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"There is a Catholic tradition of such self-giving in times of infectious disease," the prelates admit in their guidelines, acknowledging "that those very few who make these sacrificial acts of love and charity for the spiritual good of others are to be respected and held in love."
Nevertheless, they reiterate emphatically: "We do not advise it, nor is it to be regarded as a required display of the mark or calling of priesthood."
"The statement from the Catholic bishops of England and Wales (CBCEW) either shows a lack of faith in the teaching of Jesus Christ or a lack of courage in proclaiming it," John Smeaton, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, told Church Militant.
"According to the CBCEW's advice, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe's sacrifice of his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz is not 'to be regarded as a required display of the mark or calling of the priesthood,'" he laments, expressing his anguish at the tepidity of the bishops.
"What would Our Lord Himself make of it Who said: 'The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep?' Are young boys today likely to be inspired to become priests in England and Wales when this kind of statement is put out by those in authority in the Church?" he asks.
While "some clergy," write the bishops, "as part of their vocation and identity will choose to disregard these guidelines and sacrificially put themselves at risk this is neither to be advised nor required."
The bishops' "guidance," published just before Holy Week, downplays "reports of Catholic priests giving up ventilators when very ill for others" stressing that such sacrificial behavior "is strictly not advised."
"As a boy in a Catholic primary school in London in the 1950s, our teachers taught us about Fr. Damien, the 'leper priest.' The heroism of Fr. Damien, who went to live in the leper colony in Molokai, inspired me and others to consider studying for the priesthood in my teens," Smeaton remarks, asking: "What would St. Damien of Molokai make of this statement from the bishops of England and Wales?"
"I pray that one or more of the Catholic bishops here will disown a statement which does not seem worthy of the successors of the Apostles," Smeaton adds.
In their decree, the bishops also advise priests to avoid "routinely" giving Holy Communion to people hospitalized from the Wuhan virus, "unless strictly deemed necessary." Instead, they counsel the use of "spiritual Communion."
Moreover, "laying on of hands should not have physical contact" but anointing should be administered by "extending hands over but not touching the person," the statement mandates.
"Within this context, the sacrament of the sick and other sacraments are one strand of the Church's witness and ministry," the bishops explain.
Meanwhile, Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic community in England and Wales, has announced that "having to stop Masses is going to have a catastrophic effect on the Cathedral's finances."
Officials admit that closing the cathedral for public worship "has brought to the Cathedral a very real threat to its financial viability."
The Cathedral's offertory collections total about £12,600 per week including all Sunday and weekday Masses. It is already experiencing an operational shortfall of £6,000 per week. "All this is likely to increase our operational deficit to well over £20,000 per week and there is little that the Cathedral can do to stop this happening," officials say in a desperate plea for donations.
But the cathedral's appeal is likely to be cold-shouldered by faithful Catholics who are outraged at the manner in which the bishops "lobbied the government to close churches, when this was not the government's initial position."
In a 22-page open letter to CBCEW president Cdl. Vincent Nichols and apostolic nuncio Abp. Edward Joseph Adams, librarian Fiona McDonald accuses the bishops of following "the Church of England's position and actions, virtually every step of the way as the virus progressed."
"Is the Catholic Church meant to 'play it safe' by hiding behind the Church of England response, as opposed to providing true leadership reflecting its status as the Bride of Christ?" the Cardiff-based Catholic asks.
Anglican Abp. of Canterbury Justin Welby had warned clergy not to go into their churches over Easter to livestream services even if they were on their own. Rebel vicars defied Welby's diktat and entered their churches to stream online services.
McDonald further alleges that Catholic LGBT activist and government employee Jim McManus played a privileged role as an intermediary between the bishops and the government in negotiating the closure of churches.
Smeaton concurs with the evaluation of a pattern of compromise by the bishops: "This advice from the CBCEW is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ — just as it has been on the government's LGBT agenda, on the provision of abortion and contraception to children at school, on the reception of Holy Communion to politicians who publicly reject the Church's teaching on same-sex marriage, and on a host of other issues."
"The sad reality is that Catholics in England and Wales cannot look to the CBCEW for leadership in the faith," he observes. "Thankfully we are blessed with the heroic witness of countless saints and martyrs from within these shores. We can look to their example in these strange and confusing times."