The Government Suspends Religious Freedom
Restrictions due to the “Chinese virus” epidemic are having severe consequences on Italian society, not only in the areas of health, economics, and politics but also as far as the practice of religion is concerned.
For more than two months, the government has imposed “the suspension of demonstrations or initiatives of any kind, events, and all forms of meetings in public or private places, even if held in closed places open to the public” (Decree No. 6 of 23-2-2020). Any form of assembly not required for health care or nutrition or socially indispensable work is therefore prohibited. That has led to the closure of all buildings and premises used for profit, culture, or leisure. Only hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, public offices, grocery stores, and tobacco stores are allowed to remain open (the state earns money on the sale of cigarettes and lottery games).
Subsequently, the government specified that “civil and religious ceremonies are suspended,” including processions, public prayers, pilgrimages, Easter blessings, and even Masses and administration of the Sacraments (decree of 8-3-2020, art. 1 par. i, art. 2 par. v). Furthermore, priests are forbidden to enter hospitals to assist the sick and dying. Activities, places, and personnel dedicated to worship and sanctification are equated with those intended for profit, culture, or leisure.
The Episcopate Submits to the Government
Even before the government asked it to do so, the Italian Bishops’ Conference (C.E.I) decreed the closure of places of worship and the suspension of liturgical services and religious ceremonies, thus manifesting “a will to do its part to contribute to the protection of public health” (statement of 8-3-2020). The ecclesiastical Hierarchy thus allowed what had never happened before — not even during the terrible “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918-1920 or in periods of violent persecution of the Church.
The divine commandment “remember to sanctify feast days” is thus implicitly replaced by the secular commandment “stay locked at home.” The “outgoing Church” ready to become the “field hospital of the world” instead withdrew to convents and sacristies. The “pastoral care of accompaniment” was suspended for health concerns. The “prophetic announcement” dissolved into feel-good and submissive rhetoric.
At first, the Pope confirmed the C.E.I. directive and, to set an example, closed the basilicas of the Eternal City to the faithful. Yet shortly afterward, contradicting himself, he invited the Italian clergy to keep the churches open in areas less affected by the epidemic. Later, some bishops tolerated a minimal resumption of worship.
A twofold event caused this partial change. First of all, the government’s abuse of power immediately drew protests from many faithful and from some jurists and magistrates, who denounced the violation of freedom of worship prescribed by the Republican Constitution and the Concordat between State and Church. Moreover, the Bishops’ Conference drew criticism for their surrender, and the phenomenon of “clandestine Masses” celebrated by many parish priests began.
Subsequently, some bishops have condemned widespread protests as irrational and irresponsible because people are making “abstract speeches about the right to go to church to pray” (Bishop Brambilla on Avvenire, 4/8/2020). Others have wickedly wondered “whether [protests] are animated by faith or rather by a religiosity that should be purified” (Bishop Libanori on Avvenire, 3/29/2020). About forty Catholic associations have come out with an “ex officio” defense of the Hierarchy by saying they are “committed to understand and accept what is and will be asked of us for the sake of public health” (Avvenire, 3/17/2020). In any case, the C.E.I. has held an ambiguous position that led many dioceses, especially in Northern Italy, to keep churches closed and worship suspended.
This ecclesiastical surrender has led the government to dare even more, for example, by repressing and issuing fines for the few attempts to celebrate Masses or funerals in churches or hold public prayers with few participants, in safe health conditions. In some countries, police have been sent to interrupt Masses, close down churches, and disperse prayer groups even when honored by the presence of local mayors. In almost all cases, the local bishops did not condemn such desecrations but the priests they victimized.
As a result, threatened by political authorities and abandoned by religious ones, the Italian clergy has almost totally submitted to this cooperation between State and Church — a sort of new, if implicit, Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Strengthened by the ecclesiastical surrender, the government took advantage to humiliate the Church even more. It had promised to reopen social activities with a gradual deconfinement to the degree that health conditions improved. Yet, at the April 26 press conference, the head of the government declared that, while allowing some commercial, cultural and recreational activities to reopen from May 4, he would exclude public worship for “sanitary security reasons” put forward by the state scientific commission. The disappointment expressed by the Bishop’s Conference only served to highlight the failure of their usual strategy of “giving in some in order not to lose all.”
The Causes of the Bishops’ Failure
Ecclesiastical subjection to state impositions seems to be caused by a proximate factor, which is fear, and by a remote factor, which is ideological.
Some bishops have admitted that they obeyed the government decrees out of fear. Fear of losing the advantages (especially economic ones) still received from the state; fear of being attacked by the mass media, accusing the Church of disrespecting the law; fear of being criticized by medical authorities who accuse the Church of opposing people’s “reproductive health.”
However, the main cause of the clerical failure lies in the mentality, widespread among the clergy, produced by the theology of “aggiornamento” to the modern world, which requires the Church to adapt her requirements to those of the secular power and abstain from opposing State trampling of church rights.
According to the Cardinal Vicar, “the will of God has manifested itself to us through the reality of the historical moment we are living; obedience to life is perhaps the most demanding way in which the Lord asks us to obey Him” (Card. De Donatis, Letter to the Roman Clergy, 3/13/2020). For his part, the Vice-President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference states: “It is the Holy Spirit Who has allowed and will allow the Church to adapt to the complexity of our time: in this case, the time of the pandemic” (Msgr. Meini on Avvenire, 4/26/2020).
Moreover, the suspension of public worship cannot be too worrying for an episcopate that privileges the “liturgy of the word” over the sacramental one and plans a “return to essentials” and the “recovery of early ecclesial simplicity.” The result is a process of “spiritualization” of Christianity (in the Protestant sense), convinced that the Church must divest herself of heavy institutional burdens such as dogmas, laws, rites, and, therefore, public worship as well.
In its message of April 16, the C.E.I.’s Permanent Council warned that when we return to health normality, “nothing will be the same as before,” and we will have to adopt a new style of “sobriety, essentiality and ecclesial simplification.” In this regard, Pope Francis himself predicted: “will see how the Holy Spirit deinstitutionalizes what is no longer of use” (interview with The Tablet of London, reported by Civiltà Cattolica, April 2020).
Some well-known theologians reckon that the current suspension of public worship is a providential opportunity for the clergy to disengage from so many institutional cares and for the faithful to recover a personal, domestic, or community spirituality free from a liturgy characterized by “ritual trappings” and “popular superstitions.” It is a post-modern drift toward a “self-managing faith.” Nevertheless, this discourse is dangerous for the episcopate itself because, in that case, why should the faithful obey ecclesiastical authority?
Translated by the staff of Fatima Today.
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