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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to obey government orders easing the Wuhan virus lockdown after Italian bishops protested that they "cannot accept" the state trampling on "the exercise of freedom of religion."
"During this time, when we desire to get out of quarantine, we pray to the Lord to give His people, to all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience to the provisions [of the law], so that the pandemic does not return," the pontiff said, as he began celebrating Mass on Tuesday.
On Sunday, the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI), which has a reputation of cozying up to the state, unexpectedly issued a condemnation of new government protocols which permit a number of secular activities to resume on May 4, but "arbitrarily exclude the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people."
A day later, Bp. Giovanni D'Ercole, head of the diocese of Ascoli Piceno, attacked Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for imposing a "dictatorship" on the Church.
"People have a right to pray. Preventing people from public worship is arbitrary. It is dictatorship, because freedom of religion is one of the fundamental rights and there can be no concession made to this freedom. ... We have been forced to have funerals like dogs and people have suffered," he stated.
"If this right is not given, it is a question of acting as the Acts of the Apostles teaches us: Must we obey God or men? In this case, we should obey God more," D'Ercole commented, emphasizing that "the church is not the place of contagion."
As Pope Francis repeated his call on Twitter, asking Catholics to "pray that the Lord will grant us the grace of prudence and obedience to these [quarantine] indications, so that the pandemic does not return," Cdl. Camillo Ruini joined the attack against the continuing prohibition of public worship.
"Freedom and health protection are not absolute. They must be realized in concrete situations," the 89-year-old cardinal told Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
In the event of a pandemic, restrictions on our freedom are inevitable to limit contagion. However, this does not mean that public authorities have a free hand in limiting or even suppressing, even temporarily, the freedoms which belong to us as persons and which are also constitutionally guaranteed in Italy. In this regard, we must all be vigilant.
"The Eucharist for believers is above all a need, the need for the bread of life," Ruini continued, noting that Pope Francis himself had "given voice to this need which concerns the whole church."
"Unfortunately, in the latest decree of the prime minister's office, the government has neglected this need, arrogating competencies that are not its own with regard to the life of the Christian community. The CEI did well to protest forcefully. Now the government has a duty to review its positions," he demanded.
Italian media are interpreting the pope's latest comments as an admonition of the CEI statement and support for Conte's decision to maintain the ban on public worship.
"Bergoglio runs to the rescue of Conte and confirms his usual treacherous attitude enslaved by those in power," journalist Antonio Socci tweeted.
"In the debate on the participation of the faithful in masses in phase 2," observed Il Fatto Quotidiano, "Pope Francis rejected the Italian Bishops' Conference and took sides in support of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte."
The Italian newspaper noted that the pontiff's words were an attempt to curry favor with the regime following Pope Francis' warm reception of premier Conte, "the tenant of Palazzo Chigi," on March 30 during the full lockdown, at the papal residence.
"Even L'Osservatore Romano, the pope's daily newspaper, did not criticize the government at all, publishing a news article on the front page which merely reports the CEI press release," Il Fatto Quotidiano pointed out.
"The picture has radically changed: The pope's call to halt polemics with his words 'obedience to the provisions' is also precisely an order to his bishops," Il Primato Nazionale observed.
Vincenzo Morgante, director of CEI television channel TV2000, blasted the government for allowing bingo halls to open but forcing churches to remain closed: "The so-called phase 2 already foresees the reopening of factories, offices, bars, hairdressers, [and] gardens but not the celebration of religious services beyond funerals."
The CEI statement lamented that "weeks of negotiations" offering "guidelines and protocols with which to face a transitory phase in full compliance with all health standards," had failed with Prime Minister Conte's decree "arbitrarily excluding the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people."
"Italian bishops cannot accept seeing the exercise of freedom of worship compromised. It should be clear to everyone that the commitment to serve the poor, so significant in this emergency, stems from a faith that must be able to feed on its sources, in particular sacramental life," the CEI statement said.
On May 4, phase 2 of easing the lockdown will begin allowing factories to reopen, people to visit restaurants to order takeout, small funerals and visits to family members. Public parks and gardens will also reopen, but playgrounds still will be off-limits.
Stores and museums will be allowed to reopen May 18 if they can guarantee social distancing. The reopening of coffee bars, restaurants and hair salons has been postponed at least until June 1, and schools will not reopen until September.