“All We, With Face Unveiled”: Masking Christian Worship

Monday, August 10, 2020

by  Peter Kwasniewski

desacralization 1

A friend sent me the following note.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski:

In our State of ———, masks were recently mandated in public places. Failure to comply with the new order can result in a petty misdemeanor or fine. Even at Holy Mass, all are supposed to wear masks.

I think that all this COVID “hype” is being manipulated for other ends and I am opposed to mandatory mask-wearing. Yet I do not see how the law is unjust, since it is promulgated under the auspices of protecting the health of all, even if science fails to show that masks do protect health. The order cannot be considered to be simply a penal law, since it is supposed to protect people from disease and death. (For “medical conditions” one may be exempt from wearing a mask and these conditions may be physical or psychological. I could think up some condition which prevents me from wearing a mask, but it seems quite a “mental reservation” to make.)

Have you, as a philosopher, thought about the matter?

My thoughts fall into three areas: (1) Church authority; (2) the scientific/medical domain; and (3) the theology of worship.

The State may not mandate how the Church should do her liturgy or make use of her sacraments. The Church fought for centuries against state encroachments and arrogations, establishing that her ministers have a God-given right to make liturgical and sacramental determinations.[i] On May 7, an open letter, led by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Cardinals Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Joseph Zen, and Jānis Pujats, and signed by many clergy, reminded politicians that “the state has no right to interfere, for any reason whatsoever, in the sovereignty of the Church.”

This autonomy and freedom are an innate right that Our Lord Jesus Christ has given her for the pursuit of her proper ends. For this reason, as pastors we firmly assert the right to decide autonomously on the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments, just as we claim absolute autonomy in matters falling within our immediate jurisdiction, such as liturgical norms and ways of administering Communion and the Sacraments.

In a time of infectious disease, bishops may freely decide to issue the same or similar guidelines as the secular authorities have done, but they do so by their own judgment and authority, not as subservient to the State.[ii] Unfortunately, what we have seen instead is a simple capitulation to health “experts” and civil governors. In some cases, Catholic bishops have imposed even more restrictive and ridiculous conditions than secular leaders. In this way they seem to abdicate their pastoral responsibility of due diligence and evaluation, trample on canon law in regard to the rights of the faithful to worship and sacramental life, and evince a total lack of awareness of what is fitting for sacred rites.desacralization 7

Second, there is the medical/scientific domain. For quite some time now, doctors and specialists have been coming out left and right saying that the typical face-coverings do little to protect anyone from microbes. Fauci initially said masks would not help, then changed his tune when industrial production and supplies were finally in place. Doctors who have found success with simple and inexpensive cures for COVID have been mocked or ignored. It takes little effort to discover that, whatever the truth may be, it is not equivalent to the “official line” that is being promoted by wealthy and powerful interests. From this perspective, it’s eminently reasonable to question the basis of this kind of state law and, having discovered its irrationality, to conclude that it lacks what is necessary for legality.

The foregoing points have been well-covered in commentary. What I have not seen much commented on, however, are the theological and psychological implications of masking in the context of Christian liturgical worship, which has its own specific nature and requirements.

The curse of man under sin and under the Law is to be hidden from God’s face, and, in a sense, to be thwarted in one’s social intercourse with other men (cf. Gen 4:14). In Mark’s Gospel, the covering of Christ’s face is a sign of contempt, treatment worthy of a wretch: “And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’” (Mk 14:65). Through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, which tears the veil of the Temple (Mt 27:51) and permits us to enter heaven through the veil of His flesh (Heb 10:20), the curse begins to be reversed, as St. Paul memorably describes in 2 Corinthians:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Co 3:12–18, RSV)

While a head covering for a woman symbolizes her honorable subjection, even as the uncovered head of the man symbolizes that he stands within the family in persona Christi capitis, no Christian (as far as I know) has ever used face coverings the way strict Muslim women do.[iii] The mask seems to be a symbolic cancellation of something deeply true about Christian identity and worship.desacralization 6

When I enter the church, I am going before God as a person: I present my open face to Him, and He sees me as I am, and leads me closer to seeing Him as He is. Although this is primarily a matter of my spirit vis-à-vis the Spirit of God, we depend as rational animals on our bodies as external reminders and supports of what we are aiming to do interiorly. In other words, showing our face to God and to others in church is not altogether disconnected from showing Him and them myself. Those who play hide and seek don’t say: “3-2-1, here my body comes!” or “You found my body!” When we start looking, we look with body and soul; when we are found, we are found in body and soul.

And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise. And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: “Where art thou?” And he said: “I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen 3:8–9).

So intimate and all-pervasive is the union of body and soul that Adam thought he could hide himself from God by hiding himself bodily; and the omniscient God, who has no need of bodily sight, nevertheless indicated that he wanted Adam to come before him as a man, not hiding his face. Where art thou?

