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Maria Steen: ‘Merriongate’ reveals one rule for the favoured, another for those of faith

The sacraments were among the first things prohibited and among the last to be reinstated. They were deemed ‘non-essential’

No institution in the West has done more to care for the sick than the Catholic Church. For hundreds of years, priests, religious and laity have risked their lives fulfilling this mission of charity. But care for the sick is not the church’s primary mission. To be a Catholic is to believe that there is more to life than this world, and that destiny in the world to come is more important.

The primary mission of the church is to save souls. For the past 18 months the Government attempted to suppress this mission, forcing the church to bend the knee to secular edicts aimed at denying access to the sacraments. All that ended this week with the reassertion of some good, old-fashioned common sense.

It began with Bishop Kevin Doran publicly declaring his intention to allow long-delayed First Holy Communions and Confirmations to proceed, saying “the mission of the church cannot be put on hold indefinitely”. This was met by the Taoiseach reportedly warning against any “unilateral breaching of regulations”. This remark was revealing. The first reason is that there were no such “regulations”.

From the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic (according to a February 2021 report of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission) our Government has “repeatedly blurred the boundary between legal requirements and public health guidance”, allowing and even encouraging the people to believe that some behaviour was against the law, without the need to take the trouble to actually make a law against it.


Little has changed. In another report by Trinity College Dublin this week, the key finding is “a significant lack of transparency”.

In this instance there were no regulations to breach – merely advice. On this point the bishop was right, and the Taoiseach was wrong, as the Minister for Health was later compelled to acknowledge.

No good reason

The nature of advice is that it does not have to be accepted. Bishop Doran said that “no good reason has been given to us for this advice”; he therefore declined to follow it, as was his right.

The recently appointed Archbishop of Dublin expressed a similar view. In interviews on RTÉ and Newstalk, Archbishop Dermot Farrell robustly defended allowing his priests to celebrate these sacraments. His voice –reasonable, pastoral, and refusing to brook any unsubstantiated nonsense – was a breath of fresh air.

He reclaimed the virtue of common sense, pointing out that the guidance was “irrational”.

He highlighted the Government’s inconsistency in prohibiting parents from bringing their children to church for the sacraments while allowing 40,000 into Croke Park for a match, concerts to go ahead, and restaurants and pubs to open, not to mention the hypocrisy of legislators attending a 50-person shindig in a five-star outdoor restaurant while Government advice stated outdoor restaurants can accommodate groups of up to six people.

Emphasising the safety protocols in place in dioceses across the country and the way sacramental ceremonies had been adapted to cater for smaller groups of children, he pointed out that he was not aware of any evidence of a Covid-19 outbreak associated with a Catholic religious service in Ireland. No one has contradicted this with actual data, to the best of my knowledge.

The second point about the Taoiseach’s response is that it reveals much about the attitude of our leaders to religion in general and to Catholicism in particular.

The sacraments were among the first things to be prohibited, whether by law or diktat, and among the last to be reinstated. They were, in short, “non-essential”. Not, for example, to be compared with the “need” to visit an off-licence, which has been preserved at all times.

The relentless pursuit of “safety” above all else can perhaps be forgiven from public health bureaucrats. This is, after all, their job. But it should not be forgiven from our political leaders, whose job it is to consider the public health advice, and to weigh it in the balance with many other factors – such as fundamental rights – before arriving at their own decision and not slavishly to follow that advice.


Perhaps unaware of the shallowness of politicians’ understanding of the religious worldview, the bishops initially adopted a diplomatic solution, trying to engage with the Government. However in the months that followed, the depth of disdain for the rights and beliefs of religious people became apparent.

It is difficult to rebut Archbishop Farrell’s charge that the health advice is “discriminatory” given the context: the reasonable requests of the bishops were ignored while accommodations were made for business and commercial interests; priests and laypeople alike were criminalised for attempting to attend a public Mass, later the Mass itself was criminalised; despite our culturally diverse society, there was no mention of a ban on ceremonies or rites associated with other religions – only Communions and Confirmations.

Perhaps most hypocritically, seemingly having learned nothing from “Golfgate”, “Merriongate” revealed one rule for the favoured, another for those of faith.

With this in mind, the recent reassertion of episcopal authority is welcome. It just so happens that in striking a blow for their flock and the liberty of the church, the bishops have also defended the rule of law.

After all, if the Government really believes the resumption of Communions and Confirmations presents a danger to public health, it could simply make a law prohibiting it – if it believed it would withstand constitutional challenge.

Meanwhile parents and children, who have for too long been denied access to the sacraments, will welcome the church’s reassertion of her primary mission and will applaud the leadership of those good shepherds who defended their rights.