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The Catholic Church, Religious Freedom and the Pandemic

Since 29 October, France has been experiencing a second period of containment, due to the resumption of the Covid-19 epidemic. Religious groups have once again been called upon to cease face-to-face religious gatherings. However, members of the Roman Catholic Church (laity, associations and bishops) are invoking freedom of worship to demand the resumption of masses. Demonstrations have taken place, with the faithful organising prayers in the streets in a number of cities in France. Numerous recours en référé have been filed. Most of them are from the traditionalist current of the Roman Catholic Church (the association Civitas, close to the fundamentalists of the Parisian church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, the Fraternité de Saint-Pierre, a traditionalist religious organisation), but there are also several bishops.
Already, at the end of the first confinement, the traditionalists had lodged an appeal before the Conseil d’Etat, refusing to wait to resume their activities, which the government demanded. They had won their case, and on 18 May the Council of State had asked the government to lift the ban on religious celebrations.
In November, however, the interim relief judge of the Council of State did not suspend the provisions of the decree of 29 October 2020 which temporarily restrict, within the framework of confinement, the possibility of gathering in places of worship.
The demonstrations continued, but only concern the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that regular attendance at mass is an important requirement of this religion, and that the first confinement seems to have caused this Church to lose many of its regular followers, although it is not yet clear whether they will resume their regular practice when the epidemic is over. However, we note that the Catholic episcopate is acting in this case without the support of the other religions, obviously expecting special treatment from the public authorities.
Prime Minister Jean Castex and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin met on 16 November with the religious leaders, as requested by the Council of State; they explained that the sanitary conditions did not allow the resumption of public celebrations. A controlled resumption will have to take place from 1 December, depending on the sanitary conditions. The French Bishops’ Conference calls for this decision to be respected and for patience.
It is not certain that this call by the bishops will be followed by all the faithful, and other demonstrations are still taking place at the weekend, despite the Interior Minister’s warning that he would not hesitate to "send the police to issue fines", in the event of "repeated acts", to the people who would demonstrate for the reopening of masses.
These "street prayers" are incomprehensible to many people. First, some of them criticised the demonstrators for taking too lightly the health rules restricting gatherings. But the question of the legality of these public religious events in a secular France is often raised, especially after the tensions of 2017 when many elected officials had opposed prayers in the streets by Muslims who demanded the opening of a mosque.

D 21 November 2020    AAnne-Laure Zwilling

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