When we come into the church to meet the Lord, we fittingly begin with Psalm 42 said at the foot of the altar, before daring to approach Him more closely. We almost turn around the Lord’s question to Adam by posing to Him questions of our own: Quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus? “Why hast Thou cast me off, and why go I sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?” And turning to ourselves: Quare tristis es anima mea, et quare conturbas me? “Why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me?” The psalmist, model of the Christian, knows the one and only solution: Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor illi: salutare vultus mei and Deus meus. “Hope in God, for I will still give praise to Him: the salvation of my countenance and my God.” The Mass is inherently pointed toward heaven, where we will finally see, and will see that we are seen. “I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved” (Gen 32:30). “O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is comely” (Cant 2:14).desacralization 8

Citing the Canticle of Canticles always brings to my mind the members of the Church who are most evidently the brides of Christ: consecrated virgins. Rorate Caeli published not long ago a beautiful meditation on the wimple written by a superior of a community of nuns. She says:

The wimple always leaves the face uncovered… [A] woman who wears a wimple is not seeking to hide herself totally; she is not seeking to exclude or separate herself from others. She is not excluding communication with other persons. Her face is left free; in fact, the wearing of the wimple draws more attention to the face, since there is nothing else to draw our eye. The wimple “forces” someone who meets us to focus on our face, not on our body.

In a real sense, our face most fully expresses who we are. Our face reveals who we are more than our body does. Consider that we learn so much more about a person by looking at his or her face than we do by looking at his or her hands or feet. The eyes are called the “windows of the soul,” and these eyes are almost highlighted by the wimple. The wimple, then, helps us to relate to other human persons in a way that harmonizes very well with our vocation. The wimple draws attention to the “inner man” which finds expression in our face. Our wimple helps others to look at us in that way.

She then goes on to express the stark contrast between a Christian head covering like the wimple and the modern mask regime:

The civil government ordered that everyone must wear masks in public places. The mask covers half of the face: the nose and the mouth. It is hard to recognize people when they wear masks; this is why burglars wear masks (the same kind, where only the eyes are visible). We can look from our convent to see people walking the streets who wear masks, but who are otherwise dressed indecently. The symbolic message such people convey is almost an exact inversion of the message we convey. One cannot “see” the “inner man” because of the mask, but one’s eyes are drawn, instead, to the body.

(I apologize for sharing here a pictorial illustration of the modern side of the equation, but never was it truer that a picture is worth a thousand words.)contrast

The superior completes her analysis with this observation:

The mask is a barrier to truly human communication, for communication is so much more than the exchange of words. We speak with our face, with our expressions. When we add the wearing of masks to the other regulations, especially that of so-called “social distancing,” and to the increase in “virtual meetings” and “on-line classrooms,” we can see the mask as just one element in the dehumanizing tendency of our society.

Even though people may think it “dehumanizing” that we sisters wear all the coverings we do as part of our religious habit, the truth is that the layers we wear can be aids to make our relationship with other human persons “more human,” more personal. Because the use of masks is an element that frustrates truly human relationships, we have an instinctive aversion to wearing masks. The mask hides the human person; the wimple reveals the human person. 

That is why we can speak, with justice, of dehumanization and depersonalization as bound up with the enforcement of masks in public places, above all in Catholic churches. It clashes with both natural goods of human fellowship and the supernatural reality of what we are doing when we assemble for prayer in the name of and in the presence of Christ. The wearing of masks has a natural “evil” attached, namely, that of obscuring half of the face of the person, and that evil is transmitted into the liturgy where, in a symbolically heightened environment, it becomes a countersign.

Remember, the logic of symbols in the liturgy is not the same as the logic of arguments with words. Something can be suggested or bodied forth with a symbol that would sound strange in verbal form. So, even if the following statements are not declared outright or intended to be inferred, they are nevertheless suggested or bodied forth by the wearing of masks in church:

(1) The Christ whose crucifixion the church building represents and whose life-giving flesh is present for sacrifice and communion is not the all-sufficient Savior of body and soul.

(2) The health of the soul is inferior to and less urgent than the health of the body.

(3) We are endangering to and endangered by our fellow Christians.

(4) We are not willing to take reasonable risks when we do the single most important thing in our lives.

Perhaps there are still other subliminal messages. What they all have in common is a symbolic refusal of koinonia or communicatio: natural and supernatural communion in sacred realities, face to face with God and neighbor.

If this is not seen to be problematic, I’m not quite sure what disruption of liturgical symbols would ever be problematic. That is why I have maintained that what pastors of souls are allowing or enforcing at this time amounts to a program of radical desacralization and ritual deformation, which is putting the final nails in the coffin built by the liturgical reform.

Resistance is not futile, but it will not come at a light cost. The only way forward is to double down on the traditional Roman Rite, celebrated digne, attente, ac devote according to its own rubrics, with love and reverential fear—but without the servile fear of our overlords.


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