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When Priests Aren’t Allowed to Give Last Rites

Religious ministrations at the end of life are not considered 'essential' in COVID lockdown. Shouldn't they be?

Overreactions to a crisis can come from all quarters: religious, secular, civil society, and, above all, politics. Unless the many sectors that make up society can work together with all due respect to each other’s freedom and spheres of competency, much can and will go wrong.  

Consider the overreach of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his threat to shut down—permanentlysynagogues, churches, and mosques that fail to obey his orders. Or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s comical prohibition of the sale of vegetable seeds but not lotto tickets. Instead of earning their community leaders’ goodwill and cooperation, such arbitrariness breeds contempt for the law and abates conspiracy theories. Worse, it demonstrates a disregard for that which matters most to people: religion.

Some argue that the role of religion has declined over the last two decades. But the present pandemic seems to have raised new questions about it.

There are reports of hospitals around the United States that have denied patients access to chaplains even in their last moments. Viewing patients merely as medical problems fails to see them as whole persons who might long for the spiritual consolation offered by chaplains regardless of tradition.  

Our present heartbreaking moment calls for a sense of solidarity on everyone’s part to respond to the needs of people and communities. The vocation to reach out to people in extremis, and the necessity of hearing alternative ways to respond to these needs, ought not be dismissed as a disregard for the seriousness of the pandemic and the science behind it. These varied perspectives can add a holistic, insightful, decentralized, and effective response to the crisis.  

The role that religion and religious institutions have historically played in the face of disease and contagion has been comforting, but it has also varied over the millennia.  

Stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity, we read of the utterly heroic commitment to the sick and dying demonstrated in the face of two plagues that struck the Roman Empire. While most pagans fled the cities, many Christians stayed to tend to the vulnerable—women and men, free and slave, Gentile and Jew, Christian and non-Christian. What prompted them was their belief in an afterlife and the conviction that to serve the sick was to serve their Master. 

During the Plague of Cyprian in 250 AD, which claimed millions of lives throughout the Empire, the bishop of Alexandria, where two thirds of the population had succumbed to the disease, gave a moving account of priests, deacons, and laymen who, “heedless of danger…took charge of the sick, attending to their every need…and with them departed this life serenely happy…the result of great piety and strong faith….”

Yet that same piety, when disconnected from rationality, can yield a different result. This is memorably described in Alessandro Manzoni’s portrait of a 17th-century plague that overtook Milan in his classic I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Despite knowing the risk involved, the desperate and fevered spirituality of people to combat the contagion inspired a large religious procession throughout the city. Manzoni judges this a case of the “heart acquitting the head” where “[a] presumptuous confidence that the procession had put an end to the plague…reigned everywhere…and that very day the death-rate increased in every part of the city and in every social class…[so that] no one could fail to see that its cause…lay in the procession itself.”

Processions are not as popular today, but patients still seek spiritual care from the Doctor of Souls.

Assumptions that the only essential care patients require is of a material or medical nature, which can even be shared by religious leaders, suggest a dangerous shift in social attitude in favor of a materialist or physicalist bias that can become entrenched long after the disease subsides. To see religious ministration as a non-essential service but the sale of lottery tickets as somehow essential tells us something is out of joint. For clergy to be prohibited from ministering in hospitals, institutions whose contemporary form was first prompted by religious inspiration, is to say the least sadly ironic.

For those who believe in God (i.e., most people), for those who have lived their lives as believers, and perhaps for those who have not lived such lives but who wish to make final reconciliations with God, access to the consolations of religion is incredibly comforting. The ameliorative effects that this kind of care can have on the medical conditions (and even the immune systems) of patients are well established. Indeed, in these moments, many believe there is a spiritual effect that transcends medical care (as important and worthy as it is).

Hospitals have long made prudent provisions for medical care, cleaning, food service, and a host of other things in precarious situations, such as the one in which we find ourselves. Given this, patients should surely have access to their ministers, with full consideration of the minister’s safety and health as well as that of any medical staff who may need to be there too.

If restrictive policies concerning clergy visits are in place at hospitals, then (at the very least) such medical institutions are surely obliged to notify all self-identified religious patients that in any circumstances the hospital deems equivalent to this present one, they will not have access to clergy, even if they are in extremis.

In these strange times, when many people of all faiths (and none) are unexpectedly facing serious illness and, in some cases, staring death in the face, I hope that hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as civic and religious leaders, will see that while human beings are indeed flesh and blood, they are not merely flesh and blood. Patients are persons. Religious leaders need to honor reason and science while also remembering that each patient bears a unique dignity that transcends the physical.

Fr. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute and pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Academy, in Grand Rapids, MI

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