In recent weeks, most Catholic churches around the world have been closed and Masses have ceased in compliance with governmental responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But now that landscape is starting to shift, as many countries look to relax their lockdowns.
In Europe, this has resulted in growing church-state tensions after various governments announced measures to ease social distancing without initially offering to lift bans on public church services.
On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte announced plans to lift lockdown restrictions for shops, libraries and museums, whilst leaving church restrictions in place. Later that evening, the Italian Episcopal Conference issued a sternly worded statement warning against “freedom of religion being compromised”, with the bishops complaining that the plan “arbitrarily excludes the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people”. The government responded by saying that they were looking for ways of lifting the ban on Masses with “conditions of maximum security”, whilst Pope Francis looked to calm the waters on Tuesday morning with a call for the faithful’s “prudence and obedience” during “Phase 2” of the coronavirus lockdown.
In Germany, meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s April 15 announcement about shops and schools reopening left church bans untouched, which was promptly challenged by German bishops. Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne argued that it was already “high time” to restart public Masses. After a meeting between church leaders and government officials on April 17, it was eventually agreed that church services could soon resume, provided that appropriate health and safety measures were in place. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz soon followed suit, announcing plans a few days later for public Masses to begin again on May 15, whilst Spain later announced that a partial reopening of churches would begin on May 11.
In the UK, churches have remained completely closed since March, after a representative of the bishops pointed outa discrepancy between the government’s social distancing measures and its policy of allowing churches to “open for solitary prayer”. The UK government is yet to announce plans for the end of the lockdown, which leaves all church restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, but Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that he had been in consultations with health officials about how to safely reopen churches, insisting that “when it’s possible, we’re ready”.
In the US, a number of states have begun to relax social distancing measures, including restrictions on churches. Montana saw Masses restart on Sunday April 26, in line with state advice to resume public church services, with participating parishes required to meet the bishops’ detailed health and safety guidelines. In Georgia, however, Governor Brian Kemp’s April 20 announcement that churches could resume public services, if “done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols”, was promptly rebutted by the local Catholic bishops who issued a statement saying that they were “not authorizing the return to congregating at churches” due to public health concerns. Elsewhere, public ministry has resumed in the dioceses of Las Cruces, New Mexico and Lubbock, Texas, whilst the state administrations of Oklahoma and Idaho announced plans to allow church services to begin again in early May.
Churches have largely remained closed in South America, where bishops from across the continent consecrated their countries last month to Our Lady of Guadalupe in petition for protection from coronavirus. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been a notable dissenter from the lockdown consensus, overruling bans on religious assembly made by local government and attending anti-lockdown protests, but the Catholic bishops have been supportive of stringent public health measures. Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo issued a statement on behalf of the Brazilian bishops’ conference pleading with parishioners to remain in lockdown during the pandemic: “Don’t leave your home! That is a great medicine to defeat this terrible coronavirus pandemic.”
In Africa, most countries have closed churches during the pandemic, but there remain exceptions to the continent-wide lockdown. Tanzania’s President, John Magufuli, has been particularly resistant to extensive lockdown measures and has insisted that church services continue amidst the “satanic” pandemic. Catholic churches there have remained open and Masses are still well attended, though the country’s bishops have issued various health and safety precautions to combat the virus. The Church and government in neighbouring Burundi have adopted a similar approach, after General Evariste Ndayishimiye, the presidential nominee for the ruling party, insisted that the country did not need to close churches since it was under “God’s protection”. In both countries, where the bishops have emphasised their obedience to state public health policies, many have pointed to forthcoming elections as the most significant factor in the political leadership’s resistance to the stricter social distancing measures seen in nearby Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.
Meanwhile, churches remain closed in the city of Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus pandemic originated. This is despite the ending of the lockdown a month ago in Hubei province, after free movement returned to Wuhan on March 28 and shops reopened on March 30. With government officials elsewhere reportedly using the pandemic as cover to remove crosses from church buildings, Catholics have started to voice concern that the restrictions on churches are solely designed to restrict religious freedom. Speaking to UCA News, Father Zhang, a Catholic priest from Hubei, said: “I’m not sure if they are worried about the coronavirus or trying to suppress the Church”.
Elsewhere, Masses have resumed in a number of Vietnamese dioceses after the government there lifted some social distancing measures. Lockdowns continue to be imposed in nearby Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, though President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines announced plans on Monday to “partially open” areas of the economy restricted by the country’s current “extended community quarantines”. Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila has since requested that President Duterte also consider church openings, because “religious services are essential services”. In Australia, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of New South Wales similarly pleaded for the government to consider a prompt “soft opening” of churches for confession and private prayer, after churches in Australia and nearby New Zealand remain closed despite the authorities in both countries having begun to ease national lockdowns.