A French bishop has ripped providentialist Catholics who he says are “tempting God” by their reckless behaviour in seeking Communion at all costs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

– 85 infections and three deaths… and still Catholics complain about the cancellation of public Masses

Bishop Raymond Centène of Vannes in Brittany, in northwest France, was responding to critics of his decision to ban all public Masses in the diocese in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Vannes diocese is located in the Morbihan department, which as of this March 13 had 85 coronavirus infections and three deaths in one of France’s worst outbreaks of the disease.

And yet, despite the authorities declaring Morbihan to be a hotspot of coronavirus infections, some Catholics have criticised 62-year-old Bishop Centène for his decision to cancel the public celebration of the Eucharist in the diocese.

– “Obedience to civil laws is not weakness; it’s a Christian’s duty”

Centène – who has been at the helm of the Breton diocese for the past fourteen years – said in comments reported by La Croix that the criticisms are coming from Catholics looking to create a conflict between Church and State.

“Obedience to civil laws that is not a concession made out of weakness; it is a Christian’s duty”, Centène insisted.

Whether or not to follow the advice of health and government authorities and close churches and cancel Masses has been a bone of contention in Catholic circles for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic thus far.

Some Catholics believe the State has no authority to dictate when churches should or shouldn’t hold services; others believe putting public Catholic life on hold isn’t about bowing down to the government, but instead a question of protecting the vulnerable out of a sense of simple human solidarity.

Still other Catholics – like Centène’s fellow French bishop Pascal Roland of Belley-Ars – believe that God will provide supernatural protection for Christians during the outbreak, and that therefore Church life should continue on as normal during the public health emergency.

– The witness of plague saints “was at the cost of their own lives, not their neighbour’s”

It was for these Catholics overly wary of the State, on the one hand, and overly trustful of God’s providence, on the other, that Bishop Centène reserved his harshest criticisms.

To the one group worried about State interference with the Church, the Bishop of Vannes said obeying civil authorities is in no way opposed to the New Testament command that “obedience to God comes before obedience to humans” (Acts 5:29).

“It is necessary to distinguish between conscientious objection that could compromise God’s plan… [and obeying] laws aimed at safeguarding public health”, Centène explained.

To the other group of faithful expecting God’s providenc to protect them from the virus, the bishop recalled that the heroic example of saints who distinguished themselves for their fearless in plagues of the past was their own decision to put themselves at risk, and not others.

“Their witness was at the cost of their own lives and not at the risk of the health and life of their neighbor”, Centène observed.

– “The host remains subject to the laws of nature”

In response to his critics, the Bishop of Vannes urged Catholics during the coronavirus outbreak to hold on, above all, to the virtues of “prudence” and “charity” to their neighbours.

Taking Communion is never “a right” that a Catholic can claim “in defiance of charity” towards the vulnerable, Centène argued, adding that “we cannot ask God to perform a one-off miracle to make up for our lack of prudence”.

“Viruses are no more destroyed by going into a Catholic church than they are by going into a Protestant one”, the bishop recalled, pointing out that the consecrated host “remains subject to the laws of nature” and can of course be contaminated with coronavirus.

“Praying for health without taking any precautions to prevent the spread of a disease is not faith, it is fideism”, Centène insisted.

More on Novena on the Church-State debate in times of coronavirus:

European Orthodox Churches resist public COVID-19 precautions, insist Communion cannot transmit virus

Italian Church group head questions coronavirus Mass suspensions: “Can the State decide on ceremonies in churches?”

‘Pope whisperer’ calls on faithful to activate Catholic “antibodies” against populist exploitation of coronavirus scare

French bishop deplores coronavirus fearmongering: “It seems we’ve all lost our minds!”

Risk prevention or capitulation to fear? Italian Church group head criticises coronavirus Mass cancellations


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.