ST. PAUL, Minn. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Asserting the independence that the Body of Christ has from secular authority, Minnesota's bishops have laid down the gauntlet over resumption of public Masses.
The prelates have written an open letter announcing plans to resume public Masses beginning May 26, in defiance of lockdown restrictions set by the state's Democrat governor, Tim Walz.
On May 13, Gov. Waltz declared the state would lift the stay-at-home order to stores, restaurants and more commerce, while still prohibiting religious gathering of more than ten people. It is an order "that defies reason," state the bishops in their letter written on May 20. It was signed by Minnesota's six Catholic bishops and the diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Duluth.
To date, it is the first openly defiant letter of its kind relating to the pandemic.
Insisting that the life of faith is "essential," the bishops declare they have given their Catholic parishes "permission for the resumption of the public celebration of Mass on Tuesday, May 26, which will give us time to be ready for the celebration of Pentecost on May 31."
"Parishes will be required to follow the strict protocols we have published for sanitation and social distancing," the letter states, "and will have to limit attendance to one-third of the seating capacity of the church. No one will be obliged to attend, as the bishops of Minnesota will continue to dispense from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass."
The bishops also speak about their concern for the spiritual and physical well-being of their flock, and take note of the injustice promulgated by the state in Gov. Waltz's arbitrary targeting of religious practice for strict regulation. On May 8, the bishops, along with some Lutheran clergy, proposed a cap on church attendance limited to 33% of building capacity, and detailing sanitation measures in line with pandemic norms. The governor rejected it.
Expressing their disappointment in the governor's lack of acknowledgment to the vital role faith has for the nation, the letter continues. "The Governor's remarks today further underscored a failure to appreciate the role of our Church and other faith groups in serving the community," they state. "The human cost to this pandemic has been extraordinary, not just in terms of lives lost to the virus but the rapidly growing problems of job loss, depression, crime and violence, and substance abuse."
The bishops claim unanimously their "conviction" that parishes can safely resume public Masses in accordance with religious duties and accepted public health and safety standards, and they emphasize that this is a permission, not yet with religious obligation, and that those who would be more susceptible in their church building should continue to stay home.
Reasserting their rightful independence from unreasonable civil mandates, the bishops noted the decision to suspend parish activities, Catholic schools, and public celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass was made by the bishops themselves, prior to any executive order by the governor.
"Our decision to suspend the public celebration of Mass was painful," the bishops state. "We made that decision not because we were compelled to do so, but because we judged that the circumstances required it."
"We believe that those circumstances have changed, as confirmed by the Governor's decision to end the Stay-at-Home order and allow more commerce," they continue.
"It is now permissible for an unspecified number of people to go to shopping malls and enter stores, so long as no more than 50 percent of the occupancy capacity is reached" the bishops note. With the shopping malls and other business establishments now reopening with no specific protocols mandated, they ask, "How can reason require us any longer to keep our faithful from the Eucharist?"
The letter continues to explain the reasoning behind the reopening of public Masses, noting the tradition this country has with freedom of religious expression. "This right can only be abridged for a compelling governmental interest," the prelates say, "and only in a way that is narrowly tailored to be the least restrictive means of achieving the desired end."
Concluding there is no reasonable alternative but to reject the governor's executive order, the bishops explain:
We think that the executive order issued last Wednesday fails this test. An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason. Therefore, we have chosen to move forward in the absence of any specific timeline laid out by Governor Walz and his Administration.
They add, "We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of the public celebration of the Mass."
Without access to the sacraments, they argue that the Church's crucial role as "field hospital" amidst the crisis is lost, adding that many have nowhere else to turn.