When I began the segment on “the Unexpected Sabbatical,” I did not grasp its intensity or expanse of time. More is known now about the virus and its impact than we knew six weeks ago, and most of our new information is not of the encouraging kind. Covid-19 is transmitted to others before the carrier experiences symptoms. The statistics show that what was once thought of as a disease of the ill and the aged can strike down young adults in their prime. Forensic examinations show that Corona damages not just the lungs—perhaps permanently—but many other body organs, from the ears to the liver.
Nor did I understand the full implications to the country’s economic and security well-being. The United States is currently processing several trillion dollars in checks to most households. This money was not budgeted, so it is either being printed or borrowed. For households, I believe the allotment is $2400 dollars or thereabouts, apparently to help strapped Americans survive for a month. What happens next month? At the current moment, including today’s jobs report, the unemployment rate is between 15% and 20%, approaching the levels of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and did not end until the United States started militarizing after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even good news is bad news: The State of New Jersey is hiring anyone who knows anything about COBAL, to repair its state computers. COBAL is an old computer operating system built for large frame computers 60 years ago, which the Garden State still depends upon for significant portions of its state operations. [I suppose that makes the NJ system immune to sophisticated cyber-attacks.]
I have been following the reactions to Covid-19 of church workers and catechists on websites devoted to ministry, and there continues to be considerable stress about the traditional springtime sacraments [more appropriately, their indefinite postponement], start-up dates for summer and fall programs, and getting teaching aids to parents at home. Some have reported that they have been furloughed, others have had salaries slashed. Nearly all are working from home and most report owning a responsibility to hold the parish—and their ministries—together. I have seen three major national news outlets address the issue of whether most dioceses can fiscally survive throughout 2020, but I am not seeing the issue raised in the Catholic press--except for the reminders after streamed Masses to use the EFT to support the parish.
I know I have run a little far afield from the original purpose of the stream, the idea of our “down time” to enrich our understanding of our faith and our church, a time to question what we honestly believe and what we labor over where “religion” is in our plane of existence. The Corona virus is a normal manifestation in the microscopic word of germs and viruses. What is abnormal is not the microbe but the reactions, non-reactions, and opportunism of the world to which it was carried. One microscopic species has laid bare so many personal and societal sins, ranging from today’s terrible discovery in a New Jersey nursing home to customers grousing and cursing grocery clerks attempting to maintain CDC recommendations to prevent contagion. We are learning about grave insufficiencies in our health care delivery system, the dangerous workplaces in meat processing plants, the desperate needs of safety nets in times of national emergency.
We have learned something about our local Catholic communities. Many pastors have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide streaming services and maintain personal outreach. Catholic Charities and individual parishes, which already carry sizeable caseloads, labor overtime when an amazing number of Americans are going hungry. On the other hand, the USCCB has remained mute on governmental, business, and even personal decisions which ought to make educated Catholics very queasy. Nothing has been said about the salaries, work environments, and precarious tenures of employed parish employees, whose treatment across the board has varied considerably from place to place.
For our purposes here, how will the Church survive, and what will it look like in a post-Corona world? These are the thoughts to bring into your sabbatical. If the country—or significant parts of it—fall into a depression anywhere near 1929, and we are drifting perilously close particularly if another Corona wave arrives in September of October, the Church and its members will take on a profoundly new relationship with each other. For starters, many parishes would collapse due to inadequate funds and income. 25% of church members would be unemployed, and the other 75% would be supporting family members. About 20 dioceses in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy before the virus reached American shores.
With fewer places to meet [if social gatherings are still permitted as they have been] and a decimated pool of professional religious educators and directors, it may be that the Church here reverts to its first three centuries, to “the domestic church” model where the heads of households take stronger leadership of the daily life of Catholics. One criticism of the “streaming” has been an optic that Catholics cannot pray, learn, and teach without a priest on the set. I do not quite agree, but it does seem to me that a lot of Catholic homes have no Catholic regimen such as times for family prayer, religious resources for on-going Bible and Church study, and one-on-one guidance. It has been a mystery to me for 50 years why CCD teachers, mostly parents, are teaching other parents’ children.
If nothing else, the Corona virus might point our sabbaticals to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition for study and reflection. Catholicism functioned—often in secret--during times of persecution and exile. It has ministered through the dozens of plagues it has encountered. 150 years ago, Pope Leo XII spelled out the basis for working folks to organize and negotiate for a living wage. In more recent times the Church has developed a strong body of medical ethics. Four years ago, Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Laudato Si, addressed the inner workings of nature, justice, business, and human dignity. [Summary of encyclical here.] At the time of Laudato Si’s public release, the religious right condemned it as “green” or “socialist” or “papal meddling.” The response of Christ himself calls us to be more than meddlers: “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.”