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Catholic priest: Why it’s wrong to open our churches

Is it responsible to allow religious gatherings during level 3 lockdown? This church leader says no — there are safer ways to provide people with spiritual support during the COVID-19 epidemic.  


A few nights ago, I had a peculiar dream. I overheard a conversation between friends about allowing an inebriated acquaintance to drive home. They agreed to hand over the car keys reasoning that there was likely to be less traffic on the road and so a lower risk of having an accident and getting injured.

But can one morally take this stance? Is this responsible? Should you expect it from a friend? What about risks to other road users?

This image came to mind when I heard that President Cyril Ramaphosa has given religious communities a concession to hold gatherings again. I couldn’t understand how the president, after keeping this country in a serious lockdown for eight weeks, could suddenly allow this.

I have been following the ongoing church and COVID-19 debate for weeks. I noted that cluster spread had often been traced back to church gatherings, such as those in South Korea — and in the Free State, where five church leaders, who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus, attended a church gathering in March. More than 1 000 contacts had to be traced of whom several have since tested positive for the virus. Surely this should inform our way forward? 

Last week the president assured us that the government is learning from other parts of the world and listening to scientists. I immediately wondered if he was misinformed about religious gatherings, coerced by the religious leaders he met with, just mouthing the politically correct words or has simply given up and is willing to gamble with lives? Maybe, I mused, Ramaphosa’s government had realised that the pandemic was not so bad after all.

How could his decision be rational?

Earlier that same day, I heard Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, say that cities and towns must find sites for mass graves. This was days after another reported worst-case scenario predicted that SA could have over 40 000 deaths by November. These two announcements, within hours of each other, were contradictory.

I am a priest, a pastor. I care about the well-being of people. I believe that the mission of the church is to care for people. And I believe that our creator has given us rational faculties. How could bringing people together to worship at this time be rational? This, in my opinion, is a betrayal of the mission of the church, since it endangers people’s lives.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the decision was not well-discerned. Do religious leaders advocating for this have any understanding of what social distancing means?

Some argued that if people can go back to work, they can go to church. An opening of the economy is necessary, it is the lesser of two evils. Yes. We see the desperation; people cannot feed their families. Yes. Social distancing means trying to limit contact, whether at work, in shops or at home. If people are going to work, the shops, to friends, church and bible study groups, their exposure is higher and their chances of contracting the virus higher.

Many faithful in this country live in impoverished places. They have little access to all the sanitising we are repeatedly told to use. Why bring them into more contact with others when this is not absolutely necessary?

But I have other concerns too. These religious gatherings are limited to 50 people. The virus doesn’t count people, this is like saying “let the inebriated person drive home at night because there are less cars on the road”. Moreover, who decides (and how) which 50 people in a congregation will be allowed to attend? This is open to all sorts of difficulties, human nature being what it is.

Who decides which 50 people get to gather for worship?

It has been argued that those who do not have internet access have been excluded from online church services. True. This pandemic has highlighted the inequality in our country dramatically. Inequality is mirrored in religious communities. However, if only 50 people are allowed at religious services, the great exclusion is not over. We are fooling ourselves if we think it is.

What happens when more than 50 people show up? There will always be the temptation to allow a few more in who have made the effort to come. If more than 50 happen to be in a service, will the security forces break up the service? Early in the lockdown we saw how the police aggressively dragged people out of a mosque. The police and defence force have acted irresponsibly in the past. Are we not creating more space for unprofessional behaviour?

Many of our religious communities lack resources. They cannot afford the sanitising materials and equipment – like thermometers – to take people’s temperatures. Can we be assured that everyone will stick to the strict regimen of sanitising and monitoring, registering people and recording the necessary details? I think we are expecting too much in a country that, at the best of times, has an ambivalence towards the law.

A number of people have told me that many are struggling emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. People are suffering the loss of employment; they are grieving as they struggle to deal with the way life was and the way it is. And it is painful because, as a minister, I am powerless to do much. Under the circumstances the support of the church is needed. I agree. Many South Africans are religious and look to the church for support and guidance.

However, I do not believe that gathering for worship, at this time, will afford them the support they necessarily need. Firstly, because they may not get into a service and even if they do, they are one among many; secondly, because the very gathering may, if they contract the virus, cause them more psychological and spiritual stress.

Phone church members or send them sacred texts but don’t let them gather in a building

This is a great challenge: To think creatively so that we can offer support in these temporary circumstances. If a pastor or pastoral team called every family and found out how they were doing, they would have direct contact with them and be able to talk to them – that’s not possible in a gathering. We can send people material to help them – there are many platforms. We know that mobile phone penetration in this country is good, let’s exploit that. We can encourage people to read sacred texts, give them reflection material to help support and guide them.

Over 60’s have been told to stay at home because research shows they are more likely than younger people to develop serious COVID-19 disease. We all know that many religiously observant people are older people. Trying to convince devout older people to stay at home might result in even more tension. Many of our clergy are also over the age of 60. Are they exempt from the restrictions? More importantly are they exempt from contracting the virus?

I also have a broader concern. Some people, like hairstylists, are not allowed to operate even if they have less than four people in a salon. One, a single mother, told me her business is bankrupt; she cannot feed her children. “What I do not understand”, she said, “is that I can go to church with 50 people – and I don’t know how many contacts they have had – but I cannot work and put food on the table?” This is a painful time for many, the religious community too. Should our concern and solidarity not be with people like this mother?

Our churches and ministers have legitimate and real financial concerns. How might we deal with these? Some churches have more resources than others. Can we not think of connecting communities, in the spirit of our faith, to help each other? This might delay some dream-projects but would be a real way of living our faith through generously helping each other. In short, we would be living the value of charity and solidarity.

We are all on this road together. It is not just about the individual driver; it is about all road users. How responsible are we when we endanger the lives of others? Even ‘just’ a little?

Father Russell Pollitt is the Director of the Jesuit Institute. The Jesuit Institute works with people of different church and faith backgrounds and provides reflection, training and analysis of contemporary social and religious issues from a Catholic perspective.