Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

Suspending public Masses was in line with ‘common good’ principle

Published: June 13, 2020

By Father Jason Tyler
Diocesan Bioethicist

While on my way to visit a parishioner in the hospital in early March, someone asked me in the hospital elevator whether my church was still having Sunday services with the coronavirus threat increasing. The man did not know me but asked the question because he saw my collar and recognized that I was a priest. I told him that we were indeed still having Mass but that we were no longer shaking hands or sharing a common cup during Communion. His response was, “OK, but why take the risk at all? Why bring people together in the first place?”

I responded by trying to explain our belief in the Eucharist, that we gather at Mass to be in the presence of the Lord who makes himself present to us there. At that point, the elevator arrived at the floor I needed, and I stepped off. I thought about how I could have mentioned that sporting events were still going strong and gathering far greater numbers at one time than we see in our churches.

In the life of the Church, individual rights are important, but they always have a purpose beyond themselves. They are ordered to the common good.

Over the next 72 hours, every major sporting league in the country did indeed announce a shutdown, Arkansas documented its first case of COVID-19, the World Health Organization declared the viral outbreak officially a pandemic and Bishop Anthony B. Taylor announced the suspension of public Masses.

I was sad not to know whether the Razorbacks’ men’s basketball team would make the NCAA Tournament, and I definitely miss Major League Baseball, but I was absolutely devastated to think of a near shutdown of the Church’s sacramental life. As a Catholic, I know the sacraments are a blessed and wonderful encounter with the Lord. As a priest, celebrating the sacraments is what I live for.

Did that suspension mean I was wrong to speak so highly of the importance of the Mass? Did it mean that we as Catholics don’t have a right to the sacraments when properly disposed?

Not at all. Public celebration of Mass was suspended in order to promote the common good of society. Every human person is responsible not only for oneself but also for how we affect others. An outbreak at a church would affect those present and would continue the spread of the virus beyond them as well.

The “common good’’ is a primary principle of the Church’s social doctrine, along with the principles of the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity and solidarity. The “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” defines the common good as the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (par. 164) and describes it as the social and communal dimension of the moral good. It is difficult to attain because it requires each person to “seek the good of others as though it were one’s own good.” (167)

Our country was founded on the idea of individual rights. Although it has not been lived perfectly in our history, this concept has done wonderful things for our country and for the cause of human dignity around the world. In the life of the Church, individual rights are important, but they always have a purpose beyond themselves. They are ordered to the common good. Therefore, in times of great necessity, a bishop can temporarily suspend the public celebration of Mass or the reception of Communion on the tongue.

Such a suspension is a great sacrifice to all involved. Going without Mass means giving up something very good. It cannot be done lightly and should not be prolonged more than necessary, but gathering for Mass can be suspended when the common good demands it. Let us pray that we don’t find ourselves in such a dire situation again.