Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Religious Liberty, applauded the announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (HHS OCR) that, in response to two complaints received, it has taken action to ensure that hospital patients have access to spiritual care during the COVID-19 pandemic. In each case, the hospital in question, citing safety protocols it instituted to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, had denied a request for a priest to visit a patient in order to administer a sacrament – in one case, baptism, and in the other, anointing of the sick. Relying on guidance from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services intended to ensure that patients retain access to spiritual care, HHS OCR worked expeditiously with the hospitals to find a safe way for patients to receive the sacraments.

Archbishop Wenski’s full statement follows:

“Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, gave us the sacraments to convey God’s grace and healing. As Pope Francis has noted, the sacraments are ‘Jesus Christ’s presence in us.’ Without them, we are distanced from God, the source of our being and meaning. So it is of paramount importance that our government, public health authorities, and health care providers strive to respect the liberty of the faithful to receive the sacraments.

“COVID-19 requires us to limit or modify our physical interactions to some degree, in order to reduce risks to physical health. Medical experts play a natural role in this effort but must avoid treating physical interactions in religious exercise as unnecessary or unacceptable risks because they are religious. A true understanding of human wellbeing accounts, as Jesus did, for the health of both body and soul.”