The protocols and safeguards for dealing with the challenge of Covid-19 should apply fairly across all sectors of society. There should be logic, coherence and consistency in both their formulation and application. That should be obvious but of course prejudice blinds and leads to anomalies and the singling out of certain groups for specified additional curtailments. All animals or citizens are equal but some are more equal than others. Or some get the benefit of the doubt or are presumed to be responsible and diligent in complying with the standard safety measures that apply to all and that we have all become so used to over many long months.
If religious worship is permitted within the limits of numbers, church capacity and adherence to sanitizing measures, social distancing and mask-wearing then what business has the government in further defining what kinds of worship are to be permitted? What difference does it make if some of the congregation are receiving communion for the first time? What difference does it make if a small number of the congregation present themselves at the altar for Confirmation? Obviously, none whatsoever. Why would the laying on of hands be okay, as it has been for many months now, for hairdressers but not for a priest or bishop?
The government, without claiming any scientific or medical justification for their discriminatory directives, have tried to defend their actions by pointing out the dangers of post-sacrament celebrations. Why would this be an issue if it is not also an issue for the myriad of other occasions that tend to involve family get-togethers and celebrations? What about birthdays, anniversaries and pre- and post- match socialising? What about the social gatherings that take place on the peripheries of every wedding and funeral? If all of these are considered to be covered adequately by the government’s clear directives about social and household gatherings in general, why are sacrament-related gatherings treated differently?
Looking at the risk in an objective way, First Communion and Confirmation post-church celebrations are usually summer events and typically take place outdoors around a bouncy castle or barbecue, if not in a restaurant where restaurant rules apply They mostly involve young children, who have been mingling together both in schools and playgrounds for much of the time the rest of us were in lockdown, and of course for this same reason, they tend to involve less alcohol consumption than the typical Irish get-together.
So the implicit message has to be that Catholics as a community cannot be trusted to observe the socializing rules that other groups are considered to be responsible enough to observe. Suppose some other ethnic or religious group was singled out in this way? One can think of certain cultural practices that potentially at least raise risks. While garda enforcers may quite correctly intervene when regulations are breached, the government would never dream of pre-judging any social or ethnic group by specifically banning any activity that was unique to them. To do so would be judged discriminatory, prejudgmental and prejudiced. It might also be received as downright hostile. It would create an instant media storm.
When one reads in the government’s directives that baptisms can take place from the 5th of August but that ‘gatherings afterwards are not recommended’, one might very well ask why such a rider does not apply in other situations ? The subtext is clear enough. It is only Catholics who cannot be trusted to apply the social rules that others are generally presumed to observe. This is egregious, arbitrary and discriminatory exceptionalism.
Since churches opened, I have observed the most scrupulous attention to cleaning and supervision with frequent reminders from the celebrant before, during and after the celebration. I have not seen the same diligence in other venues where life proceeds very much like normal in many cases. It is these other venues, like supermarkets, where gardai, from time to time, feel it necessary to call around and check compliance. Church services are conducted with textbook level adherence to rules. It is completely unacceptable that the government with its new powers over citizens’ lives should exploit those powers to oppress its ideological enemies. Irish Catholics know things like this to happen in China. Is this just one other way in which we are falling into step with that benighted country?
It is hardly surprising that the media and political class as well as civil liberty groups are in the main acquiescent about this crossing of the notional state/church line. What is more disturbing is the acquiescence of the Bishops’ Conference. They have behaved cravenly and there is no point in putting it any other way. Those three or so bishops who have bravely put their heads above the parapet are in a sense the John Fishers of our time even though one hesitates to make any comparison between their level of courage and his.