Irish Catholic bishops reject pandemic ban on sacraments

Church leaders claim discrimination as they resume large-scale Communions and Confirmations.

Irish Catholic bishops reject pandemic ban on sacraments

DUBLIN — Roman Catholic leaders are rebelling against the Irish government’s ban on First Communion and Confirmation ceremonies, a pandemic policy that some parish priests say is still needed to stop the church from becoming a super-spreader.

The clash between church and state in this predominantly Catholic country comes as Ireland’s vaccination campaign against COVID-19 has allowed much of society — but not its churches — to reopen fully even as cases of the Delta variant keep rising.

The key worry for policymakers is not the Communion and Confirmation events within churches, but the often boozy and close-quartered house parties that can follow them.

Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell said the government was discriminating against devout Catholics, given that other social gatherings were being permitted with only modest restrictions. This includes, as of Thursday, baptisms within Catholic churches.

In a letter to his priests, Farrell said government guidelines “restrict celebration of the sacraments on the apparent grounds that they may lead to family gatherings, which may breach public health guidelines on households mixing.”

“This is perplexing,” he wrote, “as no such prohibitions are applied to other events, such as sporting or civic events, or other family occasions, such as the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries, or indeed to weddings or funerals. Many have concluded that, in the absence of appropriate justification, these guidelines are discriminatory.”

Bishops outside the capital argue they’ve been postponing parishioners’ pleas since last year and cannot justify further delays, given that tens of thousands are being permitted at events in Croke Park, Ireland’s biggest stadium.

“We’re telling priests in our parishes to fire ahead, but to do so very carefully. We’re asking families to keep parties to a minimum,” said Bishop of Killaloe Fintan Monahan, whose diocese stretches from County Offaly in the midlands to Clare on the Atlantic coast.

The government, mindful that the issue is a vote-loser in conservative rural swaths of Ireland, has shied from threatening priests or parishes with legal action.

But a Cabinet minister appealed to church leaders not to ignore restrictions designed to shield the public and hospitals from needless infection spikes.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue said it was not yet right to permit normal First Communion ceremonies, when entire school classes of children aged 8 receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time in accordance with church teaching, nor Confirmations four years later when those classes pledge lifelong adherence to the Catholic faith.

“While it is frustrating to see these delays, no one’s going to get hurt by waiting a little bit longer to have that special day,” said McConalogue, whose home county of Donegal is persistently near or at the top of national infection rates.

While most priests publicly back their leaders, some question their haste, given that the vaccination program is about to be expanded to children aged 12 to 15.

Tony Flannery, co-founder of a grassroots group called the Association of Catholic Priests that often challenges their bishops, said their move to flout government guidelines was “extraordinary” and would encourage more reckless behavior.

“When people in authority like the bishops openly go against the advice of the health authorities and the government,” Flannery said, “it gives an opening to more extreme groups like the anti-vaxxers.”