THERE MUST BE A LIMIT TO APPEASING ULTRA-CATHOLICS – Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column in the Waterford News and Star

A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column

AT a Sunday Mass in one of our local churches recently, the presiding priest reiterated the health and safety protocols designed to protect against Covid-19.

It was in a big church and so the government guidelines permitted a subdivision of the church into two sections or pods which were separated by four metres, with 50 people allowed into each pod.

There was to be no movement of people between the sections before, during or after the Service (to avoid cross-contamination). This provision was a special concession by the Government to the Churches. It went against the advice of the HSE and NPHET; both bodies were concerned that in the event of an outbreak in a church, it would be really difficult to conduct contact tracing and isolating procedures with one hundred people.

‘One member of the congregation crossed from one section of the church, climbing over a barrier separating the two pods of 50, and then demanded Holy Communion on the tongue’

Separate arrangements for each pod were in place for the distribution of Holy Communion. Yet, at the time for receiving Holy Communion, one member of the congregation who insisted on receiving only from the priest, crossed from one section of the church to the other even though the person had to climb over a barrier separating the two pods of 50, and then demanded Holy Communion on the tongue. (The bishops, complying with requests from the HSE and NPHET, have stated that Communion should only be distributed in the hand.) The priest refused. It was an embarrassing situation as the congregation witnessed this stand-off during a most sacred moment of the Service. When challenged afterwards, the person refuted the constitutionality of the Covid-19 regulations, inferring that the right to religious liberty was being undermined.

On another occasion, a person was refused Holy Communion on the tongue by a priest who was helping out in a parish. That same person turned up the following Sunday for Mass in the parish church of the priest in question and presented for Communion on the tongue before an elderly priest. Now this priest has underlying health issues, which makes him vulnerable to infection by Covid-19. The priest had no option but to refuse; however, it did create a tense scene during the celebration of the Eucharist which is meant to be a breaking of bread together to build up community.

In neither of these incidents was any concern shown by the protesters for the health and safety of others. Priests and other communicants could have been exposed to Covid infection. Nor was there any consideration given to the fact that the blatant disregard of separating barriers could well result in the closure of churches or at least limiting numbers again to 50. It is symptomatic of the behaviour of ultra-traditional Catholics who vociferously proclaim their loyalty and support of the church but who vehemently oppose change. They are given undue deference by members of the hierarchy who have been known to lavish attention, even while being regularly challenged by them.

Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholics Priests observes that recognition and attention given to ultra-right groups is reaping a bitter whirlwind. I’m thinking of the protesters outside Croke Park after the celebration of Eid al-Adha Festival, one of two Islamic holidays celebrated yearly around the world. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, representing the Catholic church at the ceremony, was met with screaming protestors, his car surrounded and banged on, and people shouting traitor and other abuse. (Ironically, the Eid al-Adha festival commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham, highlighting the common heritage of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions).

I‘m thinking also of the torrent of abuse hurled at Fr. Stephen Farragher, parish priest of Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo, during protests at his decision to allow two members of the Muslim community to say the final blessing and prayer at a Sunday ceremony in the church. The blessing was planned to show solidarity with frontline workers and to pray for the eradication of Covid-19.

These groups, supported by high-profile journalists such as John Waters and Gemma O’Doherty, are Covid deniers, claiming it is a conspiracy theory to collapse the present world order. They oppose vaccines and refuse to wear masks and they wantonly contravene other HSE guidelines. Groups associated with this toxic politico-religious cocktail could easily be dismissed as a lunatic fringe element; their actions could be disregarded as simply an internecine struggle confined to the Church. But I’m not so sure.

This movement is symptomatic of what is happening on a more global level, particularly in the USA. Extreme alt-right media groups claiming total fidelity to the Catholic church (such as Church Militant, Lifesite News, Breitbart and the most influential of all Catholic media, EWTN), are unabashedly partisan in their support for extreme right wing politics. EWTN, once devoted to broadcasting Catholic piety and conservative catechesis, has radically redefined its ethos. It now involves the matchup of a peculiar brand of U.S. style conservative Catholicism with conservative political ideology and economic theory, according to Heidi Schlumpf, editor of National Catholic Reporter. (EWTN claims a reach of more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide in more than 145 countries and territories).

These media outlets, while professing loyalty to the church, represent some of the most public anti-Pope Francis forces in the Catholic world and would like him to resign.

I must admit it was only when a renowned theologian Massimo Faggioli, (professor at Villanova University) alerted us to the implications of this political and theological alignment between recalcitrant Catholics (together with white evangelicals) and Trumpian conservative politics in the United States, that I realised we have to take seriously this ‘whiff’ of fascism. He claims that the US Catholic conservative elites (he labels them ‘thurifers of Trumpism’) have “unlearned democratic culture” and have created a worrying polarisation not just in the Church but also in the wider society.

