ROME – If Europe’s first wave of coronavirus lockdowns in the spring brought basic uniformity for the Catholic Church, in that public Masses were suspended more or less across the Old Continent, the second wave cresting now is bringing diversity instead, with public worship once again on hold in some places but still allowed in others.
As England and France enter a second lockdown, public worship has again been ordered suspended in both nations, although in France the Catholic Church was granted special permission to hold All Souls’ Day services Monday by President Emmanuel Macron in the wake of a deadly knife attack in Nice at the local cathedral last Thursday that left three people dead.
In both countries weddings and funerals will still be permitted, though with strict limits on attendance.
England’s Catholic bishops have protested the new suspension of public worship, with Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster saying Sunday that he has “not yet seen any evidence” to justify the move.
Likewise in Belgium, funerals may take place with a maximum attendance of 15 and weddings are possible in the presence of the spouses, witnesses and minister, but routine church services are not allowed. Iceland is allowing just twenty people to attend Sunday Mass, leading Bishop David Tencer to lift the obligation for Catholics attend.
In Germany, by way of contrast, new anti-Covid measures announced by Chancellor Angela Merkel do not include a ban on public worship. Instead, the German government simply has asked churches to continue applying the safety and hygiene measures they implemented at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We have not tightened the church services, but [we] point out that the hygiene rules must be adhered to,” Merkel said last Wednesday.
In Spain, where anti-Covid measures so far are being decided region-by-region, several regions have allowed worship services to continue but limited attendance to 30 percent of the usual capacity. Holland has allowed public worship to continue, but since Oct. 5 attendance has been capped at 30 people and singing, believed to release more of the airborne particles that transmit the virus, is banned.
In Ireland, meanwhile, public worship has been suspended since Oct. 7 as part of what the Irish government calls “Level 3” restrictive measures. Yet in Northern Ireland, worship services are permitted as part of its four week “circuit breaker” lockdown.
In Poland, public celebration of the Mass is still permitted, although the government did order cemeteries closed on All Souls’ Day for fear of the large crowds that might assemble. Blowback to that measure was sufficiently strong that the country’s Agriculture Ministry announced that it would buy out flowers from traders who stocked up in anticipation of the holiday.
While churches remain open, Poland has ordered gyms to shut down during its new lockdown, leading one gym owner in Krakow to attempt to rebrand his facility as the “Church of the Healthy Body” in an attempt to skirt the closure.
In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has not hinted at a new suspension of public worship, and the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference recently carried an article asserting that no new suspension will occur as a result of an agreement between the conference and the government.
“Churches are safe places,” the piece in Avvenire said, “and these months have demonstrated that the celebrations which take place in them are also safe.”
Observers of the European scene point to two factors to explain the more diversified approach amid the new coronavirus wave.
The first has to do with fear of litigation. Both in France and Germany, courts ruled during the spring that a total ban on public worship unduly restricted religious freedom.
On April 29th, Germany’s High Court held that exceptions to the worship ban could be granted when it is possible to enforce effectively protective measures, and that the size and structure of the religious setting as well as the current risk level in the local region all have to be taken into account before a ban could be justified.
That appeal was brought by a Muslim association in Germany, and the result was the return of public worship in the country at the end of April.
In mid-May, France’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, issued a similar ruling in response to a petition brought by a constellation of conservative political parties and lay Catholic groups.
“The general and absolute prohibition is disproportionate to the purpose of preserving public health and therefore it constitutes, with regard to the essential nature of this component of freedom of worship, a serious and manifest illegal violation to the latter,” the court held.
Observers say many European governments may have drawn the conclusion that courts are reluctant to support sweeping bans on religious practice and are attempting to be more nuanced this time around.
In addition, observers say, churches across Europe generally have been fairly scrupulous in following anti-infection protocols, such as the use of hand sanitizer, requiring worshippers to wear masks, avoiding physical contact and even restricting the means of receiving communion to the hand.
As a result, there’s relatively little evidence to suggest that attending a church service is more dangerous in terms of the infection risk than visiting a supermarket or a pharmacy. In Holland, for instance, data from the bishops’ conference suggests that attending Mass has been a source of new coronavirus infections only in 0.3 percent of cases.
In general, Pope Francis has backed a policy of compliance with anti-Covid restrictions. Last May, when some Italian bishops complained that the initial plans for reopening the country didn’t include lifting the suspension of public celebration of the Mass, Francis used his livestreamed morning Mass to call pointedly for “obedience” to government-imposed restrictions.