What’s Wrong with the World

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We must obey God rather than men

I don't know who has or has not heard about this already, but Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is in jail for holding church meetings contrary to the current Covid regulations there. Here is just one MSM story about it. Here is a story about the shocking fact that the church met again this morning in defiance of the orders and in support of its jailed pastor. Good for them!

Pastor Coates will not be released pending trial because he isn't willing to agree to the extreme restrictions. More on just how extreme in a moment. Also, because he has been "caught" (by Mounties attending his suspicious church to check up on them several Sundays in a row), he himself wouldn't be allowed to go to the church at all until his trial, even if he were to grovel and submit, which he won't do. I'm going to link several Tweets here showing screen-capped statements by his wife, Erin Coates, about the nature of the restrictions and the conditions put upon him for release. Here, here, here, here, and here.

One of the most distressing aspects for those of us who aren't actually in jail or related to anyone in jail (they have more distressing aspects to contend with) is hearing all the mealy-mouthed Christians talking about how now, now, this isn't really religious persecution, it's not really so bad. Some of these Twitter scolds appear to think that's the most important thing to say--It's not really persecution--while trying to pretend that they are sympathetic to Pastor Coates in jail. No you're not. Stop pretending while you race to distance yourself! If that's what you think is most important to say, you really think he's a pretty bad guy, risking blah-blah.

So here's the first point I want to make: Yes, this really is religious persecution. No, it absolutely is not necessary for the jailing of a pastor to result from a specifically anti-religious animus in order for it to be an instance of persecution.

This shouldn't be necessary to spell out. I would like to think that two years ago, pre-Covid, anyone would have understood this. But now it is necessary to spell out: When core religious activities such as meeting as the physical Body of Christ, talking to one another about deeply personal matters in person, in groups, and singing (and I could name more) are prohibited by the government, on pain of fines and/or jail, then that is religious persecution, regardless of the motive.

All we need to see this is to ask this: What if it were permanent? What if we had a government so germophobic that it banned all clubs as well as all church gatherings, all in-person group meetings where people talk to one another, all children's ministry, Sunday School, youth group, forever, but did this because of a fear of germs, not because of a hatred of religious meetings more than, say, knitting clubs? Then would we admit that the newly-jailed pastors who defy this are suffering from religious persecution?

I dunno. Maybe not. Having staked out the ridiculous, untenable position that the government can literally ban public gatherings to worship God and jail pastors but that this doesn't count as persecution as long as the powers that be are also banning public gatherings to worship Satan or football, perhaps these scolds would bite the bullet and say this even if the bans were made permanent--you know, just in case another virus that kills people should enter the world, or get passed around. Someone who holds such a position would not recognize religious persecution if it bit him in the posterior. And I hope that all the brave Baptists who went to the Gulags for holding Sunday School or meeting as church bodies in the Russian woods are rolling in their graves at such statements.

Oh, by the way, Russia bans churches from meeting as an anti-terrorist measure, if they don't have government sanction. That's a "secular" motive, so I guess that isn't religious persecution either. Also by the way, the recent ban on praying for people to help them change their sexual orientation, enacted in Victoria, Australia, is presumably motivated by a desire to curtail all activities designed to change a sexual orientation. The prayer ban is just an example of what is banned. Secular "conversion therapy" is also banned. So I guess if someone goes to jail there for trying to help someone spiritually with his unwanted same-sex desires, that won't be religious persecution either, right? I may write more about that law in another post if I have time, but we need to be aware that it's going on and that almost any ban on religious activities has some wider motive.

So the real question is whether these rules ban any truly essential religious activities, which of course takes us to the substantive question of what counts as the essence of Christianity and what activities are core. Those who think that all "church" can be "done on-line" will think that Pastor Coates is making a martyr of himself for nothing.

At this point I should probably discuss what the regulations in question actually are. All churches are required to limit attendance to 15% of fire capacity in the building, which Erin Coates says is about 1/5 to 1/6 of their congregation. She continues, "This would mean no visitors, no out-reach, no being a light to this city. Mandatory masks, social distancing, no singing…no conversing with anyone outside your home…Livestream is available but you are not allowed to have anyone into your home. These restrictions hinder James from being able to converse with the people on GLC on a Sunday as they immediately have to leave the service. We are prohibited from practising the one another’s in the gathering. Or in person at all. These have been in place since early December. Alberta has had 2 extreme lockdowns but has had restrictions on the gathering for almost [a] year. He could not sign these conditions."

