Ten days ago the Catholic Archbishops of Ireland requested to meet Taoiseach Micheál Martin to see if Mass could be celebrated publicly during Covid-19 restrictions. Faithful Catholics around Ireland, upset at being deprived of Mass, were encouraged by the Archbishops’ show of leadership.
Others, though, questioned their intervention on the basis that religion isn’t deserving of exemptions to generally applicable public health advice. This position would seem to be shared by NPHET—Dr. Ronan Glynn has publicly implied that religion ranks as relatively unimportant in NPHET’s decision making.
Since the requested meeting was first reported government’s public health restrictions have escalated from Level 3 to Level 5. No further updates on the proposed meeting have emerged, and it’s quite possible that at this point, with Level 5 in operation, the Archbishops won’t press the matter. But the questions raised in the initial request remain live and are still worth exploring.
Had a meeting between the Archbishops and An Taoiseach taken place it would not have focused on any particular law. Priests, it seems, are not legally prohibited from celebrating Mass publicly, even at Level 5 restrictions. (Quite likely there are constitutional reasons for this.) Public worship—both ten days ago and now—would contravene not the law but the government’s public health advice.
So would a meeting be superfluous?
In a crucial respect, no. When government public health advice is incessantly publicised in an urgent, quasi-legal tone it creates a very strong societal norm. When the advice is against public worship it counts as weighty social and political pressure against public worship: a government-backed impediment. Religious persons of all faiths, including faith leaders, are perfectly entitled to ask whether such a governmental impediment is justified.
It almost certainly wasn’t two weeks ago, and even now I’m inclined to think it still isn’t. For a start, the governmental impediment is against all public worship regardless of how responsibly and cautiously it is carried out, and regardless of how limited is the number attending.
Second, activities which are central to human fulfilment are entitled to greater levels of protection and respect by the state than less important activities. Persons are naturally religious—it is among the most reasonable human needs to seek the truth about (and harmony with) transcendent, ultimate reality. Many reasonable people conclude that that reality is God, and go on to accept in faith that God has revealed his inner heart in the person of Jesus Christ.
Others disagree strenuously, of course. But that’s part of the point. All those who are serious about the question of human existence recognise that the religious question is supremely important. It goes to the heart of a person’s conscience, and engages their whole life and their eternal destiny. There is no more important truth than religious truth, and there is no more important aspect of well-being than spiritual well-being.
So religious practice and the observance of conscience should receive special protection from laws and government-backed pressures impinging upon freedoms. This means that public health advice should be particularly careful to avoid unnecessarily pressurising citizens against public worship.
In a context where the advice is a total cessation of all public worship, where very few (if any) Covid infections are associated with religious services, and where the overall Covid death rate remains both low and very largely restricted to easily identifiable population sub-groups, it seems that the government’s public health advice is unnecessary to adequately protect public health, and is thus disproportionate and unfair to religious citizens. It is noteworthy that only one other European country issues this advice currently (Europe being perhaps the most secular continent of all, too).
Even if one is disinclined to grant that religious practice and observance deserve special protection there remains the matter of unjustified discrimination. Ten days ago, when the Archbishops made their request, there was no doubt that public health advice unjustly discriminated against religious worship. At that point I could shop with dozens of others for as much beer and crisps as I wanted but wasn’t meant to receive the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. I could throw a shoulder at a stranger in senior club football but I couldn’t worship with my wife and children at Mass. And I could feed my ego in a gym, barbers or beauticians, but I was prevented from nourishing my soul at Mass.
Such disparities only begin to make sense if religion is considerably less important than consumerism, recreational sport, and improving one’s physical appearance. Even at Level 5 unjustified disparities arguably remain. Inter-country GAA, horseracing and greyhound racing can still take place, but public Mass cannot. Bars, cafes, restaurants and pubs can provide take-away services, but no such nuanced, bespoke advice obtains for religious services. Such retail outlets—which largely serve luxury items—in fact count as “essential retail outlets” per government advice, while the same advice deems “essential services” to include community and voluntary services as well as forestry, leasing, scientific and social work activities. Exemptions are manifold for “essentials”, but religious worship is excluded.
The message is clear: religious services are non-essential according to government. What possible justification could a liberal democracy have for this position?
What we are left with is government’s glib advice that religious services can “move online”. Other religions will have their own perspectives, but for Catholics this statement betrays gross ignorance of the theological, salvific meaning of Mass. Communion with God and with the people of God (the Church) cannot be “moved online”. We are incarnate, communal beings; the Eucharist is the continuation of the Incarnation in the world. Embodiment and presence are vital for the Catholic faith.
One wonders in all this how mindful the establishment class are of the needs, desires and sorrows of religious citizens. Tánaiste Varadkar recently commented that no one on NPHET faces unemployment, with the implication being that this narrowed NPHET’s horizon when issuing advice. Well, how many at cabinet empathise with hunger and thirst for God?
Government’s sharp under-appreciation of religion ought not to rub off on Bishops. Bishops have their mandate from Christ and at least have formal legal freedom from the state. If they can convince government of the need to nuance its public health advice to respect the importance of public worship then well and good. It is a discharge of civic duty to attempt this path.
But Bishops shouldn’t assume that Caesar infallibly knows the limits of what is his due. It would be a significant and heartening development if the Bishops, having failed to change government’s mind, decided that they should resist heavy secular pressure on religious matters and take due responsibility for whether or not to proceed with public Mass in some limited form.
Doing so would be good for the state since it would help dispel the dangerous appearance of state control of church. Not doing so would damage the church—all of us—since it would infantilise our religious agency and imply that nothing “greater” (Matthew 12:5) is at stake here.
Dr. Thomas Finnegan