A woman receives Communion amid the coronavirus pandemic (CNS photo/courtesy of Detroit Catholic).

The Archdiocese of Atlanta officially welcomed the faithful back to Mass for the Feast of Pentecost on May 22. The Catholic Conference of Ohio declared that “the general obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation” would resume throughout the state the weekend of June 6. Pennsylvania’s dioceses announced in July that the general dispensation would expire in time for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15.

Meanwhile, on June 30, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote a letter to his own flock explaining why no similar announcement was forthcoming: “Here in the Archdiocese of New York, there has never been a dispensation from Sunday Mass, because no man can ‘dispense’ or set aside a Divine (as opposed to man-made) law.” He explained that the Third Commandment, which requires believers to keep the Sabbath holy, makes it impossible for him to dispense with the Sunday obligation, adding, “to deliberately miss Mass is a sin.”

Dolan’s claim that a bishop is never able to issue a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass is difficult to reconcile with the fact that bishops across the country, and in dioceses neighboring New York, did exactly that in March 2020. Cardinal Dolan surely knows this; in fact, as the metropolitan archbishop of the region, he has a responsibility to know it. What must those other bishops think of his accusing them of disregard for the Commandments? What are we lay people to think?

“Of course,” Dolan goes on, “the Church has always held that there may be some justifiable reasons why a person can miss Mass, including old age, illness, and infirmity; this is still the case.” Yes, and the point of issuing a general dispensation is to confirm that such a justification exists for everyone in a given diocese. It is a pastoral response to an acute threat to the well-being of a community, like a blizzard, a hurricane, or a deadly communicable disease.

An official dispensation in 2020 would have meant the Church declaring for itself that the pandemic was an emergency that called for a united response.

An official dispensation in 2020 would have meant the Church declaring for itself that the pandemic was an emergency that called for a united response. Altering our patterns of worship in order to “stop the spread” could have been framed as a communal offering, a sacrifice we willingly embraced out of concern for one another. Instead, we in New York got passive-aggressive compliance with the public-health initiatives of the state. The official Church response was less “What can we do to help each other?” and more “Why should we have to?” The pandemic plunged us into an extended Lenten season of sacrifice and fasting, something we practicing Catholics had been training for all our lives. Too often, it felt like the Church was pushing back against our viewing it that way, encouraging us to resent the inconveniences of social distancing instead of supporting us in bearing the cross together.

My family and I stayed away from Mass (and from everything else) out of love, not out of fear. Knowing that we weren’t alone, that other families and members of our community were also praying and giving and finding new ways to stay connected, was inspiring. We wore masks and canceled plans and trusted in the promise of Christ to be in our midst when we gathered in our living room to pray. What we were doing at home all those weeks, keeping the Sabbath while keeping our distance, was holy. Why, now, does it feel as though the Church couldn’t see that?

Not everyone was working so hard to keep their practice of the faith alive during the past year. But only those Catholics for whom Sunday Mass is fundamental would have noticed a dispensation from the bishop in the first place. What about the rest of our fellow Catholics? What did they see in the Church’s pandemic response during this season of sacrifice? Did they recognize the working of the Spirit? Was there anything to make them say, “I want to be part of that again”?

Adults capable of mature discernment don’t need a simplistic lecture about the Ten Commandments. We need reliable guidance about risks and responsibilities, the kind of guidance the federal government under Donald Trump recklessly refused to provide. We need a call to solidarity, a reminder that we’re all in this together. The Church could and should have resisted the toxic politicization of public health. Complaining about being singled out for persecution was irresponsible. Allowing masks, and then vaccines, to become markers in the culture wars left us all more vulnerable. Now, with coronavirus variants on the rise, we once again find ourselves confronting a public-health emergency. The Church has another chance to demonstrate an uncompromising commitment to the common good. This time, a little more faith in the laity would be a good thing. As a Church, we have the tools to meet challenges like this pandemic with generosity and mutual support. To dispense with that obligation would be a serious sin.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the September 2021 issue: View Contents
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