No kidding. Pastor Coates has my full support.

What kind of a vision of church gathering does Alberta's government have? It's a vision in which the "gathering" part is pretty much nothing. Each little family unit arrives in the building (nobody knows why they are bothering to come into the same building at all, given what follows), just a few of them. They all sit apart. They all stare at the masked guy standing up front. He says some stuff. They pray and sing silently in their hearts. They act like a bunch of strangers coming to a movie. Maybe they wave at each other or say a few words at the outset, like, "Hi, so-and-so," but not for very long. We can't have any of that dangerous socializing or mutual support going around. They do some religious ritual-y stuff that doesn't involve touching anybody or getting within six feet of anybody for a while (not including singing), then they all must leave immediately, without stopping to converse, and go off to their separate homes, separately. If you want pastoral counsel, by golly, do it by Zoom or telephone. Same-same for if you need to talk with a friend. And above all, you can't see anybody else's face while you're in the same physical space.

In that type of "church," the entire enterprise is almost by definition members-only. How you're supposed to get new members is left unstated. You sign up for a place to make sure "too many" people don't show up. You certainly don't engage in anything like outreach or evangelistic services, sermons, or gatherings. Nobody comes spontaneously. Everything has to be carefully planned so that the people who were already, for some reason or other, members of these strange little clubs can be in the same room with each other a few at a time occasionally and exchange a wave or a few hastily-shouted words and sit and watch the same little lecture together.

If you think this is sufficient for carrying out the core mission of the Christian church for a year, or even for a couple of months, much less indefinitely (as is now the case), I cannot help you. You are beyond help. If you don't claim to be a Christian, perhaps I can suggest to you that you should permit Pastor Coates and the members of GraceLife Church to disagree with you on the embodied nature of their own religion. If you do claim to be a Christian, you are a living, breathing (through a mask) frustration to Christians like me. Just please know that. Because we have a pretty shrewd idea of what the Apostle Paul, the author of Hebrews, and a plethora of saints and martyrs through the centuries, right up through 2019, would have had to say to that. It probably starts with, "What the heck is the matter with you people?"

Mrs. Coates gets it. She's still living in a world that is so 2019, in which churches actually wanted people to come, wanted to evangelize, wanted to be there for people, wanted to be a light to their community, and believed that they met so that people could connect with each other and share their hearts.

The question of the Sacraments (or as Pastor Coates would probably call them, the Ordinances) is an interesting one. Here we have need of some harmonization. Erin Coates says that they have been forbidden to hold Communion. Wyatt Graham, the author of this notably tepid "support" (sort of?) post about Pastor Coates, says that they are allowed to carry out both Communion and baptism. I'll get to baptism in a minute.

Harmonization is my jam, so here goes: Anybody who has lived through the past year and paid attention knows that enforcement varies tremendously from case to case and locale to locale. Even from sheriff to sheriff, in the U.S. It's entirely possible that Wyatt Graham is privy to some situation where some sort of Communion is allowed, while Mrs. Coates knows full-well that it isn't being allowed at GraceLife Church. That is not even remotely implausible.

But there's also the possibility that the government is arrogating to itself the right to decide what does or doesn't count as Communion, and that Pastor Coates and GraceLife Church disagree on that. I can well imagine Roman Catholics who would not agree that the little individually-vacuum-sealed packets of juice or wine and wafers, which you pick up from some separate location rather than taking from a human being, and which you then carry away and consume when you're "socially distanced" from everybody else, count as valid Communion. While Pastor Coates doubtless wouldn't use either the term "valid" or the concept as Catholics do, I can remember plenty of Baptists from my youth who would probably have been dubious about this as well. Communion is a communal activity. So perhaps it's that GraceLife insists (gasp!) on carrying out Communion in the way they did before, which (if my Baptist background is any guide) would have involved passing around plates with broken cracker bits and plates with individual tiny cups of grape juice (already more hygienic than a common cup, for that matter) and then eating them all at the same time. Or who knows? Maybe they actually do come up to a rail. Either way, I fully believe Mrs. Coates that their Communion is not being allowed.

