A French archbishop has criticised the “unhealthy”, “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “false” rhetoric of Catholics who claim that COVID-19-induced public Mass bans are an attack on religion.

– “It is legitimate for a State… to impose measures… for the benefit of all”

“Is the spread of the coronavirus just an invention? Is the State using it as a pretext to restrict our freedoms, including our religious freedom?”, Archbishop Pascal Wintzer of the Poitiers archdiocese asked in an article in La Croix November 5.

Answering his own question, Wintzer – who is also on the permanent council of the French Bishops’ Conference – said that “it is legitimate for a State, according to the data at its disposal and with respect to the laws, to impose measures that are for the benefit of all. That includes measures, as is the case this year, that restrict public liberties”.

– To cry persecution is to bolster radical Islamism

Wintzer recognised that the ban on public worship that went into effect in France November 2 and is expected to last until at least December 1 – with an exception for weddings and funerals, in reduced numbers – is “painful” for Catholics. “Yes, we are missing something in our lives… [a]nd, yes, the Eucharist is essential to Christian life”, he acknowledged.

However, he said he was “disturbed” by the “unhealthy” rhetoric of those Catholics who believe that the ban on public worship has been imposed “not because of health reasons, but because our secular [S]tate wants to constantly supervise or even control religions”.

“Even without a lockdown, there are those who claim that Christians – although not persecuted in France – are at least unable to enjoy real freedom”, Wintzer decried.

While the archbishop acknowledged the “difficult and demanding” nature of being a Catholic in France today, he appealed to the reality of a modern country based on the rule of law to ask: “Who in France can say that they are persecuted because of their religious convictions and practices?”

Moreover, Wintzer alerted that to argue that Christians are being oppressed in France today because of their religion is to give wings to radical Islamists, who also claim the same mistreatment as justification for their terrorism.

“It would be serious and even irresponsible if Catholics were to adopt a similar rhetoric of persecution” as Islamist fanatics, the prelate cautioned. “Not only because this is dangerous, but it is – above all – false”.

“For too many years, individuals and groups have formed their identity by saying they are ‘discriminated against’ or are ‘victims’ of certain phobias”, he continued.

“But let’s be clear. Attacks against Christians are not coming from the State — which exercises its duty to protect its people in conformity with the Law — but from those support political Islam”, Wintzer concluded.

– French Bishops appeal “out of proportion” contravention of freedom of worship

The Poitiers archbishop acknowledged that “of course” governmental anti-COVID measures can be challenged in the justice system “if they seem illegitimate or excessive”. “Then it is up to the… court to decide whether they are lawful”, he explained.

That, in fact, is what the French Bishops have decided to do in relation to the new COVID-19 ban on public Masses in the country, as they filed an appeal with the Council of State November 2 against what they called an “out of proportion” affront to Catholics’ freedom of worship.

Wintzer said that while the Bishops’ appeal might be legitimate, he wondered whether it is justified, in the sense in which the Mass ban hardly constitutes an offence against the rights of Catholics in a moment in which COVID cases in France continue to climb.

The archbishop encouraged Catholics to remember that forgoing the Eucharist doesn’t mean forgoing faith, as Bishop of Le Havre Jean-Luc Brunin also called on priests and the faithful to be creative in liturgical and pastoral life within the limits of the new lockdown situation.

More news on Novena on the Church and COVID:

Pope takes aim at pandemic profiteers, critics of restrictions; laments they “think only about themselves”

Bishops of new EU pandemic hotspot Belgium plead: “Only together can we defeat COVID-19”

COVID-19: Irish Bishops tell Taoiseach of “great desire” to return to in-person Masses “as soon as possible”

Analysis: COVID tensions around public and private religion are hardly new. Here’s what we can learn from the past

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