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After disrupting liturgy in London, police express empty ‘regret’ but make no promises

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 12, 2021

A: “I’m sorry that I offended you.”

B: “I’m sorry that you felt offended.”

You recognize the difference between those statements, don’t you? In statement A, I admit that I caused offense. Statement B only recognizes that you took offense. Statement B leaves open the possibility that you were wrong to take offense, and I was blameless. Statement A is an apology; Statement B is not.

With that distinction in mind, take another look at today’s news story about the London police official who spoke at Mass this Sunday at Christ the King church. Detective Superintendent Andy Wadey told the congregation that police had been trying to keep people safe on Good Friday, when they disrupted a solemn liturgical service, strode into the sanctuary, and told everyone to go home. Wadey continued: “We know, however, that many people were very upset by what happened on Good Friday and we deeply regret that.”

Right. He—speaking for the Metropolitan Police—deeply regrets that people were upset. Does he regret that a sacred service was disrupted? We don’t know.

Wadey did say that he and other police officials had experienced “significant reflection and learning” since the incident. Good. What were their reflections? What did they learn? We don’t know.

So can we be confident that the police won’t disrupt a service in Christ the King church—or some other Catholic church in London—next week? Detective Superintendent Wadey gave no such assurance.

On Good Friday, police told the Catholics praying at Christ the King that they were participating in an “unlawful assembly.” No charges were filed, no fines were assessed. Since the congregation complied with the orders to go home, no one was punished.

But wait: Were any police officers punished or reprimanded for this gross violation of religious freedom? Did Church officials file complaints? Evidently not. Ten days later, two ranking police officials were invited guests, addressing a docile congregation. (The service on Divine Mercy Sunday was livestreamed; only a handful of parishioners were actually in the building.) Bishop John Wilson, whose Southwark diocese includes the Polish parish, said, “We are all deeply saddened by the events,” and offered a bland assurance that the concerns of Catholics had “been heard” by the police. Now, he said, it was time to “move forward in friendship.”

The joint appearance by the diocesan bishop and the police superintendent gave every indication that an informal agreement had been reached. Neither side would press its case. Church officials promised to abide by the city’s Covid-emergency rules—thus the livestreamed Mass on Sunday. And police promised to…

But you see that’s my point: the police promised nothing. Maybe there was an informal agreement not to invade Christ the King church again. But even if that was the case, the point was moot, since the parish had accepted the authority of the city’s emergency regulations.

This was a showdown: a clear conflict between the city’s power to impose rules on public gatherings, and the Church’s authority to set her own rules for liturgical celebrations. The city, through Detective Superintendent Wadey, expressed regret that the confrontation had taken place, but did not back away from its claim to authority. I wish I could see even a hint of a suggestion that the Southwark diocese also stood its ground, demanding respect for religious freedom.

The showdown in Southwark was particularly shocking, but the same sort of conflict has been taking place in many other places—usually, I’m sad to say, with similar results. In some places the emergency restrictions are onerous, banning public worship entirely. In Ireland, for example, the public celebration of Mass remains illegal. One brave priest defied the rules and celebrated Easter Mass for his parish congregation, and police did nothing. But Father P.J. Hughes already faces charges for the same offense. Other priests gathered with the faithful at “Mass rocks,” to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy as persecuted Irish Catholics had done in previous generations. Yet although the ban on the Mass appears clearly to violate the Irish constitution, the country’s hierarchy has only murmured its impatience.

Here in the US, the First Amendment gives explicit protection to religions and the Supreme Court has repeatedly slapped the wrists of overreaching civil authorities. Church leaders could make a convincing case that any restrictions on public worship should be treated as constitutionally suspect, thereby gaining ground for religious freedom. Yet Catholic bishops (outside Brooklyn) remain notably reluctant to assert their proper authority and challenge secular mandates. Rather than arguing that blanket regulations (mask mandates, social distancing, capacity limits) are unlawful, many dioceses have imposed their own rules that go beyond the public-health directives—apparently in a determined effort to prove that Catholic churches can be safer than other institutions. To date that strategy has been remarkably successful, insofar as Catholic churches have been protected from Covid outbreaks. Thank God for that.

But what if things turned out otherwise? What if our churches were no more or less safe than grocery stores and movie theaters and beauty salons and gyms. Would we then be willing to concede that the churches should be as severely restricted as those other institutions? Would we be ready to forego our First-Amendment claims? It is a serious strategic blunder, I submit, to defend the autonomy of the Catholic Church by claiming that our liturgical services are unusually sterile—a claim that under different circumstances may not hold. It is far better to argue that, sterile or not, Catholic liturgical services are essential, that they are recognized as essential by our Constitution, and that even if the Constitution did not recognize them as essential, faithful Catholics would.

At Mass just a few days ago, we heard the account of how St. Peter responded, when authorities in Jerusalem ordered the apostles to stop preaching in Christ’s name: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” There are times when civil officials feel obligated to issue regulations. There are also times when Christian believers feel obligated to ignore them. This is a battle that we lay Catholics cannot fight for ourselves; we need our bishops to lead the charge. So it is our challenge, as lay Catholics, to convince our bishops to act like what they are: not public-health officials, not bureacratic administrators, not public servants, but successors to the apostles.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: karen4999 - Apr. 14, 2021 4:09 AM ET USA

    Thank you Phil. I have been writing to our Bishop every time the situation worsened here in the Uk over the past year.. and all I have got back is letters refering me to the College of Bishops official statements on how safe vaccines are and how sterile our churches and a letter from a lay man echoing the same messages who had been delegated as an official spokesman for the Bishop. This abdication of responsibility is profoundly shocking. Thank you for your timely article. Karen

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 13, 2021 3:52 AM ET USA

    To non believers the Good Friday services were just an irrelevant theatrical performance in probable violation of the ever changing, and yet always sacrosanct, Covid rules. Sadly, many of the Catholic hierarchy seem to share the same mindset. I wonder if pope Francis would have nothing to say if a Muslim prayer service were cancelled by London police in the same way?