Mrs. Coates doesn't mention baptism one way or another, but here Wyatt Graham is on prima facie shaky ground. I seriously doubt that he or anyone else is literally carrying out baptism by using a long-distance water gun (super soaker?), and it literally is not possible to baptize another individual (adult or child, by sprinkling or immersion) from a distance of six feet. So I can only guess this: Perhaps churches that bow the neck to Caesar and agree to engage in all the other restrictions and security theater (see above) are graciously permitted to have the pastor come within six feet of one single individual, perhaps wearing some elaborate PPE, and sprinkle a little water on him very quickly, and then back off again. As long as everyone is made sufficiently uncomfortable and the operation is carried out in a way sufficiently different from the way it was done pre-pandemic, this will doubtless scare away the Covid germs. Or if it doesn't, the Government will have to rescind that permission, too.

It was, after all, the glorious health ministry of British Columbia that advised its citizens to make sexual contact with each other through holes in barriers, such as walls (yes, walls) that "allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact" in order to have "safer sex" during Covid. (You think I'm making this up, don't you? Don't Google it to verify, you'll regret it. I believe health officials in New York City made the same suggestion.) So, as with sex-through-a-wall in British Columbia, perhaps the health ministers of Alberta are suggesting/allowing baptism-through-a-wall. You never know. Anyway, Graham assures us that baptism of some sort is allowed along with having 15% of your congregation come to church, so I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief and allow ourselves to feel a tad impatient with Pastor Coates for being in jail.

This brings me to my second point: You can't avoid substantive issues here. Graham tries pretty hard to walk a tightrope of feeling or expressing some sort of sympathy toward Coates and some sort of alarm about his imprisonment, but I'm going to say right up front: It gives me a chill. The tone of the article is odd and constrained, and this is one of the more supportive pieces. I gather a lot more pastors aren't even willing to go this far. The letter to the premier of the province that he suggests that pastors sign is more strongly worded, thankfully.

But here's what I mean by saying that you cannot avoid substantive issues: There are cases where we all would not support a pastor for breaking some rule. It depends on the rule. (Compare freedom of speech. How many of us can get really enthusiastic about making sure that there is full freedom of speech for a group advocating the legalization of pedophilia? We're just not going to be that concerned, and understandably so.) So generally appeals to those who “disagree” with Coates to “support” him nonetheless require that the people hearing the appeals, who do disagree, see that disagreement as falling into a highly specific range--something like, "I disagree with Pastor Coates, but I don't disagree with him so far that I have lost sympathy for him. In general I think the authorities/cancelers/persecutors are overreacting because what he did fell into a range that should be allowed, even if I wouldn't have done it."

What we are finding in 2021 is that far fewer things fall into that highly specific range than we might have thought. Hence our appeals might as well be nakedly and openly to substance, stating outright in this case that what Pastor Coates did does not merit punishment, that it lies in the area where differences of action should be permitted. But most people who “disagree” with him are by no means sure of that. After all, the provincial officials gave him and his congregation lots of warnings, and the Mounties showed up again and again to see if they could induce him and his congregation to change their ways. The church was even fined. If you believe wholeheartedly in the wisdom of the regulations, at some point you are going to say, “What else could they do? They have to do something to try to enforce this.” In other words, if you support Pastor Coates at all, you should face it: In your heart you don't really think that these draconian, 15%, no-talking-after-the-service guidelines should be in place! Because you don't think they should be enforced. Without penalty there is no law. You think people should be allowed to flout them.

How many people who disagree with Pastor Coates sincerely think that? Admit it: Not a whole lot.

I was brought up against this rather sharply when a good friend of mine on social media, who fully supports Pastor Coates's actions, shared an open letter from a Canadian calling for people to support Pastor Coates even if they disagree with him. One of her friends then showed up in the thread and asked, all ingenuous curiosity, what is really being asked of him? How, he asked, can he go about supporting Pastor Coates while disagreeing with him? He asked, suavely, whether it would count as "support" if he were to suggest to the government that they fine Pastor Coates rather than imprisoning him.

Well, no. No, that wouldn't count. But it strikingly illustrates the point: At some point, pretty much all procedural disagreements, especially about matters of policy, end up being disagreements about substance. You can't avoid it, so we might as well not try. Pure neutrality is not possible in policy, and often not even desirable. (This looks like a really good article along these lines by Ryan Anderson, tho' unfortunately I'm able to read only the opening, because I'm not a subscriber.)

I'm really glad that GraceLife chose to meet today. That may show that the attempt to crack down and enforce these regulations is not entirely working out as intended. In fact, another church is also standing up. God bless Pastor Tim Stephens. We should admit the sobering fact, however, that probably the intent is to terrify others into complying, and that may be working to a large extent. Even if GraceLife isn't shut down, many other churches may be shutting down because their pastors, priests, or bishops don't have the courage of Pastor Coates.