In their attempt to accommodate the alt-right Catholics the hierarchy need to appreciate the political implications of extreme views which, in my opinion, serve to undermine the pontificate of Pope Francis. There must be limits to appeasement.


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  1. Sean O’Conaill says:

    That the extreme US right is also virulently racist needs emphasis also. While many US Catholics are seriously studying their church’s historical shortfall on the race issue, and even taking seriously the question of reparations for the huge toll of slavery and racial profiling on African Americans, Trumpist Catholicism turns a blind eye to an electoral strategy aimed clearly at stirring nativist white paranoia over the nation’s shifting racial demographics.

    That such an attitude could be called ‘pro-life’ is impossible to justify, given that its logical culmination will be at best interminable civil disharmony and constitutional collapse and at worst civil war. Steve Bannon is far from being the only US ‘Catholic’ who supposes that white nationalism and Catholicism are compatible. For a truly disturbing short summary of this virulence, try this:

    Liam Power sees clearly the huge danger of ‘Catholic’ fascism in Ireland if the pattern he has detailed here is simply ignored. Archbishop Vigano’s assault on Pope Francis in August 2018, and his support for Trump now – and even for conspiracy theories that could delay recovery from the covid pandemic – tell us clearly what our Irish church, and all true Christians, must bind together to oppose.

  2. Thomas Hakala says:

    I used to check in on the Church Militant site. I had to stop. This site is one of the most hate-filled sites I have ever had the misfortune to experience.
    The site is unabashedly homophobic, which ironically is led by a man who claims to have once been a homosexual, but has been cured.
    It’s hatred for Pope Francis and most of the clergy and hierarchy is scandalous.
    It is unreadable by anyone who has any moral grounding.
    Very sad, indeed, because it is all done in the name of Jesus!

  3. Donal Dorr says:

    Thanks, Liam, for this fine piece. Well put and timely. It leads on to the issue of what is the best strategy for Church authorities to adopt in responding to this kind of extremism. As we have learned, it may be that the aim of those who adopt such positions is to provoke a strong outspoken response and in this way to gain more attention. In this way they can give the impression that their views are to be taken seriously, rather than the delusions of a tiny minority. This fosters division in our Church and in society. Perhaps you, Liam, from your extensive pastoral experience can offer some suggestions about how best to respond while avoiding giving prominence to extreme views and people.

  4. Jim Stack says:

    What disturbs me about this article is that it equates traditional reverence for the Eucharist with right-wing extremism. An obvious compromise here would have been to ask those who want to receive on the tongue to wait until the other communicants had received on the hand. Fr Power’s solution, regrettably, is to publicly chastise sincere Catholics as racists etc. As someone who receives on the hand, and obeys the rules, but who understands where the traditionalists are coming from, I have to say that I feel Fr Power is betraying those who are on the side of the Church, while feeding propaganda to the Church’s enemies. Most of the people who read his article, no doubt with approval, could not give two hoots about the Church. The people who will be upset by his article are those who stayed loyal to the Church through all the scandals.

    I also struggle with the notion of the hierarchy being in thrall to the traditionalists.

  5. Jim Stack says:

    I want to correct one thing I wrote earlier. Fr Power did not associate traditionalists with racism – that was one of the commenters. My apologies for that error. I stand over the rest of what I wrote, however.

    I am sure that many Catholic priests feel justifiably aggrieved when they are associated. just by being priests, with the well-documented sins of other priests. It is very odd, then, that any priest would do the same thing to genuine believers, associating them with all sorts of extremist behaviour. I know people who want to receive on the tongue, purely out of reverence for the sacrament. They are not fascists. They are not even political, right-wing or otherwise. Their distrust of the establishment arises from bitter experience in, for example, the abortion referendum. It is sad to see them publicly denigrated by their own pastors. By all means criticise and draw attention to extreme behaviour. But you have no right, Fr Power, to lump these people in with such extremism when all they are guilty of is belief in the Real Presence.

  6. George Lynch says:

    A lethal pandemic does not allow for the tolerance of nonsense. The clear medical and scientific advice is that it is dangerous to distribute Holy Communion by placing it on a person’s tongue. Argument on the basis of opinion and supposed reverence should not be entertained.
    To insist, for whatever misguided reason, on receiving Communion in this fashion is to endanger the health and very life of the minister, the person receiving, and the close contacts of both.
    The ACP should in no way entertain opinions that blatantly disregard the advice given by public health authorities. Arguments from piety are simply not valid compared to safeguarding human life and health.

