Catholic Bishops Finally Stand up to Italian Government over Public Worship

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ROME — The Italian Bishops’ Conference has issued a strongly worded rebuke to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte over his “arbitrary” decision to exclude public worship from the activities being opened up under new coronavirus lockdown rules.

During his streamed press conference Sunday evening, Mr. Conte said that according to his new regulations, which will go into effect on May 4, only small-scale funerals can be celebrated but not public Masses or other liturgical services.

“For weeks the Church has been trying to convince the government to allow the celebration of the Holy Mass, but for scientists it is still too risky,” Conte said.

In their communiqué, the bishops said that during ongoing negotiations with the government, “several times it was explicitly emphasized that — when the limitations assumed to face the pandemic are reduced — the Church demands to be able to resume its pastoral action.”

“Now, after these weeks of negotiation which saw CEI present guidelines and protocols with which to face a transitional phase in full compliance with all health standards, the Prime Minister’s decree passed this evening arbitrarily excludes the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people,” they said.

The bishops’ response comes as a relief to many Catholics exasperated over their shepherds’ perceived inertia during the lockdown. When the Italian government decided last month that Catholic sacraments such as the Eucharist and confession would be treated as “non-essential” activities along with sporting events and moviegoing, the bishops were notoriously acquiescent, sparking criticism from engaged lay Catholics as well as a petition to bring back the Mass.

A number of observers have noted that the bishops’ ready capitulation of their authority over public worship to the state set a dangerous precedent, one that would be difficult to roll back.

In an attempt to do just that, the bishops sharply reminded the government bodies Sunday of their obligation to distinguish between their area of competence and that of the Church, noting that the Church organizes the life of the Christian community “in the fullness of its own autonomy.”

Similarly, the bishops asserted that they “cannot accept to see the exercise of the freedom of worship compromised,” adding that the faithful must be able to nurture themselves spiritually, especially from the Church’s “sacramental life.”

Not long after the bishops published their statement, Italy’s Council of Ministers hastened to issue their own communiqué in response, saying that in the coming days they will pursue a solution that “will allow the faithful to participate in liturgical celebrations as soon as possible in conditions of maximum security.”

The bishops’ pushback comes at a tough moment for Giuseppe Conte, whose extension of lockdown provisions has angered many Italians. On Monday, Italian social media carried the #ConteDimettiti (“Conte Resign”) hashtag among its trending topics.

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