(And where are the Catholics, by the way, in these locations? I don't mean to be un-ecumenical, and I love my Catholic friends, but it's a crying shame that the official non-sacramentalists are taking Catholic bishops to school on the importance of Incarnation and physical Presence in worship. From what I'm hearing, most Catholic bishops seem to be out there telling their flocks to stay at home, watch a livestream, and have "spiritual Communion" and forbidding their priests to visit even the dying, while Baptists are going to jail for the right to have Communion in person.)

May God richly bless Pastor Coates, his wife, and his children, Pastor Stephens, and all the other pastors, priests, and Christian ministers throughout the world who are keeping the flame of Christianity, which is by definition in-person Christianity, alive through this very dark time.

Comments (15)

I have never been convinced that liberalism, of whatever confession, is a wholly coherent political ideology, but it is surely absurd for liberals to posture as defenders of pluralism, and then turn round and assert that *this one value* must trump all other values and value order-rankings, not only for *liberals*, but for all communities and confessions whatsoever. It is a real-life instantiation of certain types of arguments in philosophy, where a certain thing obtaining in one modal world is supposed to have implications and entailments for all other modal worlds, and for the real world.

No. Pastor Stephens does not have to valorize the good of absolutely minimizing covid infections above all other goods, human or human or divine. That is neither true to the structure of moral experience, nor to the structure of personal and public health. There. Are. Always. Trade-offs. This insane and immoral assertion that there is One Thing, One Value, that can guide absolutely every sphere of human undertaking, is autistic and destructive, and it leads me to think of the immortal Diderot quote, but with public health professionals substituted for the kings.

What's particularly insane to me is the fact that there are so many other issues that can be described in entirely secular terms that are not being recognized. People avoiding routine healthcare for fear of Covid. Tuberculosis going undiagnosed. Superbug infection in a nursing home due to double PPE due to fear of Covid. Even "mental health" can be described as an issue that lefties used to realize. Some of the same people blaming sexual conservatives for the suicide of anyone who identifies as homosexual are completely ignoring the rise in suicides and overdoses due to the lack of social contact.

I've decided to respond thus to the scolds who are going around archly trying to correct the use of the term "religious persecution" for the jailing of pastors who meet:

I have a compromise to propose: Let's just all agree to call it "sane people persecution," aka, persecution of people behaving sanely. Then we can further agree that people who belong to certain religions that emphasize human love, connection, help, and gathering are especially likely to behave sanely and therefore likely to be "disproportionately impacted" by persecution of sane people. Is that better? Cool, thanks, glad we're all good now.

One of the most appalling developments of public policy, in a year filled to repletion with them, has been the conjunction of the following: on the one hand, the new breed of NGO-funded activist "prosecutors" who refuse to do the job of a prosecutor, along with the emptying of prisons due to both this ideological abolitionism (and I should note that I have long supported decriminalization of certain nonviolent drug and drug-related offenses, but that what we are now enduring goes far beyond this) and concerns about covid; and, on the other, the imposition of de facto house arrest upon the law-abiding populations, under nakedly unconstitutional emergency orders which are perpetually renewed without the merest whiff of legislative oversight. This could stand as a synecdoche for liberalism: it is a perfect inversion of anything that could be remotely likened to justice, quite as if one had decided to celebrate a black mass to invert the Christian epoch. Liberate the criminals, the degenerates, the violent, the depraved! Imprison and torment the law-abiding, the sane, the *normal*!

The only logic that can be discerned in this howling obscenity is one that comes from the deepest bowels of left-wing derangement, the notion that the criminal population, and those only loosely associated with the normal world of work and family, are the Revolutionary Subject, the great Actor of History destined to ring down the curtain on the capitalist era and usher in the socialist utopia, or whatever. Of course, in practice, lumpenproletariats tend not to act in such a way unless funded and directed to some degree by elites, and so the corporate, foundation, and political elites of the country have stepped forward to offer the necessary guiding hand.

