Taking precautions is one thing, refusing people the Sacraments on the grounds of risk another.
Though I would not challenge the conscience of anyone else on this point, I would say academically, that as a Church, I am deeply bothered by the sense that we are not acting as if we believe what we say in reacting to this epidemic by choosing to stop taking the Sacraments to people almost altogether.
This is because, whatever respect we have for earthly life – and not to respect earthly life as a gift of God is gnostic (i.e. necessarily incorrect) – we are supposed to regard the Divine Life as more fundamental.
This means that I would argue that we should be acting the other way up: that is, instead of saying “the risk to earthly life is the most fundamental thing, unless we can completely negate the risk, we should not take the Sacraments to people,” we should be saying “the risk to Divine Life is the most fundamental thing: we should take every precaution we can to preserve earthly life, but it is right to take whatever left-over risk is unavoidable in taking the Sacraments to people.” If our Lord who died for us is not worth that risk, what on earth are we doing on a daily basis in ordinary situations? If we do not believe that the Life that can’t be destroyed is received through these things, what is it that we do believe?
I would suggest that there is quite a strong analogy here with the Christian tradition of martyrdom. It is who loses their life who saves it, who gives it up for Christ’s sake who finds it. Many Christians over the centuries have met at much greater peril of their lives than we would be in (not that I am advocating gathering specifically, at least not in large groups – I personally would not see that aspect of things as essential). As for the fact that whatever we do is a risk to others’ lives, that is true under any circumstances, not just these. If worship means so little, we could be spending the time we normally spend worshipping helping the famine stricken, for instance. We could save lives just as much that way, as by almost completely desisting from practicing in this type of crisis (yes, there are differences in the two situations, but are the similarities more important?).
I grew up in a secular culture that condemned martyrs for their inconsideration to their families in holding to their integrity. St. Perpetua is supposed almost to have lost her child in prison due to the difficulties of feeding it, and her elderly father was publicly beaten and humiliated in court, while pleading with her to deny Christ and thereby spare her child*. Yet I have no doubt that she was right to hold to her faith at their cost as well as her own, and it is reasonable if we trust God to assume that her doing so will ultimately serve both her child and her father more than her denying her faith would have done. If I did not believe that, I could not have come so far in the vocation as a religious which I have sought to follow.
Moreover, I am bothered by the sense conveyed in the emphasis on risk to the wider community that Christian worship is merely a matter of personal salvation, personal indulgence. Granted the element of selfishness is always something that I am vaguely aware of, and which I am perpetually trying to purify from my worship (or, if I was wiser, would be trying to let God purify), but that is beside the point, because it is a flaw, and not how things should be working. We receive not just for our own sakes, but for those of others; we should ultimately become overflowing vessels of grace. Just as catching coronavirus is not a risk only to oneself but to others, a person’s falling from the Divine Life will result in others being pulled down, by the lack of their witness and companionship.
I really do not want to suggest that any individual Christian would be wrong to accept not receiving the Sacraments during an epidemic, if they feel it isn’t necessary to sustain them, and I don’t want to suggest bad motivation in anyone’s case. I know people are doing what they think right in a very difficult situation.
However, there is an unconscious inconsistency as far as I can see, in this action of making a priority of risk to earthly life, over and above the Divine Life. The person to whom the priest takes the Sacraments, who then dies as a result of the risk of infection they took in so receiving, has still from a Christian point of view gained and not lost. The risk of infection, moreover, comes under the rules of Double Effect**, if the Sacraments are regarded as having a real value as vessels of the Divine Life: the minister of the Sacraments in such cases is not morally responsible for any deaths that result due to doing something that is more than equally important for people.
It isn’t right to seek martyrdom, only to accept it, and I would emphasis that I do believe completely that it would be wrong to take careless risks with an infectious illness (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”). But in the end, we seem to have been placed in a position where we have a fundamental choice to make between risk to earthly life and risk to the Divine Life, and we have chosen the former, mostly without even seeming to recognise a case for the latter***.
I think it is unlikely that I’m the only one to be immensely troubled by the logical and spiritual implications of this.
I do not know the weight of the historicity of this account, but for these purposes, it does not really matter: the archetypal understanding of martyrdom in the Tradition is more to the point, than what happened on any specific occasion (though I acknowledge that if it had never happened, there would be a lack of real witness to the value set).
**Double effect is when one and the self-same action results in a good consequence and in a bad consequence, which is foreseen but not intended. For instance, when someone builds a railway, they build it in the full knowledge that there will be accidental deaths on it. This does not make them morally responsible for these deaths. Someone’s pushing an attacker away in the knowledge that they will probably fall over a cliff and be killed is a similar case. For double effect to apply the two things should be roughly proportional (or, the good effect more important than the bad), they must be achieved in the same action (it is not possible to justify doing a bad thing to achieve a good one in this way), and the bad consequence should not be intended (i.e. the purpose intended should be achieved if the bad consequence does not come to pass).
***To come to different conclusions about what the priority of the Divine Life considered relative to the value we should put on human life would mean we do is not the same thing as taking earthly life as more fundamental – i.e. as the thing to which an appeal can’t rightly be rejected – which is what I am hearing in all the discussions I have had with other Christians on the subject.