Given that grocery stores, home supply stores, and public transportation are open to the public, provided people follow social distancing rules, there is no reason to close churches, said Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who explained that worship services can be smaller in number but more frequent, and disinfecting guidelines can be easily followed.
Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan and a frequent commenter on church affairs, also explained that if a bishop abuses his power in prohibiting certain actions, a priest is not obligated to obey him.
"If a priest is prohibited by an ecclesial authority from going to visit the sick and dying, he cannot obey," said the bishop. "Such a prohibition is an abuse of power. Christ did not give a bishop the power to forbid visiting the sick and dying."
Bishop Schneider made his remarks in a Mar. 27 interview with The Remnant, a national Catholic newspaper established in 1967.
In the interview, reporter Diane Montagna asked the bishop what he thought of how the church is handling the coronavirus. He replied, "My general impression is that the prevailing majority of bishops reacted precipitously and out of panic in prohibiting all public Masses and -- what is even more incomprehensible -- in closing churches."
"Such bishops reacted more like civil bureaucrats than shepherds," said the bishop. "In focusing too exclusively on all the hygienic protective measures, they have lost a supernatural vision and have abandoned the primacy of the eternal good of souls."
Montagna also asked, "The diocese of Rome swiftly suspended all public Masses to comply with government directives. Bishops around the world have taken similar action. ... What is your view on the decision to suspend public Masses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus?"
The bishop said, "As long as supermarkets are open and accessible and as long as people have access to public transportation, one cannot see a plausible reason for banning people from assisting at Holy Mass in a church."
"One could guarantee in churches the same and even better hygienic protective measures," he said. "For example, before each Mass one could disinfect the pews and doors, and everyone who enters the church could disinfect their hands. Other similar measures could also be taken. One could limit the number of participants and increase the frequency of Mass celebration."
"We have an inspiring example of a supernatural vision in times of epidemic in Tanzania’s President John Magufuli," said Bishop Schneider. "President Magufuli, who is a practicing Catholic, said on Sunday, March 22, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. Paul in the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma: 'I insist to you, my fellow Christians and even Muslims, do not be afraid, do not stop gathering together to glorify God and praise Him.
"'That is why, as a government, we didn’t close down churches or mosques. Instead, they should be always open for the people to seek refuge to God. Churches are places where people can seek true healing, because there the True God resides. Do not to be afraid of praising and seeking God’s face in church.'”
For priests trying to authentically live their vocations in these perilous times, Bishop Schneider said, "Priests must recall that they are first and foremost shepherds of immortal souls. They are to imitate Christ, who said: 'The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.'"
He continued, "If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful. Such directives are a pure human law; however, the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls."
"Priests in such a situation have to be extremely creative in order to provide for the faithful, even for a small group, the celebration of Holy Mass and the reception of the sacraments," said the bishop. "Such was the pastoral behavior of all confessor and martyr priests in the time of persecution."
Commenting further on the coronavirus, Schneider said, "The coronavirus epidemic, in my view, is without doubt a divine intervention to chastise and purify the sinful world and also the Church. We ought not to forget that Our Lord Jesus Christ considered physical catastrophes as divine chastisements."
The bishop also condemned the veneration of the pagan wooden doll Pachamama, which occurred in the Vatican gardens during the Amazonian summit last year.
"The cultic veneration of the pagan idol of Pachamama inside the Vatican, with the approval of the Pope, was to be sure a great sin of infidelity to the First Commandment of the Decalogue, it was an abomination," said the bishop.
Towards the interview's end, Schneider said, "The coronavirus epidemic has caused a situation within the Church that, to my knowledge, is unique, i.e. a quasi-worldwide ban of all public Masses. This is partially analogous to the ban of Christian worship in almost the entire Roman Empire in the first three centuries."
"The current situation is unprecedented, however, because in our case the ban of public worship was issued by Catholic bishops, and even before the relevant governmental mandates," he said.