What A Ban of Mass Means for the French Catholic Identity
Countries across Europe are entering into lockdown as the region enters another wave of COVID-19. In some places, like France, new COVID-19 cases are surpassing spring levels. On October 29 French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the closure of nonessential businesses for at least four weeks in response to the sharp-increase in cases that France has seen since August. The country currently has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other European country. Unlike the nationwide lockdown in the spring, schools and factories across France will remain open, while nonessential businesses like bars and restaurants will close during the lockdown period. The lockdown order has been met with contention by some French citizens. French Catholics, in particular, were incensed that mass had been banned across the country during the lockdown period.
Religious gatherings where individuals are infected with COVID-19 are often deemed “super-spreader events,” where one person infects a disproportionate number of other individuals. Researchers in Hong Kong estimated that 20% of individuals infected with COVID-19 were responsible for 80% of local transmission, highlighting that even one infected individual attending an event can have wide-reaching repercussions. Many factors aside from a COVID positive individual contribute to a gathering potentially becoming a super-spreader event, including ventilation, the number of people in attendance, and the time those people spend together. According to the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest risk gatherings are, “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.” Mass services typically meet all of this criteria, with many people gathering inside poorly ventilated churches with little room to socially distance.
French authorities have reason to fear that religious gatherings like Catholic mass may inhibit their goal of curbing the spread of COVID-19. On February 17, before COVID-19 began spreading en masse across Europe, the French evangelical church Christian Open Doors began a 5 day prayer meeting that many attribute as being a catalyst for the first-wave of COVID-19 in France. When the prayer meeting began, France had only twelve confirmed cases of COVID-19 and none were in the Alsace region of France where Christian Open Doors is located. After the gathering, the virus was still widely viewed in France and across the world as a problem the Chinese were battling. Because of this belief, the hundreds of people who developed cold and flu symptoms, that are now known to be characteristic of COVID-19, were largely ignored by public health authorities. It was not until March 2, when a man who attended the prayer meeting tested positive for COVID-19 in Nîmes, France, 388 miles from the church, that public health authorities realized the prayer meeting was a “super-spreader event.” By the time the event was declared a “super-spreader event,” public health authorities could not contain the outbreak. Although church leaders reject any blame placed on them for the wide reaching ramifications of the event, the situation highlighted the dangers associated with large group gatherings, like communal prayer.
On November 15, scattered protests erupted in France with French Catholics calling on the government to allow religious services during the nationwide lockdown. The largest of these protests was in Nantes, a city in western France, where hundreds gathered to protest the ban on mass services. The French government, for their part, has allowed churches and other religious sites to remain open for individuals to visit and pray but, the traditional Sunday mass has been banned for the time being. Benoist de Sinety, the vicar general of the Paris archdioceses, expressed a mixed reaction to the government's ban on mass and the ensuing protests telling French Catholics that the protests “aren’t useful” while also claiming that mass is “a vital necessity.” The government grouping mass with other nonessential or leisure activities, like eating a meal in a restaurant, frustrated many French Catholics and inspired many to protest.
While the government of France is undoubtedly secular, Catholic roots run deep in the country. Public holidays are almost exclusively Christiain and roughly 60% of the population identifies as Catholic. The now secular government of France was born out of long fought battles to remove Catholicism from classrooms, politics, and other public institutions. While Catholicism was forced out of public institutions, Catholic identity remains an important fixture of French society. On April 15, 2019, when the Notre-Dame Cathedral caught on fire in France, the country was reminded of how deeply rooted Catholicism is in their society. Guillaume Cuchet, a historian of Christianity, noted that the culture of Catholicism has outlasted the “erasure of religious practices.” Even as the French government continues to push secularism in public life, it is important to remember the deep roots Catholicism has in French society and recognize that those roots will not disappear overnight.
Understanding the strong hold Catholicism maintains in French society helps to explain why so many were angered by France’s ban on mass in response to rising COVID-19 cases. One protestor likended not being able to attend mass to being deprived of food, “we need our spiritual food.” The same protestor argued that mass service should resume because churches can ensure sanitary procedures and social distancing. However, it is important to note that even with frequent cleaning and social distancing, indoor gatherings, especially in poorly ventilated buildings, pose a significant risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The debate around mass as an essential activity, like a medical appointment, or a leisure activity, like going to a restaurant, maintains a contentious point between the French government and those who view their French identity as indistinguishable from their Catholic identity. Religious people argue that mass is more essential now than ever, with COVID-19 upending livelihoods, social activities, and so many other facets of life. Furthermore, it is clear that Catholicism is closely connected to French identity, with much of France’s art and culture revolving around Catholicism. On the other hand, public health experts point to the dangers of indoor gatherings, like mass, especially when COVID-19 cases are already surging. France, will need to have a reckoning with the religious members of its country to create a solution whereby individuals are able to fulfill their spiritual needs while keeping themselves and the greater community safe from COVID-19.