Now, I say that that is the only logic I can discern in the madness of the past year. I cannot say that this logic is operative, only that the policies of the past year have embodied such derangement that, were an elite intent upon a pseudo-revolutionary operation of this sort, they would do more or less as has been done in our reality. They would give wide scope to the criminal and 'revolutionary' element to do as they wish, while imposing ever more absurd and ridiculous constraints upon the sane population. They would employ heads-we-win-tails-you-lose criteria for evaluating the success of their policies: if lockdown appears to halt the spread, lockdown must continue; if data show no correlation between lockdown and halting the spread, it is because we haven't locked down hard enough. Lockdowns cannot fail! They can only be failed! Anarcho-tyranny. In other words, there is little practical difference between the demented nature of policymaking we are witnessing and a so-called conspiracy theory, imposed as a bit of intentional filigree upon the chaotic, cynical, and ad hoc nature of our political reality. And where there is no practical difference between policy failure as an emergent phenomenon and policy failure as the mere appearance of elite machinations, ordinary people are not to be faulted for relinquishing the last frail threads of trust in the System, the Institutions, the Credentialed, & etc.

Why, next we will be told that normality itself is a form of privilege, in the same way that math is white privilege, because it valorizes arriving at the correct answers to calculations. Heaven forfend that bridges stand. Someone's feelings might be hurt. Why not? This morning, I heard a lefty arguing for covid reparations, on the grounds that the government had failed to "take seriously" the pandemic, meaning, apparently, that the Federal Government under Trump did not do a Wuhan on the entire country or something. It all reminded me of the overheated nonsense about Hurricane Katrina, which often came close to alleging that the Bush administration, amongst all its other calamities and failures, had somehow caused the disaster. Yes, command the tides to recede, and when they fail to obey your command, brutalize the common people whose lack of belief manifested in the tides following their regular course.

Anarcho-tyranny is a term that has often come to my mind in recent months.

Two things come to mind. One is people who say "this isn't real persecution, THIS (China, Russia, Muslim country) is persecution." are annoying. It's not just one thing. There's persecution outside of beheadings and being throw in prison for years on end. The other is what Lydia seems to allude to which is that there isn't just one thing to optimize for. Reducing covid deaths isn't the only good in the world. That odd single-mindedness that doesn't allow for balancing competing goods just baffles me. Unless it's a leftist cause, then bizarre exceptions are made, like doctors saying it was OK to gather in 2020 for the BLM protest/riots. Or cities/states putting limits like 10 on outdoor groups, except for protests, which had higher or no limits.

I have just finished reading Matthew Crawford's Why We Drive and would recommend it to all and sundry. While Crawford uses cars and driving as his stepping-off point, the book is really about modernity's descent into risk aversion and technocracy. He uses the idea of the self-driving car as a symbol for this transition.

I'm also reminded of a statement by Augusto Del Noce to the effect that once a society starts prioritizing life over truth things do not go well. It's clear that by life he meant sheer biological life, and understood that way, it appears that that's where are heading as a country, if we're not there already. "Safety first" is a fine principle, but it needs to be applied with prudence and certainly should not be used to defend or promote things which aren't true. That under the current health regime it is thrown about with a notable amount of inconsistency should warn us that there's something decidedly sketchy about the thing.

That under the current health regime it is thrown about with a notable amount of inconsistency should warn us that there's something decidedly sketchy about the thing.

Before 2020 I hadn't fully realized this fascinating practical fact: Any safety first principle must be applied inconsistenly because a) human beings lack perfect knowledge of all the many possible outcomes of their actions and inactions and b) refusal to act often compromises safety. Therefore "safety first," even as applied only to matters of human health, is at most a rule of thumb applying to some given, limited situation and set of considerations. It applies pretty well if one simply decides not to go sky-diving ("Safety first"!), but when it gets to the point of not going outside one's house or not seeing other people face to face, one is very likely *not* taking the safest route. An obvious example is people's not getting routine healthcare because of fear of Covid. Elderly people with dementia failing and dying due to lack of stimulation when their human contact was radically curtailed due to fear of Covid, etc.

The old TV show Monk should have taught us this, though in a humorous way. Very often the cruel humor of the situations arises from the fact that Monk puts himself and/or someone else in *greater* physical danger because of his phobias about one kind of alleged danger. E.g. He nearly dies of dehydration in Mexico because he'll only drink one brand of bottled water which isn't available. He won't grip or grasp things properly in a situation because he thinks he has to use his coat sleeves to protect his hands from germs. And so forth.

It's a little bit like what some of us say about marriage: In a human society, it isn't just a bad idea to eliminate marriage, it's impossible. Some sort of ersatz has to be invented. Similarly, it isn't just a bad idea to live by "safety first." It's literally impossible, because if action is paralyzed, that is unsafe.

