Brendan Hoban: Pandemic – time for leadership not point-scoring

Church must waive rights for common good

Western People 27.4.2021

One of the casualties of the COVID restrictions has been public worship. There are many important reasons why this is so. One is that those who attend weekend Masses, for example, tend to be at the upper end of the population spectrum. This is exactly the same cohort in most danger from the coronavirus – in fact (as has been regularly noted by the health authorities) 70 times more likely to die if they contract COVID-19 than those in their 30s.

The other main reason is that while churches have established enviable standards of sanitation, social distancing and other requisites laid down by the authorities, a feature of religious gatherings is that groups (sometimes even crowds) gather on the fringes of such events and it’s difficult, probably impossible for volunteers and ushers to supervise them. A case in point, as we saw with some funerals, with gatherings outside churches and in cemeteries creating conducive circumstances for the virus to do damage.

Other considerations to be taken seriously are the protection of health and life – abortion is not the only pro-life concern – and the Catholic teaching of responsibility for ‘the common good’.

This poses the obvious question as to whether bringing together even small groups of mainly elderly people for worship is more necessary than ensuring that health is not damaged or lives lost through a virus that has already claimed almost 5,000 lives.

For most people, there is only one answer to that question. Until the virus is ‘defeated’ there should be no compromise with health and life, particularly of the more vulnerable. It’s a conclusion too that I suspect most priests (and those doing the volunteering and cleaning) agree with.

The outliers to that consensus are small groups of very traditional Catholics who rightly miss and mourn the absence of worship but who wrongly believe that risking health and even life itself is, in present circumstances, justifiable. It’s not. Or even that God might have it in for them if they miss Mass – even though the obligatory requirement has been lifted. He won’t.

Strangely, the Catholic bishops have ignored the greater mass of the people and opted to fight the good fight for a minority of Catholics – supported by some who have vested interests in keeping churches open and those on the outer edges who strive to present the pandemic as an opportunity for a Church-State trial of strength.

(One commentator wrote recently about ‘our own post-Christian government’).

Many, including myself I have to say, are mesmerised by the obsession of the bishops with this narrow focus. The four archbishops met the Taoiseach who told them he understood ‘the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland’ and they somehow imagined that as a result of this meeting of minds that the Church would be given special consideration.

Predictably and, I believe, responsibly, Mr Martin decided against this concession and the bishops were not well pleased. Their refusal to accept what most people (including most priests) thought sensible and inevitable led to another flurry of appeals (even one from the bishops of the west) with each one becoming progressively more shrill. And, I have to say, a bit more embarrassing.

The latest is Archbishop Eamon Martin taking exception to a decision by the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, to add a new measure to make it a criminal offence to attend certain types of indoor gatherings, including religious services (excluding funerals and weddings). The archbishop felt the measure was ‘draconian’, and was introduced in ‘a clandestine manner’ and that the four bishops were unaware of it until a few days earlier.

The reason for the measure was that some individuals, representing different sectors seeking exceptions for their groupings, were flouting the rules and the added force of criminality (including a fine of €127 or up to six months in jail) is intended to focus the attention of the seriousness of endangering public health – including, it has to be said, a few priests intent on flouting the law.

If, say, a pub opened or someone organised a shebeen, there’s little point in the Garda telling them that they’re bad boys (or bad girls) and not to do it again. What

was needed in the view of the authorities was a law to give Gardaí more power – in the interest of effectively supervising the lockdown and preserving public health and human life.

So, as Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Health, explained to Archbishop Martin, the new law was ‘designed to regulate indoor and outdoor gatherings’ that might pose a risk to health and life. And it’s clear that public Masses are in that category.

Donnelly, An Taoiseach, NPHET, NIAC, etc were not singling out public Masses and it’s clearly not credible to imply that they were.

For some odd reason, the bishops have chosen ­to raise the temperature in Church-State relations through the use of particularly harsh language – ‘draconian instrument’, ‘criminalising worship’, ‘penal sanction’, ‘breach of trust’, ‘provocative’.

What doesn’t help is that some of the bishops’ comments are inaccurate and illogical. It’s not credible to say that ‘the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland’ (which nobody is questioning) is sufficient reason to concede special permission for public Masses, if the relevant authorities have concluded that it is an unacceptable risk to public health and to life.

It’s not true to say that public worship is an essential pastoral work in the midst of a pandemic. It isn’t, as we can see. (It’s not as if the ban on public Masses is to last indefinitely, as most commentators believe there will be a change in the coming weeks.)

It’s not helpful to trumpet the Church’s support to date for ‘the protection of health, life and the common good’ while at the same time seeking an exception from a regulation deemed necessary for health, life and the common good. And it’s not helpful for the Catholic Church to complain about ‘a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights’ when everyone accepts that in the middle of a major threat to public health and to life itself, this is a time not to demand rights but to waive them for the common good.

Above all this is a time for leadership not for point-scoring. We’ve seen the damage ‘culture-warrior’ bishops have inflicted on the Church in America. Let’s not go down that road.




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  1. Veronica+Clerkin says:

    Can I assume that before you wrote your article that you spent hours in prayer to the Power from on high to fall on you. Then being filled with the gifts of Wisdom, Understanding and LOVE you wrote your article. Some one wrote “A new Spring in the The Church” So I’m singing “Where have all the flowers gone long time passing”

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “a virus that has already claimed almost 5,000 lives.”
    Actually, as Archbishop Eamon Martin should be the first to point out, the Covid Virus has already claimed as many as 7,150 lives. Like many of us hailing from the border area, Covid-19 does not recognise a merely century-old frontier. Ab Eamon Martin’s Church and Archdiocese shouldn’t be recognising it either. Perhaps Papal Nuncio Jude Thaddeus should remind the archbishops that they represent a whole-island Church?

  3. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan Hoban. Pandemic…..

    Brendan, what wise, sensible words. And, of course, Ireland is not the only place where our bishops have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Robert Wilken gave an excellent interview here: But falling into First Things mode he ended by quoting Tertullian, “Liberty in the things of God” to take a swipe at crackdowns on church infringements of Covid guidelines in Alberta, where the situation is dire:

    It amazes me that churches would take a stand on their rights and freedoms on a matter of public health, having learned nothing from how wrong it was to take such a stand on another civil matter, sexual abuse of minors.

  5. Richard O'Donnell says:

    “Above all this is a time for leadership”. Here, again we see leadership from another priest who will never be made a bishop and a total lack of it from priests who were.

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