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Physicians: Church Is Safe If CDC Guidelines Are Followed

Catholic churches

In a letter published on RealClearScience.com, physicians explain how America’s Catholic churches have been able to conduct more than 1 million worship services without causing COVID-19 outbreaks. And that’s despite the fact that several asymptomatic individuals are known to have attended worship or church functions.

The doctors, members of the Thomistic Institute’s Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacraments and Pastoral Care, say the findings “should inspire confidence that the guidelines in place—based on CDC recommendations—are working to decrease COVID-19 transmission” among worshipers and church leaders.  

Encouraging News From Recent Events 

The letter cites several instances from the Archdiocese of Seattle, which uses contact-tracing to follow incidents of potential virus exposure. Several people who attended worship, a funeral, a wedding, and a parish board meeting in July later developed symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19, and were determined to have been contagious (though asymptomatic) during the events. Yet none reportedly transmitted the virus to anyone else at the church.

In each case, social distancing was enforced and attendance was limited. Except for worship leaders, everyone wore a face mask. Where U.S. churches have been the source of outbreak, say the doctors, masks weren’t worn, social distancing wasn’t practiced, and congregational singing was encouraged.

“Nothing during a pandemic is risk-free,” the physicians admit, but such “encouraging news” from the Catholic churches means it’s “reasonably safe” to attend worship and receive the sacraments. Although the Thomistic Institute hasn’t conducted formal studies, the doctors write: “The evidence does not suggest that church attendance—following the current [governmental] guidelines—is any more risky than shopping for groceries. And the spiritual good for believers in coming to church is immeasurably important for their well-being.”

Specific Tips for Maintaining Safety

Dr. Thomas McGovern, an Indiana physician who serves on the institute’s working group as well as on the Catholic Medical Association’s national board, emphasizes their goal has been to work in conjunction with the CDC and state and local authorities. He adds that he’s relying on public-health guidance to “know when our former normal activities become safe again.”

During the pandemic, McGovern says it’s become clearer to him that attending worship isn’t a duty but a gift—“a gift that I need to become the best version of myself, the version that God created me to be.” He adds, “If my bishop asks me to wear a face covering to attend Mass and receive Jesus’ body, and blood, soul and divinity, it’s a small price to pay.”

Guidelines that have helped Catholic churches maintain a low risk of virus transmission include:

  • holding extra services with fewer worshipers at each,
  • propping doors open so people don’t touch handles,
  • requiring face coverings,
  • providing hand sanitizer stations,
  • keeping non-family members physically distanced in pews,
  • discouraging singing,
  • dismissing people by rows,
  • limiting socializing to outdoor areas,
  • requesting that anyone exhibiting respiratory symptoms not attend,
  • encouraging high-risk members (including the elderly) to worship from home for now,
  • keeping young children home unless they can sit in place and not touch other people,
  • placing communion elements in people’s hands, not directly on the tongue, and
  • using hand sanitizer if any physical contact occurs during distribution of the elements.
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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.