It's always a bad idea to *try* to do something that is impossible in this specific sense of "impossible," because what ends up happening is that a mere bias or prejudice about what it means to do the impossible thing then becomes the norm under the illusion of living according to the maxim. Hence, if one really tried to "eliminate marriage," the norm would become ad hoc inventions of judges about different arrangements of adults and children that should be given priority (different functional "marriage" definitions always vying for priority in any given situation). And with Covid, we see what happens when people think they are living by the maxim,"Your safety is our highest priority." Disaster. And lack of safety, even from a biological and psycho-physiological perspective. I wonder how many more people have died and will die of tuberculosis, cancer, and more, that went undiagnosed due to Covid restrictions, Covid over-focus in diagnosis, and Covid fears. Just for example.

I would be willing to make the case that the defining characteristic of our postmodernity is not 'the death of metanarratives', as Lyotard had it, but rather anarcho-tyranny. In fact, the latter is what causes the death of civilizational narratives.

I also appreciate those observations on the epistemological and practical constraints on the maximization of safety, and not merely at an intellectual level. Last winter, I suffered two life-threatening health events, one prior to the imposition of lockdown and one subsequent to its imposition. It is highly probable that the second event would not have occurred had the practice where I was being treated for, among other things, a neurological impingement, not been closed for the lockdown. Not all such practices were closed, because medical exemptions were available for them, but some closed anyway. Mine did, and it took some time before I could secure an appointment with one that remained open. Oh, and when I was taken to the hospital that second time, the hospital was essentially empty: capacity usage was minuscule compared to pre-lockdown, there were only two patients in the ER: me and an elderly man passing away (from something other than covid), and the auxiliary covid tents were also underutilized. Most of the deaths in our county occurred in nursing homes, thanks to the immortal and scientific wisdom of Levine and Wolf. Oh, they would protest that they were acting on the basis of those early epidemiological data that formed the foundation of Neil Ferguson's risible Imperial College model, which presupposed an IFR of 3.2%, which was knowable at the time to be false and impossible, given that, even early on, the typical covid fatality was elderly, at or around life expectancy, and suffering from 2.5 co-morbidities.

But, of course, they just had to assume the worst-case scenario, simultaneously presupposing that all of the 'unknown unknowns' would trend in the worst direction *and* omniscience about the consequences of assuming the worst-case scenario and issuing ukases on that basis, and everything that has happened since then has been precisely an acting out on the basis of political and class prejudice: small businesses should die, BLM can gather and riot while small business people cannot even exercise their First Amendment rights, worship is forbidden or restricted, and so on and so forth. If the politicians had announced that their covid regulations would be based on the presumed political allegiances of different segments of society and the economy, those regulations would have been more or less what they actually turned out to be. What a coincidence! Science not only has a liberal bias, it has a liberal bias in its sociological and economic consequences upon application! Hail Science!

It's not that the portside are always and at all times blind to the limits of human knowledge, the inevitability of trade-offs, and the resultant imperative of balancing between partially competing goods and ends. No, some liberals and leftists, for example, grasp that aggregate GDP is not the sine qua non of economic management; there are other criteria for the development of sound economic policy. And yet, on covid, it was all about the One Thing. And much of the rage they exhibit towards the skeptical flows from this pretense towards omniscience, and the related pretense that we know that this One Thing is the One Thing: they cannot abide the existence of anyone or anything that attests to the fallibility of their understanding of the world, let alone anyone or anything that attests to the limitations of their political vision.

Any safety first principle must be applied inconsistenly because a) human beings lack perfect knowledge of all the many possible outcomes of their actions and inactions and b) refusal to act often compromises safety.

I am reminded of a series of science fiction stories by Isaac Asimov - a pretty firm liberal but (mostly) moderate liberal, his robot stories. In them he developed a set of "Three Laws" that were supposedly built into the very structure of a positronic (robot) brain to prevent it doing bad things:

(1) A robot shall not harm a human or allow harm to come to a human by inaction.
(2) A robot shall obey the orders of a human, limited by (1).
(3) A robot shall protect its own existence, limited by (1) and (2).

In the course of 30 years of developing plots that utilize various hidden facets of these, he discovers that he must provide for another law, and because it is higher than the others, and names it the "zeroth law": a robot must not harm humanity nor allow it to come to harm by inaction.

