ON October 7, church services were again suspended throughout the Irish Republic. The reason: the country had entered Level Three of the Plan for Living with Covid 19, which contains a simple but far-reaching stipulation that at that level and higher “religious services move online”.
One would have thought a directive that strikes at the most visible sign of affiliation for many believers, if not the essence of their belief itself, deserved more than four words in the Government’s plan.
Ireland took up the unenviable position of being the only country in Europe where attending church services is forbidden. Look north of the border for a comparative restriction and you will find none. Look further to mainland Europe including to countries whose church attendance levels are less than ours, and our prohibition at anything but the very highest levels of national restrictions makes us an outlier.
Now we are in Level Five, the rule is even further copper-fastened. The very phraseology used in the Covid Plan regarding religious services is disingenuous.
For church-goers the availability of online services, which many churches do provide, is of significant benefit, but cannot substitute for in person attendance which is at the heart of worship. To deny this access is a serious matter for any public authority. To do so without any active consultation with faith communities or respect for their constitutional position is high- handed in the extreme.
In Ireland, the Constitution provides a specific guarantee in Article 44.1: The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence and shall respect and honour religion.
This appears to go even beyond individual freedoms to acknowledge a specific principle, the fulfilment of which of course requires the ability of people to participate.
Introducing a directive opposed to a clause in our highest law is an over-reach of powers. Amazingly, it received relatively little challenge when rolled out as part of the Covid 19 Plan, although public discussion has increased now that its negative impact can be seen.
During the first lockdown, our churches were closed from mid-March until late May, when they reopened for personal prayer, with religious services resuming on June 29. Although there was discontent at the duration of the restriction, there was a feeling that once reopened, arrangements could prevail to implement public health measures and also to allow worship to continue.
This worked well and churches bought in to a new way of doing things, while resuming services, even if attendances were, for various reasons, lesser than previously.
Masses, Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations took place and a joyous atmosphere could be noticed in congregations, that in some cases discovered anew the beauty and importance of religious experience.
Church buildings in many ways were ideal venues for the implementation of precautions around public health. Many are both lofty and spacious and most had ample facilities for separate entrances and exits. Principles of good citizenship were most evident and there seemed every likelihood best practice would prevail and provide safe places of worship with minimal health risks.
To undo this arrangement without any evidence that the system was failing is a serious injustice to the large section of Irish society who are church-goers.
In other places, governments have been able to appreciate the manifest advantages for society when worship is allowed to continue, and even those contemplating further general restrictions are reluctant to coerce churches. Scotland is a case in point, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, to compliment the authorities by stating: “The Scottish Government does not now plan to re-instate that kind of blanket restriction on our freedom to enact public worship. This is a blessing... Government has also been persuaded of the positive good to society and to the effort against the pandemic of people being free to come to church and to worship God.”
It makes for an uneven and biased public health approach to forbid the attendance of, say, 100 people for 45 minutes in a church designed to hold 1,000 while whole swathes of other in-person activities are allowed to continue.
The pharma sector is booming as never before and, along with many other centres of manufacturing, employees spend entire shifts together, albeit with all possible safeguards.
Well over 100 people can be found in supermarkets with far less regulation of movement and potential interactions. With a repetition and insistence that would have made Pravda proud, we are told schools will continue, no matter what.
All of these activities are necessary, but so are our churches. It might be expected that as changes in church attendance levels have unfolded in recent decades, there may be some alteration in relationship between the State and faith communities, reflecting a more general societal trend. However, this is no reason for the State to adopt a dismissive, unfair, and disrespectful approach to religious believers.
On October 28, the Catholic Archbishops met with the Taoiseach to impress upon Government the desire of the Catholic community to return to public worship. As yet no concession has been given on foot of this request. A group of 70 evangelical pastors have also written decrying the effects on their communities.
As a Catholic, I say without any hesitation that the Faith of our Fathers deserves better. My fellow citizens of other religious affiliations will perhaps have their own words to echo the same sentiments.