KEVIN LEININGER: Why isn’t church as ‘essential’ as carry-out pizza?

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese prepares to distribute Holy Communion. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

“Making recommendations on sacraments does exceed my authority and expertise.”

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan said that last month when I asked what churches were supposed to do about communion in the age of government-induced isolation.

“It’s preferred that no communion be handed out, but if so, it has to be pre-packaged and it has to meet the current food safety standards.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb said that last week when, just in time for Easter, he and state Health Commissioner Kris Box issued new guidelines for places of worship — one of which was that “church buildings and other physical locations should be closed” to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The purpose of this guidance is not to restrict religious liberty, but to save lives during these extraordinary times. I look forward to the day where we can once again worship side-by-side without the threat of spreading coronavirus,” the Republican Holcomb said. While he was no doubt sincere, Holcomb’s order caused confusion and concern among some believers because it lacked clarity, consistency and the humble wisdom inherent in McMahan’s admission that some things are above a public official’s pay grade.

With many stores, restaurant kitchens and take-out lines and other businesses still full of people, why would Holcomb order churches and similar institutions previously deemed “essential” to close while also citing CDC guidelines that call for no such thing? It’s a good question, so I put it to Holcomb spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer who, to her credit, called back with answers that were only partially reassuring.

Physical churches do not have to close, she told me. But any services held should abide by the CDC’s 10-person limit while maintaining proper “social distancing.” It’s not OK, however, to conduct multiple small services because the virus could linger in the air or on hard surfaces. That’s an improvement over Holcomb’s “closure” order but is a standard not being demanded of many commercial enterprises.

The governor’s guidance for a preferred alternative — “drive-in” worship — also left something to be desired. “If that’s driving to a church parking lot or out to an empty, tentless field, you must stay inside of your vehicle. This is not a tailgate,” he said. “There’s going to be no physical interaction, as strange or as unusual as it may be with clergy or staff or other participants in that worship service. Your vehicles must contain only those from your household. Cars need to be spaced out about by nine feet or more.”

I ordered a carry-out pizza over the weekend, and the people working in the kitchen were physically interacting with each other and their customers — and without keeping nine, six or even three feet between each other. There was not a mask in sight.

The big problem in Holcomb’s order last week was its seemingly uninformed or cavalier attitude toward communion. Some churches consider it merely symbolic, a dramatization of the Last Supper and a show of friendship and unity. But to Catholics, Lutherans and some other denominations, communion really is sacred: the consumption of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. That requires consecration of the bread and wine by the priest or pastor.

In that case, Holcomb’s office suggested, churches should simply forego communion. Sausage and cheese is one thing, apparently; Holy Communion is another.

The same CDC guidelines Holcomb cited last week call his level of caution into question. Although the agency does list suspension of communion as an option, it also allows the practice to continue while recommending modifications such as sanitizing the priest’s or pastor’s hands prior to distribution (good advice at any time), placing the elements in the recipient’s hand instead of on the tongue and avoiding use of a common cup.

Although it now appears the federal government has been classifying the deaths of patients infected with the coronavirus as COVID-19 deaths regardless of any underlying health issues that could have contributed to the loss of life, this remains a serious health threat and all Americans — including churches — should behave responsibly. Some, clearly, have not but have an obligation to do so for the sake of neighbor.

Politicians have an obligation to protect the public, but they are also obligated to apply only their rightful authority in a way that is consistent, fair and does not arbitrarily impede constitutionally protected liberties. We are getting very close to that point, if it’s not already too late.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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