But alongside of these (perhaps a little later in time), another science fiction writer explicitly developed a contrarian theme: an artificial intelligence that acknowledges that (a) if a "no harm" rule is truly to be the guiding principle, then machines would be OBLIGED to wrap every human being in cotton wool and force them to sit on the couch all day every day, being tube fed with some nourishing paste. Not only would sports be outlawed (there goes Title IX) but so would gardening (sun burns), dancing (all sorts of pulled muscles) etc. without limit. And be damned to all those delicacies like the harm to your sense of pride in achievement, etc: machines don't CARE about achievement, nor do they have pride in it.

Humans actually need to take on tasks that are difficult, and attend on risk, and doing away with risk does away with human good.

It's always a bad idea to *try* to do something that is impossible in this specific sense of "impossible," because what ends up happening is that a mere bias or prejudice about what it means to do the impossible thing then becomes the norm under the illusion of living according to the maxim.

Or, because it really is impossible, the thing being desired as if it were good will be re-stated, re-pictured, re-designed into some inhuman thing that is all twisted and distorted so as to pretend it is just like the thing desired. Hence the ad hoc inventions of judges that create faux-family structures that horrifically mimic some particle of fairness: because no-fault divorce means the husband and the wife have equal claims, they each get 50% custody of the kids, week on and week off. To the emotional, economic, and psychological damage of all parties.

then machines would be OBLIGED to wrap every human being in cotton wool and force them to sit on the couch all day every day, being tube fed with some nourishing paste.

And we can then spin this out: The human's muscles eventually atrophy, causing (eventually) pain (which is a kind of harm) through slipped disks, etc. He develops bed sores (it's nearly impossible to avoid these just by passively turning him). His digestion doesn't work well (because action is required for good digestion). His cardiovascular system is weakened by lack of exercise. Etc. In short, that course of action shortens his life expectancy in numerous ways as well and therefore is, itself, physically harmful, not to mention psychologically harmful.

(And where are the Catholics, by the way, in these locations? I don't mean to be un-ecumenical, and I love my Catholic friends, but it's a crying shame that the official non-sacramentalists are taking Catholic bishops to school on the importance of Incarnation and physical Presence in worship. From what I'm hearing, most Catholic bishops seem to be out there telling their flocks to stay at home, watch a livestream, and have "spiritual Communion" and forbidding their priests to visit even the dying, while Baptists are going to jail for the right to have Communion in person.)

Shamefully, some are simply accepting state mandates as if they are gospel.

While it is theoretically possible that each and every bishop in this country (and world, but let's stick closer to home) have, individually, carefully considered the true requirements of Christ and the gospels, and have carefully considered how that squares with the government mandates, and have courageously determined that it is indeed possible in every detail to go along with the state mandates while still holding to every component of Christ's commands to us.

Theoretically. In practice, it is impossible to uphold a view that this is actually what happened, in light of HOW the bishops have spoken about their decisions and their thinking and what they have decided to go forward with. In practice, some (liberal) bishops tend to have spoken in such a way that strongly implies that there is NO TENSION in the idea of most people not making it to mass in person for the indefinite future - that this prospect is in no way a moral or spiritual danger to individuals or to the Church as a whole. That they could not even imagine circumstances in which they would stand up to the worship-limiting mandates and say "No, we will not comply with that." They have been remarkably, (even sickeningly) close-mouthed about the right to religious freedom, and its implications.

I submit that this is a critical problem because the sacraments require immediate, physical presence. You cannot do baptism, communion, confirmation, or confession by Zoom. This is bottom-line, basic, fundamental: you cannot have Christianity without baptism. Humans are physical as well as spiritual, and sacraments are designed for HUMANS, not for un-embodied angels. Digital "gathering" is not sufficient for Catholicism.

Perhaps not quite as urgently, but just as true, Christian worship is communal in nature. And the fulsome experience of Christian worship cannot be, ALWAYS, minimal, i.e. without the whole community, without song, without procession. Fr. Z reminds us at least once a week: we ARE our rites. If we don't practice our Christian rites, we CEASE to be the Christians those rites are made for.

At least by late April of last year, I was worried about the silence of the bishops on this. Yes, their most critical worry was what to do this week, not "what about 6 months or a year from now". But after the first few weeks of chaos, they should have gotten their breath, and voices, back, and they should have begun making (careful) public remarks letting the politicians know: you have our cooperation right now, but you can LOSE that cooperation if you take things too far. We will not accept just everything in the name of PHYSICAL health. And temporary means for a LIMITED time, which means that what we accept right now may not remain. We will make use of legal means (such as the 1st Amendment) to practice our religion, but pushed too far we will stop caring about "legal" or "not legal" and will carry forth our religion despite your attempts to convert us to communist lemmings.

