COVID amnesty for bishops? – The Catholic Thing

As a student at the Catholic University of Lublin in 1990, I wrote an article against the then Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, gruba kreska. The “thick line” was a policy pushed by the first free Prime Minister of Poland, deciding not to hold accountable the communists who, for forty-five years, had betrayed their country to the Soviets. He wanted, on the contrary, to draw a “thick line” (Gruba Kreska) between the past and the future. I called it injustice, because it prevented totalitarians, great and small, from being accountable to their victims for their actions, while leaving those same perpetrators well placed to meddle in Poland’s future.

I remember this paper because That of the Atlantic Emily Oster recently argued for a Gruba Kreska, an “amnesty” for the architects of various COVID policies. Rather than holding people accountable for their decisions and their consequences, Oster just wants us to forget the draconian COVID rules and focus on the future.


Americans died alone in hospitals. Americans were concentrated in nursing homes, and some politicians even mused about COVID internment camps. Americans have lost military jobs and careers because of the warrants. Americans have lost their religious freedom.

“Oops sorry!” not enough.

It’s not enough when some of COVID’s worst policy makers are themselves shameless and go so far as to say, “I’d do it again!”

But I want to shift the focus. What about an “amnesty” for American Catholic bishops?

Like zealous COVID politicians, America’s bishops haven’t even looked at their own record during the “pandemic.” So far, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not considered whether the closure of Mass and sacraments from coast to coast, in some places for more than a year, was a bad idea. Maybe just wrong. They seem to have forgiven themselves.

More than a year ago, I urged the bishops to do an autopsy on the performance of the “field hospital” breaking camp and leaving the battlefield in the middle of a war. It’s a normal self-assessment after a crisis. To date, this has not happened. Another fall assembly of bishops has come and gone to Baltimore this year without any soul-searching about the behavior of the “field hospital” or its trustees. No one has taken responsibility that Catholics are:

  • deprived of the last rites when dying;
  • refused Mass for months;
  • denied family weddings and funerals due to arbitrary attendance rules;
  • Free sacraments invalid as bishops said the medical staff could do the actual anointing of a sick person while the priest stood behind the door praying;
  • probably invalidating the confirmation by the use of Q-tips. (I would argue that long-standing sacramental theology holds that it is invalid).

There was no accounting. Without accounting, we can’t even begin to talk about “amnesty” or forgiveness.


The refusal to report on the above and much more demonstrates the worst of “clericalism,” which is very much in vogue these days to decry everywhere from Rome to local parishes. In the United States, Catholics have basically been told to “shut up and move on,” because the bishops have decided among themselves that their policy is right, and the Church still wants to maintain a beautiful figure.

What is most laughable about all of this is that the legitimate demand of the People of God is being ignored in a “listening synodal Church” that repeatedly invokes the Second Vatican Council, which clearly enjoined every bishop not to “refusing to listen to his subjects, whether he [should] cherish like true sons. (Lumen gentium 27)

The same dogmatic constitution also reminds bishops that the faithful:

have the right, like all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, in particular the assistance of the word of God and the sacraments. They should openly reveal their needs and desires to them with that freedom and confidence which befits children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the exceptional knowledge, skill or aptitude they may possess, authorized and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on matters concerning the good of the Church.” (Lumen gentium, 37, italics added)

One would think we should be asked how the bishops “accompanied” or “smelled like their sheep”, who faithfully knocked on the locked doors of the churches – doors that the bishops locked – relegated to the “outskirts” by their own shepherds.

Public officials seek “amnesty,” if not out of genuine regret, at least out of a healthy sense of protecting themselves from future responsibility and accountability. It is a kind of secular contrition: healthy self-preservation is perhaps not the noblest of motives, but is sufficient for salvation. when accompanied by confessing what we have done wrong. In their distant clerical attitude, our bishops have not even reached this state.

Beyond liability, however, what both groups (and Catholics in this country) need is protection against future occasions of sin. Even if we admit that there is a modicum of good faith among state and church officials, we should not rely solely on their (in)firm aim of amendment. We need to put measures in place (including repeal or at least hard caps on civil “state of emergency” legislation) to prevent these abuses from happening again.

The doors of a church should never again be closed to Catholics in a “democratic” country.

*Image: The comparison by Jehan George Virbert, mid or late 19th century [private collection]

You can also enjoy some of our most popular chronicles from the last twelve years:

Cardinal Gerhard L. Mueller On the new TLM restrictions

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s A Pastor on Vaccines

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