It would be an abdication of duty for bishops to defer to a Government that does not understand the true importance of the Church’s sacraments

It would be an abdication of duty for bishops to defer to a Government that does not understand the true importance of the Church’s sacraments A priest blesses a woman during Mass at a Church in London. Ireland is one of only two countries in Europe where public worship has been banned. Photo: Marcin Mazur
The View

Schools move back into operation this week, with over 300,000 four to seven-year-olds returning to the classroom. This is an age-group notorious for its inability to sit still, take instructions consistently, and with a developmental need for touch. Yet we adults — with a greater ability to take instructions, follow rules, and observe social distance — are still prevented from practising our religion and receiving the sacraments.

Public religious

The limitations on the fundamental right of public religious practice have been in place now for a year, with no end in sight.

Is it only anti-lockdown extremists and those who have no concern for the common good who want a return to the sacraments? One might be forgiven for thinking so if one were to rely on mainstream media outlets for information. Last week however, others came forward.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the delegation of legislative power to the Minister for Health has resulted in a black hole for the consideration of human rights and equality concerns”

The first was someone who has seen the worst of the virus, but who acknowledges how essential the Mass is. Deacon Don Devaney, organiser of the immensely popular and successful annual Divine Mercy Conference, had himself been seriously ill with Covid-19, to the point of being admitted to intensive care and ventilated for weeks. Yet he recognises the efforts made by parish teams across the country to keep churches safe for the Faithful, and has made a heartfelt call for a return to Mass in this newspaper.

The second expression of concern came from an unexpected source. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) published a report entitled Ireland’s Emergency Powers During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Echoing the feelings of religious people all around the country, the IHREC report states rather starkly: “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the delegation of legislative power to the Minister for Health has resulted in a black hole for the consideration of human rights and equality concerns.”

Deliberations

The report is critical of the interaction between NPHET and the Government in approving policy direction and legislation. These deliberations should allow for consideration of human rights and equality issues, but they are being taken by people who have neither the expertise nor the insight into the needs of disadvantaged groups, and who lack any democratic accountability or public scrutiny. The report states that this is a “significant defect” in Ireland’s Covid-19 response and that it breaches international norms relating to the rule of law.

It allows governmental control of citizens without having to go through the normal channels of law-making”

The IHREC makes the point that laws should be published in advance, be clear and be non-contradictory. It highlights three areas where the Government has offended against these principles. First, regulations have frequently not been published before coming into force. Second, Government statements have been misleading as to what the law requires. Third, official Government statements have tended to blur the lines between what is law and what is mere advice.

With regard to misleading descriptions, when the Government says something is law — or allows the media to present something as law — when in fact it is not, there is an unwarranted interference with the principle of the rule of law. It allows governmental control of citizens without having to go through the normal channels of law-making. As the report says, “Away from the challenges by the politically powerful or well resourced, the Government is quite prepared to allow ordinary people believe they are subject to much greater restrictions than is in fact the case.” The report says that a charitable interpretation of the Government’s response is that it is “wilfully indifferent” as to whether the public or gardaí understand the law. The less charitable interpretation is that “the Government has deliberately encouraged citizens to misunderstand the extent of their legal obligations in order to allow the Government to achieve policy goals that might not achieve political support in the Oireachtas or that could be vulnerable to legal challenge.”

Restrictions

To give one example, there is constant talk from Government, Garda and media sources about the ‘5km travel restrictions’. In law, however, the restriction to five kilometres only applies to exercise and recreation, not to any other activity. People are free — by law — to travel outside the 5km zone for any reasonable excuse other than exercise, yet many believe — and have been allowed to believe — it is unlawful to travel more than 5km from home for any reason.

Another example of a misleading description of the law — where Government again allowed the line to be blurred between what is law and what is advice — dates back to September and October 2020, under level three restrictions. While people milled around shopping centres in their thousands, and gyms and swimming pools were open for training, Catholics were forbidden from attending Mass in cavernous churches, even in groups of 50.

However, the law — at that point — did not outlaw the Mass, or priests from saying Mass, or people attending Mass. (Regulations were later brought in that did criminalise people who attended Mass or other sacraments.) Yet Government relied on the trite statement, expressed in the imperative, “religious services move online”, to severely limit our religious freedoms.

On the one hand, the Department of Health in its official statements insisted (correctly) that there was no legal prohibition on holding religious services”

As a matter of law, the Government’s command to close church doors to public services was advisory only. The bishops would have been totally within their rights to say to the Government: we hear what you say, but we are confident that the environment we can provide to the Faithful is as safe as possible (and safer than most other environments), and we are going to resume Masses, albeit at a lower capacity. Instead, while we were able to shop and socialise, we could not receive the sacraments, and most believed it was unlawful to do so.

Highlights

The IHREC highlights the duplicitous approach of the State well. When subsequent regulations were introduced making it a criminal offence to leave one’s home without a “reasonable excuse”, and attending Mass was not listed as such an excuse, “On the one hand, the Department of Health in its official statements insisted (correctly) that there was no legal prohibition on holding religious services. On the other hand, the Gardaí threatened clerics with prosecution for holding religious services.”

The Taoiseach has said that the current lockdown is tentatively due to end on April 5, the day after Easter Sunday, although the regulations actually run out on March 5. It is likely that the Government will revert to the pattern of last year, and move to stepped-down restrictions. My bet is that they will say “religious services continue online”, but without the force of law. Their statement, in that case, would be advisory only, and so would not include the threat of penalty. Ordinary Catholics are, however, powerless in the face of such a situation. Only the bishops have the power to make the sacraments available to the people. So the question is: how will our bishops respond? If it is not unlawful for Masses to be held, the decision to hold them belongs in Church law to the bishops. This is their privilege but also their responsibility. It would be an abdication of duty simply to defer to the advice of a Government that cannot and does not understand or accept the true importance of the sacraments, regarding them — like gyms and concerts — as something that a subset of the population find beneficial to their “mental health”.

Until now, the bishops have pursued a diplomatic approach with Government, requesting meetings and engaging in talks. But it is clear to every Catholic on the ground that we have no friends in Government, and not a few members are virulently anti-Catholic. Will the bishops stand up to the Taoiseach? Will they be a voice for those with no power or resources to challenge Government, but a need for the Eucharist? Will they render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s? Or will we endure another Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi without the sacraments?