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When Pope St. John Paul II appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election, his words to the crowd were, “Be not afraid.” In the years following, Catholics in the United States and across the West joined their prayers with those of other Catholics suffering under the stifling rule of decrepit regimes. Today, the Catholics of France and the United Kingdom—and not only Catholics—face another lockdown as a long winter looms in Europe. This time, authorities are not imposing restrictions equally on churches and civil establishments. Instead, churches are arbitrarily subject to the harshest restrictions.

It is time for Americans to pay attention. On October 30, the French government instituted a new four-week lockdown. While these restrictions permit essential stores, schools, and other public services to remain open, churches can open only for private prayer and small weddings and funerals. In the U.K., where new restrictions took effect November 5, essential retail stores, workplaces, schools, and universities are open—but churches are closed.

When lockdowns were imposed earlier this spring across the world, most clergymen supported the efforts of their respective governments to “flatten the curve” and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. This time is different. Writing on November 2 in Le Figaro, five French bishops and several prominent Catholic intellectuals (including Rémi Brague, Chantal Delsol, and Pierre Manent) pleaded for an abatement of the coming restrictions. “We believe,” they wrote, “that liberty of cult cannot be negotiated and that it ought to be permitted to express itself, particularly in this time when it is contested. . . . For Catholics the celebration of Mass is not simply one modality of the exercise of their faith, but rather constitutes its source and summit.” On November 7 the Conseil d’État, France’s supreme court for administrative justice, declined a request from the Bishops’ Conference of France to lift the restriction.

The new restrictions, more so than last spring’s lockdowns, highlight the difficulty of settling this dispute between church and state on the grounds of religious liberty alone. Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, claims that the lockdown fully respects religious liberty. After all, he notes, churches remain open for private prayer and the faithful can watch recordings of the Mass virtually. From the state’s standpoint, liberty of religion is one among a number of goods that have to be weighed when confronting the coronavirus epidemic. And the state cannot adjudicate specific claims about what exercise of religious liberty is essential to which religion.

Mgr. Marc Aillet, bishop of Bayonne, was one of five initial bishops to request that the Conseil d’État lift restrictions. In an interview with Le Figaro, Aillet suggested that in some circumstances, the common good of the Church outweighs obedience to civil mandates. “If Saint Paul exhorts us to obey the civil authorities,” he said, “it is with respect to the common good—that of society, but also the superior common good of the Church, whose supreme law is the salvation of souls.”

In fact, Mgr. Aillet’s viewpoint is representative of how the Church’s jurists have thought about the question of deference to civil restrictions during pandemics. Cardinal Felice Cavagnis, author of one of the most celebrated modern treatises on public ecclesiastical law, held that the Church should follow otherwise just prescriptions regarding the celebration of Mass in times of pandemic, since hygienic inspection is the competency of the civil authority. For the Church such prescriptions “have a directive not coercive force,” he wrote, invoking the scholastic distinction between the law’s directive power (the power to point to what freely ought to be done) and its power to coerce. Simply put, in a situation where sanitary prescriptions are applied inequitably, the Church would have the right to refuse them.

Restrictions that give wide latitude to ordinary commercial activity but harshly restrict the Church are only one of many boundary disputes that require us to think of the Church as a political society, and not merely a special type of association. Just as in conflicts of centuries past, it is often a seemingly incidental dispute that raises more fundamental questions about the nature of church and state.

The sense of a grave conflict between church and state grows by the day. Catholics across France have been meeting outside churches and civil buildings to demand the lifting of prohibitions on the public celebration of Mass. In Paris, following a gathering outside Saint-Sulpice on November 13, the Paris Police Prefecture announced that no gatherings would be permitted on Sunday. Last Sunday, November 15, in at least thirty cities large and small across France, Catholics gathered peacefully to demand the return of the Mass.

Catholics gather outside Bordeaux Cathedral


At Nantes

Guillaume de Thieulloy, director of the Catholic website Le Salon Beige, told me: 

Our political leaders in France have a problem: They don’t understand anything about religious issues. They are truly the successors of [French prime minister] Georges Clémenceau who said: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—and everything belongs to Caesar.” But we Catholics tell them: Our conscience doesn’t belong to Caesar but only to God, and we have a natural right to offer the true sacrifice to the true God.

The mood, and the argument, is summed up by one photo in particular. Outside the church of St. Joseph in Villié-Morgon, a small commune nestled in the Beaujolais region of eastern France, a group of parishioners gathered this past Sunday to ask the government to lift the newly imposed restrictions on the public celebration of Mass. One young lady wore a simple sheet pinned to the back of her coat, which read: “Ma Messe = Première Nécessité.” As Americans uncork their bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau this week and next, let us remember what life is like without that first necessity—and resolve now to form an alliance in defense of the rights of the Church.

Outside Angers Cathedral

At the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice

At Rouen Cathedral

At Versailles Cathedral

Gladden Pappin is assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and deputy editor of
American Affairs.

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