Canadians, unlike their feistier counterparts in the United States, tend to be law abiding, even to the point of submissiveness. Revolution was never in the genes. When the government urges them to wear masks to help ease the threat of spreading the Covid-19 virus, they are expected to comply, and comply without complaint.
A parishioner in British Columbia, however, has become a newsmaker for refusing to wear a mask while attending Mass. He cites a passage in his Church’s stated policy which allows exceptions for those who cannot wear the mask for legitimate reasons, such as health. His pastor, backed up by his bishop, however, have given him a stern ultimatum: wear a mask or do not attend Mass. The matter seems even more difficult to comprehend in the light of the fact that the province has not issued a mandatory mask policy. Provincial officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated that “ordering universal face mask use in all situations creates unnecessary challenges with enforcement and stigmatization”. The parishioner, who remains anonymous for fear of reprisals, is determined to attend Mass despite orders from the clergy. On the surface, the story appears to be an irreconcilable conflict between willful defiance and authoritarianism. But the surface is for newspapers.
The priest, not to be defied, included his recalcitrant parishioner in a sermon in which he stated that his parishioner was not being obedient to the government by not wearing a mask while not properly obeying Caesar (how un-Canadian!). Having read this stunning reference to Caesar, I then reached for my copy of Jacques Maritain’s The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. Concerning the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal powers, the Peasant of the Garonne makes the following comment: “Nothing is more important for the freedom of souls and the good of mankind than properly to distinguish between these two powers: nothing, in the language of the day, has so great a cultural value. It is common knowledge that the distinction is the achievement of the Christian centuries and their glory” (page 1). Maritain is referring to a distinction that is rooted in St. Augustine’s critical distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The pagan City claimed the whole of the human being while at the same time divinizing the state. The freedom of the soul was of no concern.