Houses of Worship Struggle Back, and Tread Lightly on Vaccines
The weekly rhythms of Catholic life have started to return at Our Lady of Lourdes in Harlem. The pews are packed on Sunday mornings, prayer …
The weekly rhythms of Catholic life have started to return at Our Lady of Lourdes in Harlem. The pews are packed on Sunday mornings, prayer groups meet after work and the collection plate is almost as full as it was before the coronavirus pandemic began.
But parishioners are starting to worry about the virus again.
“For a little while everyone felt more free, not using masks and things like that,” said the Rev. Gilberto Ángel-Neri, the pastor. “But now that we hear all the news about the Delta variant, everyone is using masks again.”
The progress made at Father Ángel-Neri’s church, and at houses of worship across New York City, may be threatened by a rise in virus cases in the past month and by an uneven patchwork of rules governing vaccination that can differ from one place to another.
New rules that have been enacted in recent weeks to curb the spread of the virus’s more contagious Delta variant require New Yorkers to show proof of vaccination to participate in many indoor activities, including sitting inside restaurants or bars, going to a gym or nightclub and visiting a museum or zoo. But they do not apply religious services.
“Faith is a light to help you navigate through uncertainty and darkness, but what a lot of people have been grappling with is what do you do when church itself becomes a place of anxiety,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the advocacy group Faith in Public Life.
Religious leaders, he said, “want people to come back to church but to do that safely is a hard thing to do in an environment where there are so many unknowns.”
Houses of worship have struggled over the past year as pandemic-related rules forced them to shut their doors for months and then limited how many people were allowed inside at a time. Most depend on donations to pay their bills, and while the number of worshipers and the size of their donations has slowly begun to rebound, the progress remains tenuous.
Most churches in the city do not require worshipers to be vaccinated.
Instead, rules vary from place to place. For example, vaccination is required to visit the campus of Fordham University, a Jesuit school, but not to enter the Catholic church around the corner.
Many Reform Jewish temples, including Central Synagogue in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, either require vaccination or plan to to do so by the High Holy Days next month, community leaders said.
Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella group that sued New York last year over the state’s coronavirus restrictions, said that Orthodox leaders did not want the government to impose a mandate.
Community leaders, Mr. Shafran said, do “not want those who, for whatever reason, are unvaccinated to be faced with a draconian regulation that limits their participation in religious life.”
The leaders of individual Orthodox synagogues were “considering” requiring vaccinations based on the situation in their communities, he said, although he could not name any.
Catholic leaders have declined to answer questions about why they do not require worshipers to show proof of vaccination.
In November, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn won a Supreme Court case against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that overturned public health restrictions on houses of worship. Since then, neither the city nor the state has moved to impose any new restrictions.
“We do not view religious worship as ‘indoor entertainment,’” said Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Right now, our approach is to continue partnering with faith leaders to promote the vaccine, deploy mobile vaccine vans to houses of worship and recruit religious organizations to take advantage of the vaccine referral bonus.”
Mr. Neidhardt declined to say whether concerns about religious freedom, or the example of the Supreme Court decision last fall, had influenced the city’s policy. But many religious leaders and analysts see a connection.
“Of course it doesn’t apply to houses of worship, as the governor learned last year,” said Rabbi Serge Lippe of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. But he said religious institutions should follow the same rules as secular institutions.
“We are not looking for exemptions from common sense health guidelines, we want to follow common sense health guidelines,” he said.
David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, said that when it comes to requiring vaccines, “everyone is trying to avoid this issue.”
Many parish leaders said they had their hands full rebuilding their congregations after the upheaval of the past year and a half.
When the pandemic forced Our Lady of Lourdes to close, parishioners lost a vital community center, Father Ángel-Neri said. The parish also lost about $3,000 a week in donations.
Today, he said, the crowds at Mass are smaller than before the pandemic, but those who come “want to be here and they want the parish to succeed.”
That view was shared by the dozen or so people who came to a Spanish-language Mass in the church’s brightly lit basement chapel one night last week.
“What we get from being here is so much more important than being scared,” said Ana Sanchez, 48. “It helps us get through these hard times. My faith is more important than anything, even the pandemic.”
“We are the in presence of God the Father, and that’s the important thing,” said Melania de Jesus, 51.
The dilemma facing houses of worship is this: A surge in virus-related deaths or hospitalizations could plunge them back into turmoil, but any rule requiring inoculation could keep away worshipers wary of vaccines, and their much-needed donations.
That Gordian knot is especially troublesome for the Catholic Church, whose followers have sometimes been sent mixed messages that often rely on confusing information about the production of some of the vaccines used against the coronavirus in the United States, which were developed using human cells derived from a fetus aborted decades ago.
Marilyn Mubarak, 60, a retiree who was leaving midday Mass at St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Woodside, Queens, one day last week, said she had been vaccinated for the greater good even though “a lot of people heard about how the vaccine was tested on embryos.” (It was not.)
The Rev. Patrick J. West, St. Sebastian’s pastor, said he had few qualms about the vaccine.
“This is an effort to keep everybody safe and healthy so I say let’s all do our part,” he said. “It would be fine with me if they did have a vaccine mandate.”
But Catholic leaders have sometimes muddied the waters. In February, the Vatican said it would require its employees to be vaccinated, only to quickly soften its position after being criticized. The pope has been less equivocal, saying in a message last week that getting vaccinated was “an act of love.”
“Fundamentally the pope says getting vaccinated is a moral issue,” Mr. Gibson of Fordham said. “It’s about loving your neighbor, it’s about solidarity, it’s a pro-life issue. But there is a libertarian strain in American Catholicism.”
That has been reflected in rhetoric used by conservatives in the church.
Catholic bishops in Colorado issued a joint public letter this month, reiterating concern over the use of fetal tissue in vaccine development and saying they “support religious exemptions from any and all vaccine mandates.”
Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a high-profile conservative who was diagnosed with the coronavirus this month and put on a ventilator days later, made headlines last year when he repeated false claims at a conference in Rome that the vaccine might contain microchips that would let the government control people.
Catholic leaders in New York have waded into these debates carefully.
Although vaccines are not required for employees or worshipers, archdiocesan officials in New York told priests in a July letter that “there is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.” The letter said any priest who issued an exemption would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the pope.”
In a subsequent email, the archdiocese’s vicar general, Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, gave priests carefully worded guidelines about introducing safety measures in their parishes.
“Pastors may wish to suggest” that vaccinated parishioners wear masks, he said, but the onus was on those who were unvaccinated to wear them. And, he added, churches should maintain special sections for people who want to socially distance, but “there should be no designation of attendees to such an area based on vaccination status.”
On the topic of vaccinations, he said that “pastors might encourage those who have not been vaccinated to take advantage of this service.”
Most parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes have been vaccinated, priests there said. But a group of holdouts remain.
“The only ones who aren’t vaccinated are the people who can’t be convinced,” the Rev. Juan Carlos Gonzalez noted shortly before he said Mass one night last week. “They have watched too many videos on the internet and read the wrong things online.”
A few parishioners have even asked Father Ángel-Neri to sign forms granting them religious exemptions. Those were requests he denied.
He said: “I told them, ‘Listen, I can’t go against the pope.’”
Anna Watts contributed reporting.