Gardaí have been stopping priests distributing Holy Communion. All public worship is currently banned. The Government is fighting businessman, Declan Ganley challenge to the constitutionality of the restrictions on religious gatherings tooth and nail. But one legal expert believes the lockdown law is being incorrectly interpreted, namely Oran Doyle of Trinity College Dublin.
Prof. Doyle is a professor in law at Trinity College Dublin and director of the COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory.
In a new blog he rejects the widespread notion that organising or attending religious celebrations is a criminal offence.
First, he argues, religious events are not prohibited by the Regulation of the lockdown, which explicitly bans other kind of events. Secondly, some have claimed that even if organising a religious ceremony is legal, traveling to one is not permitted. But Prof. Doyle says that the Regulations take great care to not include religious ceremonies among the class of prohibited events. “This implies that it must be permissible to leave one’s home to organise and/or attend those events”, he says. Otherwise, why would religious events be permitted if travelling to attend them is not? It seems to be a contradiction.
Prof. Doyle also comments on a statement from the Archdiocese of Dublin advising priests not to give communion after celebrating an online Mass, on the basis that “no gatherings of people outdoors or indoor are permitted”.
“If this is intended to be a statement of the legal position—and it is difficult to read it any other way—it is categorically incorrect”, Prof. Doyle wrote.
He acknowledges that the Archdiocese’s advice appears to have followed pressure from the Gardaí but he believes that Gardaí around the country have formed the mistaken belief that it is even against the law to go into a church to receive Communion, when this is not true.
Gardaí have threatened priests with prosecution for leaving the church doors open during mass but this is also not against the law.
Prof. Doyle claims that a statement issued last November from the Department of Health on this regard is a “masterpiece of misdirection”. The statement confirms that no penalty attaches to religious celebrations, but its language appears to be calculated to create the impression that what is in reality public health advice only is mandatory and, so, it is a legal requirement.
He says: “ … at the core of the Government’s response lie not restrictions on activities but rather confusion over the extent to which activities are restricted. Rather than clearly distinguish between what citizens are required to do and what they are requested or advised to do, Government statements frequently encourage people to believe that their legal obligations are more restrictive than is in fact the case.”
He believes that this is a strategy. The Government and the media imply a higher level of restriction than it is the case, with the use of misleading pronouncements, and then “allow legally ungrounded threats of prosecution to bring people in line with that higher level of restriction.”
If this is so, then at a minimum, Bishops should allow Catholics to enter a church in order to receive Communion.