The world continues to tip-toe its way forward into the new reality of life with Covid. In recent weeks in Washington County, Wisconsin we have observed various local businesses, especially restaurants, re-establishing some type of pattern of regular operations as things have slowly loosened up in our area. Even with so many regular events that have cancelled, such as county fairs, people are still finding ways to gather and interact. Local athletics activities are slowly returning with some adjustments to the usual routines. Parks are full of people. Ice cream shops are busy. Healthy human interaction is slowly returning.
I have found it interesting to observe not only the gradual loosening of restrictions (for example a local fast food restaurant moving from not allowing customers to get their own drinks when the dining area first re-opened, to dropping that restriction a couple weeks later), but also the lack of uniformity about it all. Some businesses and entities are still hyper-restrictive. Other local places are operating right now pretty much like this spring never happened. There are clearly a wide-range of operative policies right now about face masks, distancing, capacities, and sanitizing from business to business. For some offices, most people are still working from home. In other places, everyone is back. Everyone seems to be respecting everyone else’s personal comfort level about it all, at least up to a point.
The sentiments of mutual respect seem to reach boundaries or limits increasingly along the usual “red” vs “blue” lines of our politics. The more Libertarian-minded members of the population (call them “red”) tend to bristle at any attempt at managed restrictions to life, regardless of the reasons behind them. Conversely, the more “State-Sympathetic” members of the population (call them “blue”) find abiding by all the restrictions to be some measurement of good citizenship for the common good, and treat them like a merit badge. That being said, fears of germs have certainly caused some “red” “blue” realignments with typically “red” minded people suddenly becoming much more “blue” on this one issue if they have decided their health is in danger. I suppose this is just how America approaches everything, including viruses.
In the light of all this, one should not find it surprising that the Church is caught in the same dynamics of a piece-mealed and inconsistent set of approaches to Covid, varying area by area, parish by parish, and Catholic by Catholic. Yes, we do all try to be on the same page as an Archdiocese, but the reality is that it is just not the same everywhere now that the unifying initial terror of the outbreak has worn off, and human nature has again taken over.
I have been fascinated to note the range of reactions among Catholics to it all, similar to the red-blue re-aligning of the culture over the whole situation. One might think that there would be no “high-risk” members of the population in our churches at all right now out of fear of getting sick, leaving only the “young and healthy” to trickle in to our pews. This is not the case, though. Noticeably absent to my observation have been many of the young who, in theory, should have no problem coming to gatherings these days. One cannot help but observe that many of the young have no issues appearing in large, public protest rallies right now in our cities. We have been blessed with many young families at Mass, and younger people to be sure, however, the most dedicated of those coming now are clearly in the “high-risk” demographic who are older.
I will speak generically, which I realize is dangerous, but I suspect the reason for this is because they were raised in an era of history and of the Church that has allowed them to place all of this in a different perspective. Sacraments are what get us to heaven, as we teach, and the fact is people get sick and die (as any older person is keenly aware), therefore they would rather get sick than be deprived of Sacraments which they know to be eternally more important.
I will not make a ruling on whether or not that mindset is objectively correct or not, other than to say that as a priest, I have great sympathy for it. As time passes, the Church is going to have to wrestle through the difficult theological question of what “health” means in our therapeutic era, when placed against the looming backdrop of “eternity.” This is not a simple question to answer. Right now, the Catholic faithful, “red” and “blue” alike, are answering the question according to their own conscience and comfort level, which works for awhile. At some point, this becomes a question of doctrinal articulation in the era of pandemics. We are not there yet. For now, we will continue to tip-toe our way forward, figuring it out as we go.