One of the greatest frustrations of the Coronavirus has been the closing of the churches. Abortion clinics, hardware stores and lawn care businesses were all declared “essential” by the state of Wisconsin while the Word of God was not.

Worse, the unessential nature of worshipping God was established without a word of protest from the leading voice of religion in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki. The leader of the largest archdiocese in Wisconsin has not once uttered a statement of protest about Governor Tony Evers shuttering the churches in defiance of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution and hundreds of years of the Church’s belief in its independence from secular authorities.

The closest to a word of protest of the abuse of state power that any of Listecki’s flock heard was on the Dan O’Donnell Show on April 9. When asked if he believed Evers’ order shutting down the state’s churches was unconstitutional, Listecki said, “I do and I don’t. You have to be reasonable about it. They don’t say you can’t celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is still celebrated everyday by our priests, by myself.”

After saying that freedom of religion is the most cherished freedom, Listecki did criticize government in general for not understanding that there are differences between religions and that receiving Communion is central to the Mass.

However, instead of criticizing Evers directly, Listecki complained that Catholic leaders in the country were not consulted about the churches being shut down.

“I think early on, whether it’s the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, individual bishops in a state, should have been at least consulted,” Listecki said. “Should have been, at least, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. We need your support in this. We need to do what we’re doing.’ And that was our part in it. So that’s where my difficulty is in it. We want to be good citizens.”

Other than that, at least publicly, silence.

Listecki didn’t have to give such a muted response to Evers’ orders while still protecting parishioners throughout the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

When Evers’ “Safer at Home” order was issued, Listecki should have protested that the 1st Amendment protected the Church from orders to close, and he would have been the “good citizen” the governor failed to be. In the same breath, Listecki could have closed the churches himself until the Archdiocese had a plan to deal with the pandemic – on his terms.

Instead, Catholics in the Milwaukee Archdiocese and elsewhere in Wisconsin have been left to wonder if this is the week they can drive through the church parking lot, maybe see a priest, or finally attend Mass in person.

Listecki was correct in waiving the requirement to attend Mass and even to close the parishes until a plan could be put into place. RightWisconsin has never said that the church doors should be flung open across the state without regard to the effects of the pandemic affecting our state. Unlike some voices on the right, RightWisconsin has been responsible in pointing out the dangers of the Coronavirus, especially the potential for spreading it at church.

However, Listecki closed the churches while conceding the state’s power over the Church itself, setting a horrible precedent. It’s that kind of passive acceptance of the state’s authority that leads government leaders to think they can actually fine churches for re-opening.

Contrast Listecki’s behavior with his colleagues in Minnesota where Catholic bishops (as well as some Lutheran churches) are defying the order by the governor to keep the churches closed. They wrote:

“We think that the executive order issued last Wednesday fails this test. An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason. Therefore, we have chosen to move forward in the absence of any specific timeline laid out by Governor Walz and his Administration. We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of the public celebration of the Mass.”

With the ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court ending the Safer at Home order and the successful “flattening of the curve,” Catholics began to believe there was some hope of returning to Mass starting next Sunday, May 31. The Milwaukee Archdiocese even has a plan, the horribly named “Catholic Comeback,” a name that should be reserved for Notre Dame football games.

However, Listecki has flip-flopped again and has said churches on Milwaukee’s south side will not be able to hold Mass this Sunday despite plans, such as at St. Josaphat and St. Stanislaus, to keep church attendees as safe as possible. An examination of those plans directly address the concerns Listecki lists in his letter to those faith communities, including the need to limit Mass attendance.

Ironically, Listecki’s decision to keep the south side churches closed will only cause more migration to other parishes. If the archbishop has any doubts about this likely outcome, he should take a drive out to Lake Geneva to see all of the visitors from Illinois.

We have to wonder if the “some” referred to in Listecki’s letter where he writes, “some have expressed concerns, particularly in the City of Milwaukee,” are from the government of the city of Milwaukee, and if Listecki is trying to be a “good citizen” again.

Besides being a year of a pandemic, 2020 is the 850th anniversary of the murder of St. Thomas Becket, who died defending the independence of the Catholic Church from the power of Henry II. Whatever price Evers and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett might exact from Listecki if he disobeyed their wishes, surely the cost would be small in comparison.

But Listecki should remember that if he continues to allow the Catholic faith to be considered “non-essential” by government authorities and the people of Milwaukee, it won’t be long before it’s true.

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