On December 12, Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles founder of Word on Fire, a “nonprofit global media conglomerate,” and social media superstar, tweeted a video containing a fascinating rebuke of Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s recent statement on churches and Covid-19, one that deserves a closer look.
He was responding to statements Governor Northam made at a press conference on Thursday, December 10 where he said:
“This year, we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship? Or is it the building? For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers. So I call upon faith leaders to lead the way and set an example.”
This Covid-sensible and seemingly innocuous statement angered Bishop Barron, and although his tone may have been a bit “well isn’t that SPECIAL,” his critique of Northam is worth examining. Barron says in the video that Northham’s statement represented “a liturgical and sacramental theology that is completely out of step with Catholicism,” and that it was a “secularized, Protestantized understanding of liturgy… [to say] that [religious devotion] is a matter of sheer interiority.”
Barron may be primarily worried that the secular authorities are, in his view, treading on freedom of religion, as he says—but regardless of his larger concerns he’s correct that Northam assumes a particularly Protestant way of understanding God to be universal.
For Catholics, as for practitioners of most world religions, to be religious is to practice the religion—thus the term “practicing Catholic.” We don’t hear the term “practicing evangelical” because evangelicalism isn’t fundamentally something one practices, but something one commits to personally and feels. As long as you have your Bible—and thanks to BibleGateway we all do—church itself, while important, is ultimately optional. It’s a place to pray and sing, a place to be seen, a place to meet friends, a place to feel good about oneself; but being there in person isn’t essential.
What matters is one’s relationship with God, and this relationship is not dependent on attending church services in person, though it can and is fostered by it. This way of thinking about religion in America—as personal, emotional, and individual—is more than common, it’s normative. But as Bishop Barron points out, this way of being religious isn’t actually universal—it’s Protestant.
We can see its lack of universality clearly when we look at a non-Christian tradition. Where I live, in Appleton, Wisconsin, there’s a sizable Hmong population. The Hmong people, an ethnic minority from Southeast Asia, have a 5,000-year-old religious tradition which is shamanistic and animistic. In Hmong cosmology, the spiritual world and the material world are linked in complex ways, and the shaman works on behalf of the community to restore health, harmony, and to keep good relations with the ancestors (for an excellent documentary on a Hmong shaman from Appleton named Paja Thao see The Split Horn.)
Hmong funerals, at which the entire community gathers to help the soul of the deceased person find its way back to the spirit world, often take 4 full days. Soul-calling and string-tying ceremonies are essential to mental and physical health, and these ceremonies involve the community and the shaman as well. In other words, it’s impossible to be a traditionally religious Hmong person “in one’s heart.” That formulation makes no sense.
The differences between Hmong shamanism and evangelical Protestantism are obvious. But there was a time in American history when many Americans didn’t consider Catholicism and Protestant evangelicalism different branches of the same religion, but different religions entirely. I still have students tell me that their mother or father was “raised Catholic but then became Christian.”
JFK’s presidency, the second Vatican Council, and the common ground forged over opposition to abortion and marriage equality have, for the most part, made that contrast much less stark. Catholics today conform closely enough to Protestant norms that the differences are less noticeable. Celibate vocations to the priesthood or convent are now rare; Catholic families are no longer noticeably larger than Protestant families; and public devotional practices like Marian processions and May crownings are much less common than they were even a half century ago. But despite the blurring of these once sharp lines, Northam’s assumption that the building “doesn’t matter” is not a neutral theological position.
Blithely assuming that since, for him, “God is anywhere,” staying home from church should be no big deal is only possible because Northam is defining belief itself in Protestant terms: having a personal relationship with a single all-powerful God who interacts with each of us individually by reading our minds, hearing our private thoughts, and otherwise requiring little of us with regard to ritual and liturgy.
I applaud Northam’s desire to keep the people of Virginia safe from Covid-19 by keeping them home from church. But he’s wrong if he does this without acknowledging that if you’re Catholic, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hmong, staying home to save lives means not being able to practice the heart of one’s religion, a situation that results in deep and profound loss.
I wish Bishop Barron too had been able to acknowledge this loss, making his point about Northam’s universalizing of Protestant theology and liturgy without immediately pivoting to a clerical insistence on the individual right to put lives at risk by gathering at Mass. The Catholic tradition includes many ways to participate—to practice—that don’t include Sunday Mass.
Barron could have encouraged his millions of followers to turn to the ancient monastic traditions, for example, especially since in many ways our lives have become monastic this year. We are rooted in one place, we see the same people over and over again, we eat, live and develop routines together—struggling to find meaning in the monotony of it all. Or he could have turned to the example of the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who when he found himself in remote regions of the world, without bread and wine, a congregation, or a building in which to celebrate Mass, prayed The Mass on the World, a contemplative prayer which acknowledges God’s sacramental presence in the world from a deeply Catholic perspective. But he did not.
Governor Northam and Bishop Barron are indeed coming from different theological traditions, and Barron is right about Protestant individualism being antithetical to the Catholic liturgical and sacramental tradition. But if Barron wants to remind his followers that church isn’t just about individual choice then insisting on the personal “right’ to go to church undermines his own position. Nobody should worship in person now, not until the vaccines are widely available, but that’s not because “the building doesn’t matter.” For many of us, it does. It’s just that human life matters more.