LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholics in the Republic of Ireland are experiencing “obvious disappointment” after the government announced public worship won’t be allowed beginning Wednesday.
The country has been seeing a surge of positive tests for COVID-19, with 517 recorded on Oct. 5. Professor Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team said this weekend the disease has been growing at a rate of 4 percent per day since June, and the country’s 14-day incidence rate is now 35 cases per 100,000 people.
On Monday, it was announced that Ireland would enter “level 3” of COVID-19 prevention for three weeks – “level 5” would be a full lockdown.
The capital Dublin has been at “level 3” for two weeks, and County Donegal for a week.
“Level 3” means public worship is banned, or as the government puts it: “Religious services will move online.” Weddings and funerals are still allowed, with a limit of 25 participants, and churches may remain open for private prayer.
However, critics point out that shops can still remain open, as well as a variety of businesses serving the public, including restaurants, hairdressers and gyms.
When the Republic of Ireland originally went into lockdown in March, public worship was suspended. Church authorities worked with the government to develop safe worship guidelines, which included hand sanitizers at entrances, one-way systems of movement, social distancing, and a limit on the number of people allowed to attend each service. Public worship re-started in June.
“There is obvious disappointment after all of the work that has gone on in parishes re-opened for public worship that the authorities have again moved to ban people attending Mass,” said Michael Kelly, the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper.
“At a time when there is no evidence that going to church increases risks more than any other activity currently permitted, Catholics are dismayed. It doesn’t seem fair that one can get a haircut or a pedicure, but it is not permitted to go to Mass,” he told Crux.
Irish Senator Rónán Mullen said the government’s decision to stop public worship was “disappointing.”
“It is strange that there is this lack of nuance and sophistication in the governments recommendations or regulations because in all groups of society those who are attending Masses and services are probably the most compliant, and I have seen this with my own eyes,” he told Crux.
Mullen also claimed there was a “deliberate vagueness” about if the regulations are merely advisory or actually have the force of law.
“The government just assumes Church leaders will fall in with their strongly expressed recommendation, and that has certainly happened in the Archdiocese of Dublin,” he said.
On Sept. 19, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin issued a statement about “Level 3” restrictions being imposed in the capital, saying “no matter how they may sadden us, are appropriate at this time.”
David Quinn, the director the pro-family thinktank Iona Institute, told Crux the Church hierarchy should be more vocal about keeping churches open for public worship.
“Unfortunately, the stopping of public worship again in Ireland has been met with total passivity by religious leaders,” he said.
“Every other sector of society asks health authorities for evidence when they are asked to shut down. The Churches have not. This is a failure of leadership in my view,” Quinn added.
When contacted by Crux, a spokesman for the Irish bishops’ conference said he expected the present situation to be addressed in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
Quinn said the government is taking the Churches for granted because their leaders “have been so silent in response to the new restrictions.”
“Politicians apologize to sporting organizations, restaurants, hotels, when they are asked to close. The Churches aren’t mentioned at all,” he said.
Quinn also noted that only one outbreak has been associated with a place of worship out of several thousand clusters in other settings in Ireland since public worship was restarted in the country.
“No other country in Europe right now has stopped public worship. That includes countries with much higher infection rates,” he added.
Mullen noted that Massgoers are a “different cohort” than the large numbers of students who are “gathering and socializing and not maintaining social distance in university towns.”
The senator said most churchgoers in Ireland are older, and more attentive to safety measures.
“They have a more vested interest than most in maintaining social distancing and being careful. Many older people are not going out to churches, but those who are, they are doing so with great caution and care, and not just for their own safety, but for other people’s safety,” he said.
“For people of faith, the coming together of people for religious worship is not some kind of casual service, it is central to your life – it’s not just good for them, it’s good for all of society,” Mullen said. “They would not be exposing the public to any significant health risk if the churches were to continue with the current arrangement.”
“I think many Catholics have a feeling that the public health authorities are tone deaf to the fact that for people of faith, the public worship of God is not an optional extra but central to how we live our lives,” the newspaper editor said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome