Catholic Doctors: Sacraments Are Essential

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by Martina Moyski  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 20, 2020   

Churches 'can operate as safely as other essential services'

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - A group of Catholic doctors has issued a document on the indispensability of sacramental life, urging bishops to reopen churches in a way that's "safest for everybody."

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Dr. Anushree Shirali

"Sacramental life is essential for Catholics, and churches can operate as safely as other essential services," a panel of renowned physicians stated in "Road Map to Reopening Our Catholic Church Safely," published recently on the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) website.

Hailing from Yale, Columbia, UCLA and the Mayo Clinic, the seven doctors asserted that "regulations and orders should not unduly impinge on Catholics' rights to attend Mass and celebrate the other sacraments," while ceding that celebration of Mass "should comply with state and local regulations and orders." 

The doctors said they were motivated by wanting to help bishops develop "safest practices" and based their recommendations on the following assumptions:

  • Sacramental life is essential for Catholics, and churches can operate as safely as other essential services
  • Catholics must be guided at all times by faith and reason, especially in times of crisis
  • The safest practices, which should be created with input from medical experts, will likely evolve as the pandemic unfolds and vary based on ongoing local, regional and national risk assessments

The medical specialists, one of whom has been treating Wuhan virus dialysis patients since the pandemic broke out, called into question the idea that churches pose higher risks for spreading the virus. 

If you should have best practices for a grocery store and for a Home Depot, why can't you have best practices for church services?

"I believe that churches can be just as safe, if not at times safer than so-called 'essential businesses,' provided they take the precautions that are recommended in this document," said Dr. Anushree Shirali, a nephrologist at the Yale University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the recommendations in an interview conducted with Angelus News

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The doctors said there are reasons to believe churches can do an even better job protecting people than other institutions in society.

"If you should have best practices for a grocery store and for a Home Depot, why can't you have best practices for church services?" asked Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist who guides clinical research into the Wuhan virus at Yale. 

"I just can't see for any clear scientific reason why preparing food for a thousand people in a restaurant is any safer than people going to Mass," he added. 

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Dr. Paul Krogstad

The physicians insisted that churches could be opened as safely as businesses and retail outfits and restaurants. They also argued that the Church's sacraments and ministry are vitally important as American society seeks a return to some semblance of normalcy.

The physicians also pointed to the physical and psychological dangers of shutdowns and delayed reopenings.

Doctor Paul Krogstad, a specialist of pediatric infectious diseases with the UCLA Medical Center, said the medical dangers of COVID-19 are real, but so are the psychological consequences of "stress and anxiety" caused by the shutdown of the economy and uncertainty about the future. 

Doctor Wang agreed. "Especially now as people are experiencing a lot of anxiety, and psychiatric issues arising from being isolated," he said, "it's important that the community of the Church is there for them — that the fortification we get from participating in the sacraments is available so that the Church can help in this global crisis as it has in all the other global crises before this one."

Their new document addresses two key sacramental areas conflicting many Catholics, namely safe practices for the reception of Holy Communion and Confession.

The panel recommends Holy Communion "should be received in the hand."

It's important that the community of the Church is there for them.

Doctor Shirali that this conclusion was difficult for her. "I don't actually feel comfortable receiving Communion in any other way than on the tongue," she said. "At the same time, I'm also somebody who, when we have influenza breakouts, doesn't receive on the tongue and receives spiritual Communion."

She said that "very strong precautions" for distributing Communion on the tongue would be needed, including requiring the priest to "sanitize his hands immediately after each communicant, regardless of whether he thinks he has touched the tongue or any other part of the recipient's mouth."

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Abp. Leonard Blair of Hartford

For the sacrament of penance, the document recommends following "safe social distancing practices" and being carried out "in a well-ventilated area, outdoors, or in the main church.

Hartford's Abp. Leonard Blair, head of the U.S. bishops' worship committee, referred to the new document in a May 14 memorandum as "another resource" for bishops working on their reopening plans.

The Thomistic Institute, affiliated with the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., also submitted a document prepared by a group of doctors in April.

Blair described both documents as "primarily medical in nature" and said both "specify the medical considerations that need to be taken into account, even as there is disagreement on some points of a prudential nature." 

Speaking for the panel, Dr. Shirali said, "We understand and we absolutely agree that the sacraments need to be open again, but it needs to be done in a manner that's safest for everybody."

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