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DUBLIN, Ireland, April 21, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Irish Catholics have faced months of persecution from the national government, with public worship banned since December and attempts to host services punishable by fines and prison time for ministers. Now, a new law has been passed which further tightens gatherings both indoors and outdoors, effectively criminalizing attendance at any religious gathering, including sacramental Confession with a priest.

The updated legislation, (S.I. 171/2021), enacted under the guise of public health and safety, renders meeting a priest for Confession a criminal offense in Ireland, punishable by up to six months in jail, or a fine of €127 (about $152 USD). 

There remains an arbitrary permission to attend weddings and funerals, albeit in limited numbers.

Oran Doyle, law professor and member of the COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory at Trinity College, Dublin, explained on RTE Radio 1’s News at One, Sunday, the recent change to Irish law and why it is significant regarding Catholic worship and access of the faithful to the sacraments.

“What’s changed is really the legal treatment,” he explained. “Apart from the first lockdown last April/May, and the start of June 2020, there hasn’t been a legal prohibition on religious services.”

Doyle pointed out that the Irish government, until this point, “has talked in terms of ‘levels,’” with regard to the their lockdown regimes. These levels, or tiers of restrictions are supposedly based on the severity of the spread of COVID-19, with higher levels bringing about harsher impositions on social gatherings, and so on. “But really those levels aren’t always backed up by law, and the case of religious services in general … there was no legal prohibition [for attendance].”

The recent adjustment of law “is the first time that a clear, legal prohibition on religious services has been put in place, as I say, since the first lockdown last April/May,” Doyle informed listeners.

In a statement, Ireland’s pro-abortion Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, attempted to quell fears that members of the Catholic Church, and indeed all religious observers, were being attacked by the new legislation, saying that the law “was not intended to single out worship.”

But Doyle flatly contradicted the minister’s claim. “Well that can’t be correct because previously in the legislation there was a clear ban on any events in your households and there was also a ban on what they described as ‘relevant events,’ which, in the law, has a very clear definition as events for social recreational purposes, things like that,” he said.

“So those type of events were already banned but religious events weren’t, and they seem to be the most obvious thing that was cut by this change in the law that was made last week,” he responded.

The new provision in law applies to any religious event, be it held indoors or outdoors. “That’s where it is different from the restrictions on other events,” Doyle said. “So, for example, if a priest were to do the sacrament of Confession with one parishioner outside, socially distanced, that would be a criminal offence; but if the priest were to meet the parishioner for a chat, that wouldn’t be a criminal offence because that’s dealt with under one of the other provisions or regulations.”

Doyle clarified that the offense, in such an instance, would be on the part of both the penitent and the confessor, both of whom “attend” the sacrament together in the same place and at the same time.

He added that, whilst the provision “doesn’t mention ‘religious purpose’” as a specific offending event, the new regulations “are made by the minister for health under the statute passed by the Oireachtas [Irish parliament] last March, and it’s the statute that defines events to include an event for religious purposes.”

“So when these regulations use the same word ‘event,’ in the way that it was used in the main statute, well then that meaning has to follow through,” Doyle explained.

Irish bishops continue attempts to dialogue with government officials

Commenting on the new “draconian” impositions on the Church in Ireland, the Primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, characterized the statute as “provocative and formally enacting a potential infringement of religious freedom and of constitutional rights.”

Martin expressed his “disappointment” that the Church faces tighter restrictions, despite “the consistent support from the churches for public health messaging since the beginning of the pandemic.” In fact, the support from the Irish Catholic hierarchy for oppressive government restrictions went so far as to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, voluntarily prohibit priests in his diocese from distributing Holy Communion to parishioners privately “[in] the interest of health and safety.”

“[D]espite the reassurances of the Taoiseach [prime minister] to church leaders … that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland,” Martin said, “this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation. We consider this to be a breach of trust.”

Accordingly, the Archbishop of Armagh sought to convene with Donnelly, in the hope of reaching a “mutual understanding and cooperation” with the government and public health advisors, all the while stressing “the importance of regular and meaningful conversation.” Though Martin raised vocal opposition, he did not commit to taking a stand against the anti-Catholic law in any concrete manner, despite the consistent push from public officials towards an increasingly pro-abortion, pro-LGBT, and secularized state.

According to a statement from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Martin “explained the deep concerns already expressed with regard to the criminalising of leading, and gathering for, public worship at this time in Ireland.” Martin asked Donnelly to recognize that “the vital pastoral work of priests and other ministers on the ground should also be respected and deemed essential, rather than subject to penal sanction.”

The statement said that Donnelly has assured Martin that “religious worship and spiritual well-being were taken very seriously by government” in drafting the latest restrictions. He, reportedly, later promised that “consideration would be given to early re-opening of public worship in accordance with public health advice in the coming weeks.” The statement does not say whether Martin raised any further concerns at this point.

