ROME — Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, declared this week that efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus must respect basic human rights such as religious freedom.
In a time when public officials have taken to dividing human activities into “essential” and “non-essential,” the free exercise of religious worship must be considered among the most essential of all, Archbishop Gallagher contended in a streamed address to the U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva on February 23.
For believers, the practice of one’s faith in its many and varied expressions are “the highest of essential services,” the Vatican official said.
Gallagher underscored the pressing need to defend the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” since “religious belief, and the expression thereof, lies at the core of the dignity of the human person in his or her conscience.”
Unfortunately, the public response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals that “this robust understanding of religious freedom is being eroded,” the archbishop warned, recalling that “freedom of religion also protects its public witness and expression, both individually and collectively, publicly and privately, in forms of worship, observance and teaching.”
“There are numerous examples of how the freedom of worship can be guaranteed while taking all the necessary precautions to protect reasonably public safety,” he said.
While many of the public health measures imposed by local and national governments to slow the spread of the virus have been proportionate, he said, some have gone so far as to “impinge on the free exercise of human rights.”
“Any limitations on the exercise of human rights for the protection of public health must stem from a situation of strict necessity,” he said. “Such limitations must be proportional to the situation, applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion and used only when no other means are available.”
The archbishop’s words echoed Pope Francis’ insistence that in dealing with the coronavirus, the health of the soul is as important as physical health.
The need to halt the spread of the virus has had implications “for a number of fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, restricting public worship and the educational and charitable activities of faith communities,” the pope noted in a February 8 address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See.
In dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, many countries have divided activities into essential and nonessential, worship of God often falling into the latter category, a practice Francis denounced.
“It must be recognized, however, that religion is a fundamental aspect of the human person and of society, and cannot be eliminated,” the pontiff said. “Even as we seek ways to protect human lives from the spread of the virus, we cannot view the spiritual and moral dimension of the human person as less important than physical health.”