Was the bishops’ intervention wise? asks Brendan Hoban in his weekly Western People column    

Was the bishops’ intervention wise?                              

Western People 13.10.2020

During the Great Famine (1945-52) much play was made of the slogan ‘Property should support poverty’. In other words, landlords (the property class) from the rent they received on their lands were expected to pay rates to fund, for example, workhouses. The problem was that as the tenants couldn’t pay rents, the landlords couldn’t pay rates.

Whereas nowadays the government would be expected to come to the rescue, the infamous Trevelyan adamantly refused to intervene in case the balance of the economy would be damaged by state intervention. Meanwhile the people died . . .

Now we’re dealing with another slogan – ‘Health versus wealth’ and a workable balance between the two. If we place too much emphasis on wealth, the death toll will rise exponentially; if we place too much on health, our economy will fragment.

So decisions are not easy, and it’s understandable that the different parties involved are beginning to get a bit tetchy with one another. For two reasons. One is that the future is difficult to predict as there are so many moving parts (not least if or when the public will do what needs to be done); and, two, no matter what decisions they reach, they are liable to be blamed by someone.

Part of the background to complex decision-making is a chorus of voices, most of whom have vested interests. That chorus can be divided into two main groups: one understandable, and the other predictable.

The understandable ones are those rightly worried because of jobs, mortgages, businesses and so forth that are in danger of disappearing with all the consequent repercussions for thousands of families.

The predictable ones are mainly politicians who push the populist line, who are (most of the time) against whatever the government is doing on the basis that they have no problem spending money they know they will have no responsibility for gathering.

Others in this category are those extremists who are convinced that the coronavirus doesn’t exist, that wearing masks is a breach of their constitutional rights, that they wouldn’t accept a vaccine (even if there was a vaccine) or a curious litany of other groups (including very extreme Catholics) who long to be protesting somewhere about something.

Usually, a general criticism by vested interests of decisions taken is that the regulations proposed by the government and/or NPHET lack ‘clarity’ and ‘coherence’. This wheeze is usually adopted when opposition politicians want to have their cake and eat it – to be against something but want to leave enough wriggle-room to change their minds, if the need arises.

When the usually civilised co-operation between the government and NPHET came unstuck recently over whether the country should enter Levels 3 or 5, the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, appeared on the Claire Byrne show to comment. It was a quite extraordinary performance by Varadkar – clear, logical, analytical, comprehensive, persuasive – placing the (‘health’) argument by NPHET in the context of the (‘wealth’) concerns of the government and teasing out in digestible pieces the implications of life in Level 5.

There was no ‘lack of clarity or incoherence’ in his stunning performance – a tour de force in my estimation – and the media were reduced to lining up a series of minor political figures to chastise Varadkar on being unfair to Dr Holahan.

Varadkar marked out the field in terms of responsibility and decision-making, the need for appropriate communication between the different parties and the importance of comprehensive research in terms of teasing out what decisions would mean in practice. Anyone looking for ‘clarity’ and ‘coherence’ got it in buckets, including from Taoiseach Micheál Martin as well.

The truly awful spectre of President Trump, like a bold child having tantrums, talking gibberish and embarrassing every sane American on the planet should have us on our knees thanking God for the adult, responsible and balanced leadership of Martin, Varadkar and Ryan.

In the full force of a pandemic with the ground shifting under our feet, we need responsible leaders – in terms of public health – who will name difficult truths, who will set aside the vested interests they usually uphold and who will challenge their own people.

It would have been a responsible, powerful and prophetic decision if the Catholic church (and other churches) were to announce a complete close-down for the duration of this present Level 3 phase of all churches and all religious activity (with the exception of funerals). By that I mean all forms of worship, First Communions, Confirmations, Baptisms, Weddings, communal gatherings for prayer or other associated activities and to encourage those who would miss important religious occasions and practices to make that sacrifice in the interest of public health.

What a prophetic, pro-life stance that would be – as there is no doubt that it would save lives– if we had the courage to take it because: most of those who gather for religious services are elderly with a high percentage having an underlying health issue; confining Baptisms, First Communions, etc. to a handful in the church is effectively facilitating a greater number to gather in the home-festivities that follow; priests abusing the protocols for distributing Communion by placing it on the tongue would no longer be such an obvious risk of facilitating the spread of the virus; and it would set a good example for other organisations like the GAA to take similar decisions.

It’s not possible to police the entire nation. Not everyone in every possible situation is going to do the right thing. So some priests will bend the rules. Winning the county championship may mean that members of the successful team drinking out of the cup.

And some, with vested interests, will simply not care. An editor of a Catholic newspaper, on hearing that we were set to enter Level 3, tweeted that from the point of view of churches, the measure is ‘draconian’ and then added that there is a real issue involved here around ‘religious freedom’. Or possibly the real issue is about selling his paper.








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  1. Patrick J O'Brien says:

    Thanks Brendan for a clear picture of the present situation. I appreciated Leo Varadkar’s interview but I seemed to be alone in the community. We have to leave it to the leadership of the country to point the way forward. As a church we need to rethink our services while being available for our people.

    I suggest that we flatten the curve in our approach to Christmas and keep it low key and tip toe to the darkened crib, and quench the bright lights.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Excellent article, Brendan.

  3. Adrian Egan, C.Ss.R. says:

    For all those missing Mass, there’s a lot to be said for the traditional, religious adage of ‘offer it up’!

  4. Sean O’Conaill says:

    What Thomas Reese SJ had to say recently on the ‘chaos’ caused by the CDF in its ruling on invalid wordage in the baptismal rite surely has important application here as well, to correct those who want to complain that compliance with covid-19 regulation is depriving Catholics of access to divine grace:

    “The church, following St. Thomas Aquinas, maintains that God has bound Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by the sacraments (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257 and St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, q. 64 a. 7 and III q. 68 a. 2). This means that while we can have certainty that God always works through the sacraments when they are properly conferred by the minister, God is not bound by the sacraments in that He can and does extend His grace in a sovereign way.”


    Speaking for my own family, globally dispersed, we two grandparents have never felt closer to or more strongly supported by God, although it is now more than six months since we have been inside a church. And that principle of the sovereignty of God in relation to grace will surely apply also to those Catholic believers whose absence from church in Ireland began long before Covid-19, for reasons well known to us all.

    Would it not be opportune now for our bishops to say so? And why has this principle not been stated loudly already – to my knowledge anyway?

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