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Ireland’s churches are meekly accepting their fate

An empty Church of the Annunciation in Rathfarnham in Dublin

September 25, 2020 - 3:57pm

Almost everywhere in Europe, governments are introducing new restrictions aimed at fighting the spread of Covid-19, but at the time of writing, none have decided to stop public worship again. With one exception: Ireland. It is a sign of how far the influence and prestige of religion in the country has fallen.

This weekend, and for several weeks to come, you will not be allowed to attend public worship if you are living in Dublin or Donegal. The same measure may soon be rolled out to other parts of the country.

Last week, the Irish Government announced a new plan for living with Covid that outlined five levels of restrictions that would have to be imposed depending on the severity of the virus. Level one involves almost no restrictions, while level 5 means another lockdown.

Most of the country is currently in level 2. Under level 3 you can still get your hair cut, go shopping or to the gym. But you can’t attend public worship, and it is level three that Dublin and Donegal enter tomorrow.

On its own, this tells you a lot about the priorities of the Irish Government and our public health authorities. If it contributes to the economy, they will try and keep it open. If not, then they will close it as soon as they think things are getting a bit out of hand again.

Since public worship restarted again on 29 June after the first lockdown, only one outbreak has been linked to a church in the entire country. An army of volunteers has ensured that going to a place of worship is extremely safe. Numbers are restricted, while social distancing and hygiene standards are strictly observed.

Nonetheless, the Government has decided that places of worship should be among the first to close if infections per 100,000 people over a fortnight reach 100 or so.

Restaurant-owners and publicans have fought back against what they think are disproportionate restrictions. Like churches, they have to place strict limits on numbers they can accommodate, and they must close if the country reaches level 3.

But Church leaders are not defending themselves. They are not demanding evidence from the public health authorities that justifies stopping public worship in the targeted areas. They are not asking why Ireland, alone of all European countries, is doing this. They are not asking if the measure is proportionate.

Instead, they are meekly accepting their fate because they have lost all confidence in themselves and what they offer. It is a loss of confidence which extends beyond the Catholic Church and on its present course, Christianity in Ireland is destined to end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Covid-19 is now accelerating the decline.

David Quinn is an Irish social and religious commentator.


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