The bishops should have noticed that in various places, the civil governments were talking in such a way that made it clear THEY didn't care a whit about religious liberty, and they (the bishops) should have been taking thought for how to DEAL with that should push come to shove. From public evidence, it is hard to tell that more than a few did so. (Maybe many more did in private, but then they seem to have not bothered to have worked with the whole conference of bishops to make this a matter of solidarity, letting those bishops in worse states fend for themselves.)

The only saving grace in all this, that I can see, is this: in a great many places, the people showing up week after week at church (where they have mass, often outside or for a small group), are most likely the ones who are actually practicing their Catholic faith in full anyway, and a high portion of the ones who are not showing up AT ALL are (most likely) the ones who had been just going through the motions before and were not alive to grace in reality anyway. So, perhaps COVID is doing Christ's work of separating the sheep from the goats already? Fr. C.J. McCloskey used to comment that he expected the Church in America to undergo a huge revision (downwards) in the next generation or so, so that perhaps only 1/3 came out the other side still even calling themselves Catholic. I fear he was optimistic, on two points: (1) it seems to have taken only one modest-sized, not very horrific crisis of only a year's length to achieve it, and (2) I suspect that the 1/3 is FAR too rosy, it will be much, much lower than that. It had already been the case that only 1/4 of those calling themselves Catholic went to Church every Sunday - which is kind of just a BASIC requirement - and probably even less than that bothered to meet the once-a-year confession requirement. Now that we have had already one Easter and one Christmas where the "Christmas and Easter Catholics" didn't need to go to church to salve their consciences, and are looking at a second Easter for same, it is HIGHLY likely that most of those C&E Catholics will not find their way back to church again. We may be lucky if, in 10 years, 1/5 of Catholics are still even sort of Catholic.

I think that the takeaway regarding the "safety first" idea is that it's perfectly fine in certain circumstances but fails as any sort of universal principle. What's applicable in shop class or on a factory floor, for instance, doesn't directly translate to a playground or football field. But in allowing risk aversion to become such a major feature of modern society, we've extended "safety first" into areas (arenas?) where its application is dubious, and in many cases positively (and ironically) harmful.

Tony, I appreciate the point about Christian worship being communal and centered on ritual, meaning that it cannot be reduced to a set of bare minimums - just watching a Mass or Liturgy performed by the 'professionals' and thinking some pious thoughts. Christian worship, like grace, is about more and more: ever-fuller participation in the Divine life. Whereas modernity, and especially technocrats and the like, are reductionistic, simplifying, and flattening. Realism vs. nominalism.

I can’t bring myself to see Pastor James Coates’s behaviour as an instance of obeying God rather than men. After all the most important of God’s commandments is to love one’s neighbour (as well as God). But if one willingly engages in behaviour that endangers other people’s lives to me this is a violation of this commandment. A pastor in France who once did the same is now very sorry for it and regards his behaviour as selfish, as can be seen from the following contribution in the “Evening Standard”, dated 1st April 2020:

“A pastor whose church service has been blamed for sparking a huge wave of Covid-19 infections in France apologised today as countries across Europe continued to struggle to slow the rising death toll from the disease.

Thiebault Geyer said he wanted to say “sorry to God for my selfishness” after officials confirmed that around 2,500 of his parishioners have contracted coronavirus.

At least 17 of those have died after a mass outbreak of the virus among the thousands who attended a week-long gathering at the pastor’s Christian Open Door church in the eastern city of Mulhouse in February.

Pastor Geyer admitted he had not taken its threat seriously enough. “I would like to apologise,” he said. “Sorry to have taken this crisis lightly. Sorry to have read all the articles which tried to alert us. I couldn’t listen. I’m sorry to God for my selfishness.”
He said he was now conducting services only online.”

If Pastor Coates thinks that following the instructions prescribed by the government keeps him from being a light to his city he and those who agree with him should ponder what it would mean for the Christian witness if there was an outbreak of the virus in his congregation. Again, if one, in order not to endanger other people’s lives, is not, for a few months, ready to listen to a sermon online instead of listening to it in the congregation or to sing hymns at home instead of singing them in the congregation or to keep a distance of six feet instead of three feet to other persons or to have to give a person a phone call instead of being together with that person I think this person violates the commandment to love one’s neighbour.

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