ROME – Though so far it hasn’t become a cause célèbre, police in Italy, the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic with more than 10,000 deaths, quietly have been slapping both priests and worshippers gathering in churches with citations for violating the terms of a nationwide lockdown.

In theory the citations could lead to fines or even jail terms, despite constitutional protections in Italy guaranteeing freedom of religion. These crackdowns have sparked debate among Catholics and legal experts.

Under the terms of Italy’s quarantine, only four reasons are recognized as legitimate for moving about outside one’s home: Visiting a grocery store or pharmacy; going to work, if the job is regarded as “essential”; visiting a doctor or hospital for a health emergency; and getting home from any of the above.

Notably, going to church to pray isn’t on the list. Father Carmine Petrilli of San Giuseppe Artigiano parish in Rocca Priora, roughly a 45-minute drive southeast of Rome, is one of those unhappy with the status quo.

While holding a Eucharistic adoration service recently with around 10-20 people, all spaced out in different pews inside the church to observe social distancing protocols, police nevertheless disbanded the small group and issued formal citations to everyone present, meaning they could be subject to criminal procedures and fines of over 200 euros, roughly amounting to $225.

Speaking to Crux, Petrilli noted that churches are allowed to be open, “but they say people can’t go because it’s not a ‘primary need’. This is what they say. But the constitution guarantees freedom of worship in every situation.”

Petrilli voiced skepticism that anything will come from the citations, insisting that “a good lawyer would win the case, because, in my view, this is an unconstitutional norm…and who would deny it? We are in a democracy.”

In addition to Petrilli’s parish, several others around Rome and Naples were also paid a visit by the police last week.

On March 20 in Nocera Inferiore, just south of Naples, a small number of worshippers had gathered to pray in the rectory of a church in the city’s San Giovanni neighborhood with the pastor and vice pastor. Police were called by area residents, and officers came and cited the eight individuals present, including the pastor and vice pastor, all of whom could face criminal charges and a fine.

Last weekend police were summoned in Naples through the “Youpol” app to bust a small prayer gathering at an evangelical church, where all nine people present, all Nigerians with legal documents, were cited.

In San Gennaro Vesuviano, a small commune within Naples, police last weekend also interrupted a private baptism in the city, handing formal citations to the priest, the photographer and the child’s parents and godfather.

In Petrilli’s view, these incidents are not so much an overt attack on freedom to worship but rather an unconstitutional means of enforcing a decree issued “in a hurry” to respond to an emergency.

“It’s a problematic situation, we aren’t used to it,” he said, voicing his belief that state authorities are trying to do their best to get on top of the crisis, but at the same time are flirting with an unconstitutional approach.

Other groups and individuals have voiced similar concerns, including the Catholic Alliance, a conservative lay organization dedicated to promoting the Church’s social doctrine. In a March 26 statement, the group said they believed that under current restrictions barring worshipers from going to church to pray is putting the freedom of worship in Italy at risk.

“It has already happened that law enforcement officers have denounced those who help a priest do direct streaming of the celebration of the Holy Mass, or that they do not consider it a valid justification for leaving home, and therefore denounce, going to the nearest church, [even while] keeping distance and with caution.”

Professor Stefano Montesano, a research fellow and contract professor of ecclesiastical and canon law with the Department of Law, Economics and Sociology at the Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, in southern Italy, also voiced reservations.

Speaking to Crux, Montesano, who has authored several articles on the subject, said Italy is currently “living a situation that is nothing short of confusing regarding the exercise of freedom of worship.”

In the shower of legal decrees that have been issued in the race to stop the spread of the coronavirus, several different types of regulations have overlapped, he said, noting that law decrees, government decrees, ministerial decrees, regional ordinances and municipal ordinances have all been issued amid the outbreak.

Regional and municipal ordinances have enforced tighter restrictions on personal freedoms, including worship, he said, noting that while norms “abstractly” allow places of worship to be open, the implementation is complicated because of restrictions “which limit the possibility of moving, only for essential needs such as food, medicine or other specific situations beyond work and health reasons.”

While citizens are technically allowed to enter places of worship provided they keep at least three feet apart, Montesano said the “self-certification model,” meaning people fill out a form justifying why they are leaving the house, is “doubtful”, since in most cases prayer does not qualify as an essential or primary need.

Montesano granted that citations of people gathering at parishes to pray, even in small groups, were issued “because the risk of creating gatherings is very high and can be a cause of contagion.”

The problem, he said, “is the fact that only the central state, the government (in times of urgency) or parliament should intervene on the modalities and/or limits of the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” rather than regions or municipalities, as this creates “unequal treatment in the recognition of rights.”

Petrilli disputed the argument that prayer is not an urgent or primary necessity, insisting that “for some a primary (need) could be going to the tobacco shops, for another it can be to go to church to pray.”

Responding to the argument that people can pray at home, Petrilli said this won’t work, “because Christians are not mystics. They need help, support, a community that encourages them…they need encouragement, a word that allows them to fight, to believe, to hope. This is important.”

“Like the physically sick, and the psychologically sick who need a psychologist, this is also a primary need,” he said, insisting that the greatest risks for those who leave home are not found inside a church, which has ample space where people can spread out, but in supermarkets, tobacco shops and even hospitals.

Even when Pope Francis celebrates his daily livestreamed Masses, there are a handful of priests, laity and religious sisters in the chapel with him, all spread out, he said.

Petrilli said he won’t offer moments of organized prayer such as Eucharistic adoration anymore, but insisted he’s also not going to turn anyone away.

“If someone passes who asks permission to come in and pray, what do I say?” he asked rhetorically.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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