As the Spanish influenza epidemic was peaking in New York City in the fall of 1918, the managing editor of the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper took note in his weekly column that “Catholic churches were closed on Sunday in twenty-one States for the first time since America was discovered.” Then he recounted a conversation he’d had with a local woman that same day:
We asked a lady if she went to Mass in the morning; she promptly answered in the affirmative; but, said we, “weren’t you afraid of getting influenza?” “No,” said she, “but if I stayed away from church I would be afraid of getting it.” It was sound Catholic philosophy.
Patrick Scanlan was two years into his fifty-one of running the Brooklyn Tablet, which built a national audience drawn to his combative style. He was eventually considered the dean of the nation’s Catholic press—the loudest supporter of Fr. Charles Coughlin when the radio preacher descended into his most obvious anti-Semitism in the late 1930s, and also of Senator Joseph McCarthy during his rise and fall in the 1950s.
That is, Scanlan made a career out of trafficking in the politics of resentment. There’s a glimpse of that in his objection to the temporary closings of churches during the extraordinary influenza outbreak: “To prohibit the people from congregating for a half hour or so on Sunday is to class the churches as a non-essential industry,” he wrote in an October 19, 1918 column. A century later, President Donald Trump spoke similarly when he said he would push governors to reopen churches immediately: “I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”
This idea that the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions on individual liberties are part of a conspiracy to undermine religious belief is seen in Scanlan’s heirs in conservative and alt-right Catholic media, and in such church figures as Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the conspiracy-minded Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Fortunately, Scanlan’s diocese has not followed suit during the coronavirus pandemic; officials at the Diocese of Brooklyn say temporary church closings were unavoidable. “Though there are many who doubt and even publicly speak out against the decisions made to close churches and maintain social distancing, please know that decisions like these have not been taken lightly,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote in his Tablet column. That was especially so for the Brooklyn-Queens diocese, which is “literally at the epicenter of the crisis in New York City, which is the epicenter of the United States. We have had to resort to these desperate measures to prevent the further loss of life and spread of disease. Life is God’s great gift and we must protect it.”
That is the heart of the matter; it’s a pro-life issue. No one is denying the need for religious faith. Masses of New Yorkers sought consolation in worship after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, and Catholic parishes performed their role admirably. But as much as one also needs Mass and the sacraments in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the sense of community and connectedness that the liturgy embodies, it would not be life-giving to risk other people’s lives for it.