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The French bishops have won judicial reversal of their country's COVID-related restrictions on Mass attendance, despite the ongoing lockdowns. Meanwhile, their English counterparts' resistance to even more stringent measures (which expired on Dec. 2) is helping make the reimposition of worship limitations a political impossibility.
What's clear is that when the successors of the Apostles resolve to defend the Church against government interference, they remain a powerful force.
Controversy broke out in France and the United Kingdom early in November, after the states imposed temporary bans on public worship. France further mandated that, once its ban expired Nov. 29, a 30-person limit on attendance at Mass would go into effect, regardless of the size of the hosting church.
The measures were enacted in response to an outbreak of Chinese virus cases — cases that predictably and inevitably followed the onset of colder weather.
However, the institution of the measures appears to reflect willful blindness about the fact that elimination of COVID is impossible without a vaccine and that, until one is available, the virus is something with which we must live as a "new normal."
The president and vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales — neither of whom has a record for aggressive promotion of orthodoxy — issued a blunt statement pointing out that they "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."
They argued, "The government has a profound responsibility to show why it has taken particular decisions" and challenged it to "produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship." Bishops Philip Egan of Portsmouth and Marcus Stock of Leeds also issued their own statements opposing the prohibition.
France's bishops' conference filed a "refere liberte" with the Council of State, the nation's highest court with authority over administrative matters. They issued a hard-hitting statement affirming their own "duty to ensure the freedom of worship" and argued that the new regulations "violate one of the fundamental freedoms in our country."
Individual bishops went further: Paris' archbishop, Michel Aupetit, called the government regulations "a totally stupid measure that contradicts common sense," emphasizing that the 30-person limit applied not just to small village churches, but to buildings that ordinarily accommodate hundreds.
Montauban's bishop, Bernard Ginoux, moved from words and legal challenges to outright refusal to comply with the regulations, issuing a letter to his diocese notifying its priests and people that "Churches remain open, and the faithful who wish to come to them may do so." He emphasized, "If certain persons (celebrants, liturgical actors, faithful) are fined at the end of the Mass, they should refuse to pay the fine on the spot." Bishop Ginoux pledged that he would "instruct the lawyer of the diocese to take up these cases."
Vocal opposition and active resistance to government measures was also common among French priests. Some declared they would ignore the November ban on public worship, leaving the doors of their churches open for the faithful to enter for Mass. Many more denounced or expressed their disappointment in the restrictions in homilies preached on the last Sunday before the restrictions went into effect.
Many Catholics supported their clergy, resulting in widespread public opposition to the government restrictions.
More than 100,000 people signed a petition against the government measures, and thousands took part in demonstrations in numerous cities throughout France (though protesters had to refrain, at times, from prayer, as "political" demonstrations were legally allowed but public "religious gatherings" were forbidden).
In an address to one of the most important rallies, held outside Paris' famous Church of Saint-Sulpice, Fr. Michel Viot — a convert from Freemasonry and Lutheranism and a prominent figure in French Catholic life — declared, "We were weak enough to sacrifice Holy Week and Easter; we will not have the weakness to sacrifice Christmas! They can send all the police forces in France to inflict fines, even within our churches, but we will be there all the same."
Such resistance might have now been rendered moot by the Council of State's decision on the bishops' refere liberte, which required revision of regulations concerning public worship in order to allow larger congregations to attend Mass.