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Bishops’ acquiescence makes restrictions on worship possible

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

The US Supreme Court has issued a very clear ruling that government officials cannot impose special restrictions on religious worship under Covid-emergency rules. If churches are subject to restrictions, the same restrictions must apply to other institutions; otherwise the rules are prima facie indications of discrimination against religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment. This ruling, the Supreme Court has also clarified, must be applied by all federal courts.

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So why did a federal court in Massachusetts reject a Catholic layman’s legal challenge to restrictions on worship? The court ruling explained: “There is no evidence, however, that the Archdiocese [of Boston] instituted its protocols only because of Governor Baker’s orders.” On the contrary: in Boston and in many other places, bishops have made a special point of saying that they are releasing special rules for their churches on their own authority, not because of the governor’s orders.

(And it’s just a coincidence, we are asked to believe, that the bishop’s orders happen to match up neatly with the particulars of the governor’s emergency regulations.)

A governor’s restrictions on churches can be appealed in a court of law. A bishop’s orders cannot. So when the bishop issues orders to his priests that match the governor’s restrictions, he thereby insulates the governor from legal challenge—from the sort of legal challenge for which the Supreme Court has already shown its sympathy.

So if you believe that the emergency restrictions in place where you live constitute a violation of your right to worship freely, don’t be too quick to blame the civil authorities. The blame might lie with your bishop.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jan. 27, 2021 4:41 PM ET USA

    I often ask myself what God wants the U.S. to contribute to the very long-term growth of the Church, and perhaps it’s the idea that the earthly government of the One True Church should be considered a republic, with a written constitution which its authorities may violate only at their spiritual and canonical peril. Yes, Christ is our King, and ultimately we’re subjects in a divine monarchy; but even the most exalted bishop, the Pope, is a vicar, not the King Himself.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 13, 2021 12:16 PM ET USA

    When most if not all U.S. bishops feed at the government trough, in transparent opposition to the vaunted "wall of separation", their day-to-day operations are impacted by the strings that accompany the questionable funding agreements, the unholy alliances between individual bishops and individual politicians, the cooperation in the moral evils these politicians and their destructive public policies commit. A bishop's job is to lead his diocese into holiness without deference to the worldly.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Jan. 12, 2021 9:14 PM ET USA

    A bishop's orders can't be challenged in court, but they can be appealed to Rome. Of course, that is a slow process and no guarantee of success. The Vatican is as locked down as most parish churches in America.

  • Posted by: bjettner3980 - Jan. 12, 2021 7:38 PM ET USA

    I totally believe American bishops have been complicit with civil authorities in instituting draconian repression of a basic right -- religious freedom. Many dioceses have taken federal money for various programs and have taken PPP loans to keep their offices afloat; they are, unquestionably, beholden to the government and so, if their actions over the past 10 months match, and sometimes exceed government mandates re Covid, that is not a coincidence -- it is a shame and a scandal to the faithful