A few weeks back, the Italian bishops floated the idea that they might just decide to close all of Italy’s churches during the coronavirus lockdown. “Not because the state imposes it on us,” Italy’s bishops wrote on March 12, “but out of a sense of belonging to the human family.” The Italian bishops did not actually take the step, but they were at pains to show themselves prepared to do something on their own, which they would not be seen doing on the government’s orders.
There was another, further exchange between Italy’s interior ministry and the Italian bishops’ conference in the bottom half of March, which raised some eyebrows. The bishops were talking with the interior ministry, trying to secure the understanding they needed in order to be able to celebrate the Holy Week liturgies.
A note from the interior ministry’s department of civil liberties and immigration to ecclesiastical authorities, issued on March 28, clarified that citizens with ministerial roles in the Holy Week liturgies (organists, cantors, inter alia) could be about town and in church to do their jobs. The note explicitly said that clerics and other ministers would be able to “self-certify” to anyone checking that they were about town for necessary work.
The note also recognised that church ministry wasn’t “work” in the usual sense, but explained that liturgical ministry, at least, fitted the bill for the purposes of the emergency directives.
The note also clarifies that the faithful are generally welcome to visit church for private prayer, but only when they are out on other legitimate business. Citizens may pop in to light a candle on their way to or from work or the shops, but they can’t leave the house just for a moment of quiet prayer. They also have to stop at a church that is on their way. In most of Italy, that isn’t really much of a burden.
Italy’s interior ministry was quite frank. “The measures to contain the epidemiological emergency from Covid-19 involve the limitation of various constitutional rights,” the ministry’s website said, “including the exercise of worship activities,” but they did not go so far as to close churches altogether, nor did they prohibit religious celebrations as such.
The Italian bishops asked for the clarification and let themselves be guided by the interior ministry. They’ve put their money where their mouth is during the crisis, too, giving millions of Euros in support to hospitals and starting a special collection, in addition to their direct charitable outreach efforts.
Church and state have cooperated in the Italian theatre right from the start of this crisis, with the government praising Church leaders’ responsibility and civic sense, and the Church praising – by every reasonable account quite rightly – the national leadership.
The English and Welsh bishops have taken a similar tack, it appears. If anything, they’ve been even more cooperative – and eager to be seen cooperating. Late last month, they issued a statement explaining that they had actually done what the Italian bishops only wondered aloud about doing.
A March 24 statement from the Archdiocese of Westminster reported that the bishops of England and Wales had gone to the government to raise concerns about keeping churches open, and argued that churches really ought to be shut.
The bishops considered that none of the reasons for leaving home – necessary shopping, exercise, medical need, or travel to and from work – quite included stopping at church. “In addition,” the statement from the bishops explained, “keeping churches open could undermine the desire of the government for people to remain at home, the very fact of them being open may draw people out of their homes, many of which [sic] would be the most vulnerable to infection.”
The CBCEW statement even said authorities “had not thought through the issues of infection and security of churches,” and that the bishops were glad when authorities came to the view that churches should be closed. “Keeping churches open sends an utterly inconsistent message,” the CBCEW said, “and therefore they must be closed for the benefit of others and stopping infection.”
Precedents are funny things, though. Anybody with any sort of authority might be setting one at any time, with virtually any action. The nature of precedents is such that one rarely is able even dimly to envision how one’s present decisions might inform one’s own actions later on.
One of the best ways to obviate the need for protest that must be at best fruitless, is active cooperation. One of the reasons we have courts is so we can try things out when emergencies have passed, and measures that were blessed in crisis can be recognised as such and treated accordingly. Authorities spiritual and temporal are aligned in purpose now, but there is sure to be a rude awakening if either tries to make too much – or too little – of these very extraordinary circumstances.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” can be very good advice, especially when discrete powers are in tension with one another, but not necessarily opposed, and momentarily united in common cause. There is another adage, though: “Eternal vigilance the price of liberty.” We may yet see the wisdom of that as well.