “spiritual communion,” meaning a sort of participation in the Mass and the Eucharist for people who, for one reason or another, either can’t go to church or who are barred from receiving the Eucharist if they do.

In a nutshell, the idea is that the desire to receive the Eucharist is a grace in itself, and, if one offers up that desire in prayer to God, it can become an occasion for even greater grace and spiritual growth.

Italian Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, a former Vatican official and accomplished Church historian, has recommended the following prayer to people who aren’t able to receive the Eucharist:

“My Jesus, I believe that you’re present in the Holy Sacrament. I love You above all else, and I desire You in my soul. As long as I can’t receive You sacramentally, at least enter spiritually into my soul.”

(brief pause to unite oneself with Jesus)

“Since you’ve come, I embrace you and unite my entire self with You; don’t let me ever separate myself from You.”


Not bad as a point of departure, but more undoubtedly could, and perhaps should, be said.

(2) Perspective

This is probably the biggest longshot of all, but it’s just possible the coronavirus may elicit a different perspective on the issues that usually get people excited in the Church, producing endless divisions, heartache, and acrimony.

One would think a global scourge that so far has claimed more than 5,000 lives and infected 150,000 people might invite a rethink about what truly is a “life or death” issue, and that it might also beckon reflection on how our common humanity, including our shared exposure to threats such as the coronavirus which obviously don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, creed or ideology, is at least as fundamental as the things that set us apart.

One can hope, therefore, for a new kind of Catholic debate in the wake of the coronavirus – still passionate, as befitting a tradition that stresses both reason and faith, but also more generous and compassionate, and more prepared not to sweat the small stuff.

As I said, it’s probably a longshot … but while we’re in lockdown, really, what else is there to do but dream?