The bishops of Ireland have said that they are taking legal advice in relation to the implications of the new legislation in the meantime.

Anthony Murphy, founder of the Lumen Fidei Institute and the Catholic Voice newspaper, told LifeSiteNews that the archbishop “may be ‘disappointed’ and ‘concerned,’ but we have reached the stage where mealy-mouthed words are no longer required. The archbishop and his brother bishops must take the State head on in order to protect our religious liberty. The time has come for direct action.”

Murphy continued, criticizing Martin, “along with the other bishops of Ireland” whom he said “should be doing more.” 

“They are responsible for the souls of the baptised in this country, but instead they meekly toe the line of a government which doesn’t believe in God and which has a hatred of the Catholic Church in particular.”

‘This is a remarkable opportunity for Irishmen to become saints’

Austin Ruse, President of the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) and author of new book Under Siege: No Finer Time to Be a Faithful Catholic, explained to LifeSiteNews that “We were not called to comfort. We were called to struggle. This is a remarkable opportunity for Irishmen to become saints. Stand up. Fight back.”

In his RTE Radio interview this past Sunday, Professor Doyle commented on the possibility of a legal challenge on constitutional grounds, noting that “we have seen [constitutional challenges] in some other countries where courts have intervened. So it is possible that the Irish courts would intervene.”

“My own sense,” Doyle added, “is that probably for as long as broadly similar activities are treated in the same way, it’s unlikely that there would be a successful challenge.”

Doyle qualified his position, adding the caveat that “already there’s maybe these small differences opening up” between religious events and other social activities. With the example of banning outdoor events, Doyle predicted there could be an “easing of restrictions in other areas going ahead of easing of restrictions in relation to religious services.” If that were to be the case, “then the possibility for a successful challenge becomes stronger.”

Ban on the sacraments is ‘a direct attack on our God-given liberties’

Kathy Sinnott, a former Member of the European Parliament for Ireland, told LifeSiteNews that Ireland’s Constitution “is clear in its recognition that the worship of Almighty God is a fundamental right and duty. That is, it is not given by the State but is inherent in the God-given dignity of every human person.”

Article 44.1 of Ireland’s Constitution states that: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.” Furthermore, protections are offered to “the free profession and practice of religion,” which the constitution promises are “guaranteed to every citizen.”

Sinnott argued that Article 44. 1 “defends our right to worship God and not hinder us as we fulfil our duty to do so … It is clear that they [the government] are trampling our inalienable human right and the Constitutional commitment to defend that right, which they as a government are charged with ensuring.”

Continuing, she criticized this latest government move as a definitive sign that “the ban on public worship is not, and has not been for some time, a matter of health but of sectarianism and more specifically anti-Catholicism and anti-Christianity.”

Murphy concurred, telling LifeSiteNews that the government’s latest legislative squeeze on public worship “is a direct attack on our God-given liberties and must be resisted because it is repressive and unjust.”

He went on to explain that the regulations “interfere with the freedom of religion secured in the European Convention on Human Rights and if this goes unchallenged then it will set a very dangerous precedent.”

Accordingly, a “functioning democracy cannot impose such a ban especially when there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Chinese virus can be spread in this way. In fact, the opposite is true, in every other country where public worship continues the evidence shows that churches are safe places.”

Murphy criticized those responsible for the change in law as “not people of faith.” Consequently, he said, that the new law “cannot be obeyed because it is totalitarian in nature and comes from a bullying State which has now overreached itself. The only way to deal with bullies is to tackle them head on and I would encourage faithful clergy and laity to form networks and continue with the public celebration of the sacraments.”

Rosary rallies for an end to ban on the sacraments

Author and former news editor for EWTN Great Britain, Deacon Nick Donnelly, spoke to LifeSiteNews, lamenting the flagrant repudiation of the rich history of Irish Catholicism from within the government’s ranks.

“My Irish grandparents and great grandparents could never have imagined that the Republic would become so anti-Catholic. For them attending daily Mass was the most important part of their lives. There couldn't be greater disrespect for their struggle for freedom than the Irish government criminalizing the sacraments. In the face of such an attack against the Church surely the time for expressions of regret from the hierarchy is over,” he said.

“I’m encouraged that the Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of All Ireland is seeking legal advice. It is imperative that in the face of such provocation that the Church insists that she doesn’t need the permission of the Irish State to minister to her people.”

Donnelly noted that there is a “rosary rally” being held every Sunday in parish churches throughout the entire nation, with the intention of having churches reopened and the ban on public Masses lifted: “I hope that all the bishops join the rosary rally being held outside churches across Ireland every Sunday until the Mass returns.”