Pope Francis at Mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, 26 August 26 2018. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Social issues aren’t enough: In ‘post-Catholic’ societies, writes Charles Collins, governments want the Church to know her place.
When is an attack on religious liberty not an attack on religious liberty? According to many governments, the answer is: when religion is treated just like everything else.
Sometimes, however, governments treat religion a little more the same as everything else. At least, treating religion the same as everything else is done with a certain particular emphasis, as events in Ireland and Canada have shown.
Last Sunday, video emerged of Garda officers stopping a Mass in in Athlone, Ireland, telling them they were in violation of Covid-19 regulations.
In defense of the police, public liturgies have been banned in Ireland for months. Before April 16, however, this had been a government regulation — one with which the Irish bishops have cooperated. On that date, the Republic of Ireland made public liturgies a criminal offense.
Government officials say they weren’t targeting religious observances, since the legislation banned all such gatherings. That didn’t stop Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh from calling the move “provocative” and “draconian,” and warned it was a “potential infringement of religious freedom.”
Archbishop Martin’s archdiocese straddles the border with Northern Ireland, and Mass is allowed to take place in his cathedral in Armagh, which is in the North.
During the post-Christmas Covid wave, Northern Ireland didn’t formally stop public liturgies, although the leaders of the major denominations “voluntarily” suspended them to prevent transmissions.
As vaccinations increased — over half of Northern Ireland’s adults have received at least one dose — Northern Ireland returned to the public celebration of the sacraments. That happened over a month ago.
The Republic of Ireland hasn’t had such a successful vaccine rollout, but even in the government’s plan to scale back their lockdown slowly, churches will be among the last allowed to open their doors to the people. This, despite Church leaders’ successful efforts in the first part of 2020 to establish the best protocols of any public-facing interest for the prevention of Covid-19 transmission.
In any case, April 2021 is an odd time to decide to establish criminal penalties for “offenses” that for the most part weren’t taking place; and when they were — as in Athlone — were being done while observing social distancing and other safety protocols. It wasn’t an underground rave.
In fact, Ireland – once the most Catholic nation in Europe – is the only place in Europe you can’t attend Mass.
Meanwhile in Quebec, the police seized all of the sacramental wine at the only two suppliers in the Canadian province.
Anyone who has lived in Canada will tell you the country’s alcohol laws are byzantine and cumbersome, and it is difficult to ship alcohol between provinces. No one in Quebec makes sacramental wine — which has to meet the Church’s standards to ensure it is valid matter for the Eucharist — so it has to be imported. However, the liquor board has not granted a license for any sacramental wine to come into the province.
Church suppliers have been importing Californian sacramental wine through other Canadian provinces, and generally the police have turned a blind eye (the suppliers say they are not doing anything illegal, claiming the law provides an exemption for alcohol used in religious ceremonies), but have now cracked down.
Even during Prohibition — enacted in the U.S. and most of Canada in the early part of the 20th century — exemptions were made for sacramental wine. Without wine, there is no Mass.
(In Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the government outlawed wine — but not other alcoholic beverages — because it was the surest way to stamp out celebration of Mass.)
Quebec’s alcohol board says it is examining the issue, and exploring whether or not it has wines that would meet the Church’s criteria.
The events in Ireland and Quebec are easily explained away as the Church just getting caught up in laws that are aimed at the general population.
But another factor is at work: Ireland and Quebec are both flexing their muscles as post-Catholic societies. The cultures of both places were not only forged by Catholicism, but also defined by their faith, since both were ruled for centuries by the Protestant British establishment.
As Mass attendance plummeted, with the added sting of the clerical abuse and coverup scandals, the ruling establishment has gone out of its way to show the Catholic Church no longer wields the power it once possessed.
This is most apparent in legislation legalizing gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia (currently being debated in Ireland), but is also seen in petty things like kicking old ladies out of a rural church for “health and safety” and making the Church jump through hoops to get wine for Mass.