On November 5, England joined Wales in suspending public worship as part of its second national lockdown.
The lockdowns in Northern Ireland and Scotland, meanwhile, still permitted church gatherings to continue with basic health and safety measures in place. That’s more in line with the rest of Europe, where the only other countries to impose public worship bans during a second lockdown were France, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland.
This might help explain why England’s Catholic bishops seemed so strongly opposed to the new measures, with at least six of the bishops questioning the public Mass ban.
Included amongst them were the president and vice-president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, who released a joint statement questioning the government’s decision. “Whilst we understand the many difficult decisions facing the government, we have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combatting the virus,” they said. “We ask the government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship.”
On the question of evidence, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) recently argued that church services were still “associated with increased risk of acquiring acute respiratory infections”, though they cited a March 30 study to justify the claim. SAGE’s early “Consensus view on public gatherings” had similarly found that “religious services with a high level of physical contact would be higher risk” than many other social gatherings. That document also noted that gatherings “disproportionately depended by older groups” are higher risk, which is particularly relevant to church services considering that most regular church attendees in the UK are over 65.
An article published back in July in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology argued that these two factors in religious gatherings – their rituals of physical contact and their unique age demographics – meant that acts of public worship were particularly high risk. The authors noted that “traditions such as handshaking, embracing, touching” – and, presumably, Holy Communion – “could place persons at risk for acquiring SARS-CoV-2” at a religious service. They were particularly concerned about the numbers of “high-risk elderly” who were at risk of infection through such physical contact, par-ticularly as “inter-
Public worship bans are vulnerable to legal challenges on ‘discrimination’ grounds generational mixing” at religious services meant “asymptomatic … infectious youths might intermingle” with them. Noting early examples in which religious services “amplified” the pandemic, the authors concluded that the only solution was “suspending in-person services” or issuing “guidance to congregations aimed at minimising risk of transmission”.
The bishops in England and Wales did, however, issue guidance to help parishes celebrate Mass safely during the pandemic. Following the government’s own guidelines, these measures included a church capacity limit, routine cleaning, hand sanitiser provision, mandatory face coverings, a ban on congregational singing, and the avoidance of physical contact at the sign of peace and during Communion.
Many of the bishops have argued against a ban on church services precisely on the basis that these measures appeared to be working. Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds, for example, argued that “rigorous safety measures” had “made our churches some of the safest places for people to be”. When recently asked by a Commons Select Committee whether churches remain prone to infection transmission after introducing preventative measures, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor, said the data was unclear but noted that there still have been “several reports of outbreaks from churches.”
However, a recent Real Clear Science article analysed the impact of recent health and safety guidelines in America, and found that “for Catholic churches following these guidelines, no outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to church attendance”. Despite church track and trace systems picking up examples of “asymptomatic, unknowingly infected individuals attending mass and other parish functions”, the authors’ follow-up research found there was “no evidence of viral transmission” in these cases.
According to Dr Grégor Puppinck, Dir-ector General of the European Centre for Law and Justice, such evidence is potentially legally significant, since public wor-ship bans are vulnerable to legal challenges on “discrimination” grounds if governments permit other practices that are “not less dangerous than going to a church”.
Puppinck told the Catholic Herald that additional protections to public worship are offered by human rights law on freedom of religion. Religious worship can still sometimes be “restricted but, according to international law, it cannot be abolished, even in the time of an emergency,” he said.
This is demonstrated by the decisions of the German supreme court and the French administrative court to overturn blanket public worship bans in the first wave of lockdowns by citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Both treaties stipulate, in Article 18 and Article 9, respectively, that everyone has “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that the “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”.
This same article came up in England, when a high court judge ruled that restrictions on public worship in the government’s first lockdown were legally questionable and should be admitted for judicial review. On that occasion, Justice Lewis said it was “arguable that the restriction on the use of a Roman Catholic church for communal worship and the taking of the sacraments involves an interference with Article 9 (1) of the Convention.”
The French administrative court, however, recently found that the French government’s second public worship ban was compatible with the European Convention, provided a number of clarifications were made by the government, such as permission for faithful to visit nearby places of worship for an “urgent family reason” and for clergy to administer the sacraments in certain circumstances.
Dr Puppinck, a French citizen himself, believes that the ruling was deeply flawed.
He says the fact that groups can gather for public protest, provided they do not pray together, indicates that the government and the court believe “that prayer is something really secondary”. And even where public prayer is still permitted, such as at marriages and funerals, he thinks the simultaneous banning of public Masses wrongly presumes “that the state has any power in deciding what prayers can be said or not within the church”.
Dominic Ruck Keene, a human rights lawyer who has defended the legal standing of the UK Government’s lockdowns, sees it differently. Keene argues that the right to public and communal worship is less expansive than some claim. Keene himself defends public worship bans on the basis that they “do not in any way restrict the Article 9 (1) right to hold a belief, or choices made regarding personal behaviour outside the context of places of worship”, and he adds that, before now, “insufficient weight has been given to the degree to which worship can continue online”.
But is such a view too individualistic in its understanding of liturgy? Yes, argues Fr Thomas Joseph White OP, Director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum. Speaking to the Catholic Herald, Fr White argues that separating the right to hold a belief from the right to public worship ultimately attempts “to designate theologically what the Church’s internal self-understanding should be with regards to worship, and that’s an unsustainable approach with engagement to the Church.” For Fr White, freedom of religion is only meaningful if it accounts for the real content of religious belief and, in the case of Catholicism, this necessarily entails sacramental “beliefs about the Real Presence of Christ, which involves corporate collective worship”.
On the question of the current lockdowns, Fr White says that such collective worship “could be attenuated or altered in its exercise temporarily, for the sake of a public health crisis, but the state does not have the competence or the authority to suspend the exercise of the sacraments”. As he explained in a recent article for Public Discourse, this is because the state’s “irreplaceable role” in safeguarding human life must still be exercised “in view of a more ultimate flourishing of the whole human person”. This means that, even during emergencies, “a state must not deny fundamental rights to higher goods” such as the right to marry, work, or worship. In our conversation, Fr White says that states that do deny such a right by suspending sacramental worship, commit “an act of spiritual totalitarianism”.
To some this may appear hyperbolic, but the precedent set by recent church service bans has already begun to signal its totalitarian potential in the almost perpetual lockdown of churches in the Australian state of Victoria, and in the violence of police in Gabon, central Africa, as they attacked and arrested clergy attempting to resume public Masses after a seven-month ban.
As Theresa May recently argued in the House of Commons: “making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government of the future for the worst of intentions”.
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