Catholic Primate calls for the pastoral work of priests to be deemed essential

Catholic Church taking legal advice on ‘draconian’ ban due to Covid-19

Archbishop Eamon Martin: emphasised the importance of respecting and sustaining people’s spiritual wellbeing alongside their physical and mental health. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has expressed concern about the "criminalising" of public worship and has called for the pastoral work of priests to be deemed essential.

He made his call during a meeting with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Monday.

The Government has meanwhile denied it was targeting the church when it introduced a new law last week prohibiting indoor gatherings.

Mr Donnelly met Archbishop Martin and Mgr Joseph McGuinness to discuss a growing rift between the church and Government on the issue.


The Catholic Church said it was taking legal advice following the publication late last week of a Covid-19 statutory instrument the Archbishop called "draconian".

That statutory instrument, published in Iris Oifigiúil, makes it a criminal offence to attend certain types of indoor events or gatherings.

In a statement issued after the meeting on Monday, the Catholic Communications Office said a commitment was given at the meeting that consideration would be given to early reopening of public worship in accordance with public health advice in the coming weeks.

"Archbishop Eamon Martin explained the deep concerns already expressed with regard to the criminalising of leading, and gathering for, public worship at this time in Ireland despite the consistent support from the Churches for public health messaging since the beginning of the pandemic. He reiterated the Church's support for the protection of health, life and for the common good and he emphasised the importance of respecting and sustaining people's spiritual well-being alongside their physical and mental health. For people of faith, he added, this is deemed essential," the statement said.

“The Archbishop emphasised 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.”

According to the statement, Mr Donnelly said the statutory instrument “was not intended to single out worship” but was “designed to regulate indoor and outdoor gatherings that might pose a risk.”

“He said that religious worship and spiritual well-being were taken very seriously by government and consideration would be given to early re-opening of public worship in accordance with public health advice in the coming weeks,” the statement added.

Archbishop Martin said he will meet the other Archbishops to brief them on the meeting.

Further discussions

A spokesman for Mr Donnelly said there would be further discussions between the church leaders and the department and that the Minister for Health outlined the public health grounds behind the move.

“Minister Donnelly had a good meeting today with Archbishop Martin and Monsignor Joseph McGuinness. Minister Donnelly outlined that the reason for the restrictions on gatherings were on public health grounds and also said that he understood the importance of worship for people. The Minister expects ongoing dialogue with church leaders in the time ahead.”

Sources said on Monday the reason the statutory instrument was signed last week was that when restrictions are eased, as was the case with the removal of the 5km travel limit, regulations have to be updated in order to effectively restate the law.

Organised indoor gatherings, with the exception of funerals and weddings, have been banned since last October.

The statutory instrument outlaws gatherings for certain “specified events”, but does not single out religious services.

One section says a person may attend a specified event if they are a minister of religion or a priest, and are leading worship or services remotely, if they are ministering to the sick or attending vital family members.

The statutory instrument effectively bans large indoor gatherings, which would include in-person religious gatherings.

Archbishop Martin previously said that “at first reading [the provisions] appear to be draconian, going further than the restrictions we have been co-operating with throughout the pandemic to date.”

“It is highly disappointing then, that despite the reassurances of the Taoiseach to church leaders only two days ago that he understood the importance of faith and worship to the people of Ireland, this statutory instrument was introduced in a clandestine manner and without notice or consultation. We consider this to be a breach of trust.” He was referring to a meeting between the Taoiseach and religious leaders last week.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times