On March 15, Pope Francis made one of his usual big gestures: while the city of Rome is locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pope went to the St. Mary the Major Basilica and then to the church of St. Marcello al Corso. In St. Marcello, there is a cross that saved Rome from the 1522 plague. In front of that cross, the Pope prayed that the Lord extend his hand and bring and end to the pandemic.
The gestures came at the end of a particularly convulsed week. When the Italian government decreed its measures to counter the pandemic, the Church in Italy followed the rules, and immediately canceled public masses and any other possibility of having a crowd.
On March 12, an Italian Bishops’ Conference release explained that the churches, until then left open for private prayer, could be shut down. The reason – the bishops said – is “not because the State imposes that to us, but because of a sense of belonging to the human family, exposed to a virus whose nature and propagation are unknown.”
On the evening of March 12, Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, the Pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome, decided to shutdown all the churches of his diocese.
On March 13, Pope Francis said during his morning Mass in Domus Sanctae Martha that “drastic measures are not always good.” These words seemed to be critical of the decision of his vicar.
Shortly after, Cardinal de Donatis issued a new decree, allowing the parish Churches to be open for individual prayer. In the order, Cardinal de Donatis clearly stated that he made his decision the day before in agreement with the Holy Father.
What happened between March 12 and the 13th? Many things. Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, Papal Almoner, disobeyed Cardinal de Donatis’ decree and opened the church of which he is rector, to give courage to the people. Mons. Ioannis Lahzi Gaid, secretary of the Pope, had written and delivered a personal reflection about watching out for the epidemic of fear, and this reflection got published. Both of them are very close to the Pope. It is easy to imagine a vivid discussion about the measures and the events.
Once again, it is striking that there is not a standard line of action. It is also striking that the decision whether to shut down the churches takes place without considering a crucial issue: the Holy See sovereignty.
What happened in St. Peter last week is revealing. St. Peter’s Square enjoys a sort of dual sovereignty. In essence, it is indisputably Vatican territory but most of it falls under the Italian police jurisdiction when the Pope is not in the square. When the Pope is in the square, St. Peter’s Square is all under the jurisdiction of the Vatican police.
The Italian police blocked access to the square to avoid crowds, as per the Italian Council of Ministers’ decree. However, blocking the entrance to the square means preventing people from accessing St. Peter’s Square.
Only after, a Holy See Press Office release stressed that the Holy See was operating “in full accord with the Italian authorities.” If there was a full accord, this accord has a high price.
The issue is not about how confused the response is the coronavirus emergency. The problem is that, while in an emergency, the Church is not thinking about defending what she has to defend: freedom of worship.
The Italian case is a good example. The lockdown in Italy is very strict. One cannot move without compelling reasons. However, there is no mention of worship among the compelling reasons. The right to worship is a fundamental right of the Italian constitution, though.
So, what does a faithful do if he needs to go to confession? What does a priest do if he has to go and give the anointment of the sick? If the police asks, one can say it is a compelling necessity. Since, however, the worship is not contemplated in the law, a prickly officer could even fine the priest or arrest him.
The issue is not, then, whether to shut down the churches, or whether to allow public masses or not. The Church can decide autonomously whether to do that or not. As the Italian Bishops Conference explained, if the Church chooses to follow the State’s indication, she does it because of her responsibility toward the public.
However, the Church should clarify that the freedom of worship is guaranteed. The Church should ask the State to make it clear that there is no obligation to cancel masses formally. The Church should have vehemently objected to the government bill that did not contemplate worship issues. This bill creates a precedent. If one day, the Italian State will want to deny the freedom of worship, it will be easy to remember the precedent on this particular situation.
Local Churches are taking similar measures everywhere in the world. The Holy See should always clarify that these are decisions that do not contradict the right to freedom of worship. The Holy See should act to ask the States to guarantee freedom of worship formally.
This is a highly crucial diplomatic issue, that is overshadowed. The reason is that the Church is not considered from an institutional perspective. The Church has not a standard line because there is not a clear institutional line.
Shockingly, the various associations of Catholic jurists have been silent on the matter. It seems that it is not just the Holy See’s sovereignty at stake, but freedom of worship tout court.
It might seem a marginal issue since we are enduring a health emergency. However, in this world, every occasion can be used as a pretext to attack religious institutions. There are many precedents. The latest: on March 2, a UN report on religious freedom also stressed that religions should be pressed to accept doctrinal changes to accept new rights, namely LGBT rights.
Everything, in the end, is connected. Yet, the discussion was reduced to a debate between those who are pro churches being open and those who are against. Pastoral care is crucial, and it would have been okay if the Church had coordinated the way to address this situation from the pastoral point of view.
Institutional care is as fundamental as pastoral care, though. The institutions protect priests. If the institution does not defend its rights, the institution is mutilated. And so the coronavirus can become an occasion to limit the freedom of worship. Notwithstanding the big gestures of Pope Francis. And notwithstanding the priests, who are always in the frontline to help and bring the sacraments to those most in need.