  7. Jim Stack says:

    I do not pretend to medical or scientific expertise, but it seems to me that most necessary precautions are already in place – the priest disinfects before and after distributing Holy Communion, and wears a face mask or uses a protective screen, and the communicants disinfect on the way in to the church and maintain social distancing while there. If there are only two or three receiving on the tongue, at the end, the priest could disinfect after each one. That is how it looks to me. If there is evidence that I am wrong, then of course I would agree that the practice should be discontinued, but I find the messages to date from the medics and scientists to be confused and contradictory, with churches all over Europe being subject to different restrictions, and things are not at all as clear cut as George Lynch maintains. And in any case my main point remains – that it is not acceptable for a priest to label faithful Catholics extremists when their sole motivation is reverence for the sacrament. Fr Power could have written one article about Catholic extremists, and another about the reasons for the Covid-19 restrictions and why Catholics should cooperate with the procedures. He chose instead to lump them all into one article, and it is not “nonsense” to point that out.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Better be safe than sorry. Any reduction of risk is to be embraced. The trouble is that the risks are often incalculable. In the case of communion on the tongue there is no reason at all to invite the possible risk. S Carlo Borromeo shut down churches in Milan for 2 years in a time of pestilence. We used to laugh at comparisons between Covid-19 and ancient plagues, but as it continues to expand and refuses to go away such comparisons carry more and more weight. So far 31,499,343 infections have been counted, with 969,587 deaths. Not close to the 50+ million deaths of the 1918 pandemic, but on the way there nonetheless.

  9. Pascal O'Dea says:

    As a medical doctor can I reiterate that the receiving and giving of communion on the tongue is a highly dangerous practice. Covid virus is present in the respiratory tract, and the mouth and lips open to our respiratory tract. It is for a sound medical reason that NPHET advise against the distribution of communion on the tongue.
    The US chief medical advisor, a Jesuit educated individual, has strongly urged the US hierarchy to Safe Guard congregations and celebrants and endorsed the guidance preventing the practice in the US…

  10. Jim Stack says:

    In reply to Pascal O’Dea and Joe O ‘Leary: I tried to make it clear in my original post that I, personally, receive on the hand, and take all precautions. I agree that it is better to be safe than sorry. I also made it clear that I have neither medical nor scientific expertise, but I do try to keep informed and it is something of a surprise to me that I am hearing clear warnings now, for the first time, on this site that receiving on the tongue is really dangerous – I did not hear this clearly stated before. I attend Mass about twice a week and get it online on the other five days, from around the country, and I have not once heard a priest make this clear from the altar.

    Recent comments here have been helpful and courteous, but the same cannot be said of Fr Power’s original article, nor of the earlier comments. I hope I am not being unfair here, but this is not the first time that I have encountered a kind of sneering contempt for traditional Catholics among ACP members and supporters. There are priests who talk a lot about more involvement for the laity, but it seems to me that they have no time at all for the lay people in the Church who continue to worship in the way they were brought up in the faith. These traditional Catholics seem to be fair game for all sorts of derisive comments, whereas I regard them as the salt of the earth.

    Fr Power could have explained the dangers of receiving on the tongue in his original column, and left it at that. He chose instead to identify traditional Catholics with all sorts of extremism, and the early comments here took the same approach. In fact, no one except me has posted comments taking exception to this. Which rather reinforces my point.

  11. Sean O’Conaill says:

    # 11 Fr Power “chose instead to identify traditional Catholics with all sorts of extremism.”

    As Jim is clearly coming to the defence of Irish Catholics who have a continuing preference for such childhood-learned practices as communion on the tongue, I cannot see where in Fr Power’s article Jim sees these per se being ‘identified with all sorts of extremism’.

    From the top Fr Power’s article is a listing of very recent manifestation of ostentatiously disruptive behaviour, at a time of unprecedented public health crisis, coinciding with and seemingly being influenced by an extreme polarisation in US polittics.

    Surely the traditional Irish Catholics to whom Jim is referring are the first to attend to the need for respect for, rather than disruption of, the precautions and rules recommended by clergy in this situation?

    Perhaps Jim is unaware of the huge difference between ‘right-wing’ in the US context and ‘traditional’ for himself in the Irish context? For me the former term denotes those who not only have a preference for in-church practices such as communion on the hand but also public and often hateful criticism of not only Pope Francis but Vatican II.

    It is surely this politicisation of liturgical and other religious preferences that Fr Power finds objectionable. As a traditional Irish Catholic who sees Vatican II as an essential formative event in that tradition, and Pope Francis as a staunch defender of it, so do I. Furthermore, ‘right-wing’ in the US context now can stoop to the deliberate fabrication of conspiracy theories that circulate on the Internet, re-creating a very dangerous pre-modern preference for fiction before fact. Surely this, imported to Ireland, would be entirely alien to the devotional and truth-seeking essence of Irish Catholic tradition?

  12. Jim Stack says:

    I have made four attempts to explain my position here, and it is clear from the subsequent comments that I have failed on every occasion. The guidelines for this site include a prohibition on continued repetitions of a point. I think it best, therefore, that I quietly withdraw from this discussion at this point. Thanks to the site editor for posting my previous comments, each one without any modification, and thanks to all who took the trouble to respond to my previous comments. God bless you all.

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