French bishops say public Mass ban violates freedom of worship

Screenshot 2020 11 03 at 153218 French bishops’ conference president Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, pictured in May 2015. | Peter Potrowl (CC BY-SA 4.0).

As France begins its second lockdown this year, French bishops are filing an urgent appeal to continue public Masses, arguing that the most recent coronavirus restrictions "violate freedom of worship."

The French bishops' conference announced Monday night that it would file a "référé liberté" with the Council of State regarding the lockdown decree issued last week. This urgent administrative procedure is filed as a petition to a judge for the protection of fundamental rights, in this case, the right to freedom of worship.

The Council of State both advises and judges the French government on its compliance with the law.

In a statement issued Nov. 2, the bishops said that the French government coronavirus decree "violates the freedom of worship which is one of the fundamental freedoms in our country."

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops' conference, consulted with all of France's bishops gathered at the plenary assembly Nov. 2 and said that together they believe that the government ban on public Masses is "out of proportion," according to the statement.

Under France's second lockdown, which will continue until at least Dec. 1, people are not allowed to go 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) beyond their homes, except for essential work or medical reasons. All non-essential businesses, including restaurants, are closed, but schools remain open.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin specified in a video conference with religious leaders on Oct. 28 that churches will be allowed to remain open. But all religious ceremonies throughout the country, including public Masses, will be suspended from Nov. 2 until at least Dec. 1, according to La Croix.

Places of worship may remain open for weddings, with a maximum of six people, and funerals, with a maximum of 30 people.

On Nov. 2, French Catholic associations also filed a référé-liberté with the Council of State requesting the French government to modify two articles in its lockdown decree. 

They asked the government to change the decree to "allow people to go to a place of worship more than a kilometer from their home, without any condition of duration, while taking into account the particular situation of chaplains called to go to the bedside of their followers."

They also asked the government "to authorize gatherings in religious establishments by limiting their duration to 90 minutes and by prescribing all the useful measures to prevent the spread of the virus."

Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz of Avignon, Archbishop David Macaire of Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France, and Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon participated in this petition, along with the Confédération nationale des associations familiales catholiques (AFC).

"Physical participation in community prayer and assistance in worship are major elements of comfort and moral strength, particularly in this period when the confrontation with disease and death is stronger and when the Catholic community is the victim of acts of terrorism," the AFC wrote in a statement Nov 2.

In the final weeks of France's first lockdown in May, the Council of State ruled that the government had to end the ban on meetings in places of worship after similar objections were raised. The court called the ban on religious gatherings "disproportionate in nature" and "manifestly illegal."

Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort of Reims and Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris met with Prime Minister Jean Castex in Paris on the eve of France's second lockdown to discuss security measures regarding the coronavirus, as well as the attack on the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice.

Moulins-Beaufort had written to French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the week requesting that public worship be allowed to continue during France's lockdown and that Catholics would be allowed to visit cemeteries for All Souls' Day.

The bishop also requested that the French government allow Catholic chaplaincies in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons to continue to operate during the lockdown.

More in Europe

Other French bishops spoke out on social media. Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne wrote on Twitter Oct. 28: "It seems to me that freedom of worship is at stake, especially since schools remain open."

Europe is currently experiencing a second wave of coronavirus cases, which has led Ireland to impose a lockdown, Italy and Spain to implement curfews, Germany to close all bars and restaurants for one month, and England to announce a four-week lockdown that will start Nov. 5.

French health authorities reported 52,518 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours on Nov. 2 with 25,143 people currently hospitalized with the coronavirus. The U.K. reported 18,950 new coronavirus cases on the same date.

Bishops in England have urged the government to permit Catholics to attend public Masses during this year's second lockdown. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool said that the government's decision to halt collective worship would cause "deep anguish."

"Whilst we understand the many difficult decisions facing the government, we have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combating the virus. We ask the government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship," wrote the president and vice-president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

Irish bishops met with the Taoiseach last week to petition the government to lift the current coronavirus restrictions on public worship "as soon as possible."

"We have been doing everything possible to keep our church buildings safe, and there is no evidence that the church buildings and church worship have actually been a source of contagion or spreading the infection, so I have to say that I was disappointed and I said that to the Taoiseach," Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh said after the meeting.

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