The leader of the Irish Church has called for the suspension of new rule criminalising the holding of religious services, which the government introduced last week in a surprise move.
In a statement, Archbishop Eamon Martin said that the penal provisions associated with the new regulation were “provocative” and “draconian” and potentially infringed religious freedom and constitutional rights.
“From our initial reading of it, it is clear to us that it is now making it a criminal offence for a priest to say mass with a congregation and it's making it a criminal offence for somebody to go to Mass,” he told The Tablet.
The Irish bishops are seeking legal advice about the new regulation as well as a meeting with the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly.
Archbishop Martin said that together with other Churches and faith communities, the Catholic Church in Ireland had been cooperating fully with public health messages for more than a year.
“It is highly disappointing then, that despite the reassurances of the Taoiseach to Church leaders only two days ago that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland, this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation. We consider this to be a breach of trust,” the Archbishop said.
Speaking to RTE Radio’s This Week programme on Sunday, Minister Donnelly said the new regulation dealt with “the position that we have been in for quite some time”.
In response to the bishops’ concerns that the new regulation targets religious worship, the minister said, “The measure isn’t focused specifically at religious communities or any other communities; the measure is focused explicitly at indoor gatherings.”
However, Archbishop Martin told The Tablet: “Religious services are indeed singled out in this statutory instrument for particular attention.”
He noted that, “Statutory instruments are only published when there is something new to say, they don't come out just to say what we already know. If it’s not doing anything new, then why have it?”
Criticising the Statutory Instrument’s lack of clarity, he said: “A priest would be forgiven for wondering after this statutory instrument, if he breaking the law by going over to his church to say mass if he hasn’t got a webcam.”
Another area of concern is the lack of clarity over weddings. “For some reason, this statutory instrument does not specify that it’s okay to do a wedding Mass. It does say you can go to a wedding reception.”
The Archbishop of Armagh contrasted the dialogue that has taken place between church and state in Northern Ireland over public worship while “South of the border, it appears that everything has to be through statutory instrument, through regulation… and I wonder about the maturity of that relationship.”