Italian journalist decries suspension of church services during coronavirus epidemic

Just a quick note about a journalist whining about something ridiculous in the New York Times: the government-mandated restrictions on church attendance in Italy during the coronavirus attack. As you know, the whole of Italy is now locked down, with public gatherings discouraged (and, in the case of outdoor gatherings and sports events, suspended). Indeed, all religious services have been suspended as well—at least until April 3.

That caused Mattia Ferraresi, a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, to wring his hands over how, when we need religion most, the government is quashing its expression. Note, though, that Sunday masses are still being televised, so the faithful can still have their Jesus experience. But that’s not enough for Ferraresi. Read by clicking on the screenshot:

What is weird about this article is although its author admits the necessity to curtail public gatherings of any sort during epidemics, he still kvetches and beefs about the quarantine. His quotes are indented.

First the admission:

No one should dispute the need to strictly limit ritual gatherings and comply with public safety regulations, especially after the services in the secretive Shincheonji Church became a hotbed of infection in South Korea. Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine. Political decisions aimed to guarantee public safety should be based solely on scientific evidence.

But for believers, religion is a fundamental source of spiritual healing and hope. It’s a remedy against despair, providing psychological and emotional support that is an integral part of well-being. (It’s also an antidote to loneliness, which several medical experts point to as one of the most worrisome public health issues of our time.)

Then the kvetching. While the only rational view of what to do in such an epidemic is to ban gatherings of any sort, including religious ones—for public need and safety takes precedence over the sociality of believers, the author comes close to saying that no, the rights of the faithful to come together should be supported. Have a gander:

At a deeper level, religion, for worshipers, is the ultimate source of meaning. The most profound claim of every religion is to make sense of the whole of existence, including, and perhaps especially, circumstances marked by suffering and tribulation. Take such claims seriously enough, and even physical health, when it is devoid of greater purpose, starts to look like a hollow value. The history of religions is full of believers who risked their lives to defend their freedom of worship against some sort of authority. After the Roman emperor Diocletian prohibited Christians from gathering for worship, some of them were caught celebrating Mass in the town of Abitinae, in present-day Tunisia. They were tortured and eventually killed. Asked why they violated the emperor’s command, one of them replied, “Without the Lord’s Day, we cannot live.”

Get that? Because Christians were thrown to the lions and tortured, then secular Italians should also be forced to risk their lives by allowing crowds to transmit the virus to others. What sense does that make?

In Italy, a traditionally Catholic country where only about 20 percent of the population attend weekly Mass, churches are being treated as providers of nonessential services, like movie theaters and concert halls. That has sparked intense reactions among some Catholics, who see the celebrations as particularly essential at a time when an invisible and pervasive menace strikes not just bodies but also souls, spreading panic and eroding social trust. What’s the difference between a handful of people gathering in a church, keeping safely at distance from one another, and groups meeting at restaurants, bars or riding the subway? The question is a practical one but hints at an underlying tension around religious freedom that the medical emergency is revamping.

I’ll tell you what the difference is. It’s not just a “handful” of people gathering in a church—in Italy it’s often hundreds or thousands, particularly in St. Peter’s Square when the Pope appears. And in a bar, if you choose to go, you can stay six feet away from the nearest person (a safe distance, we’re told), while in church you’re jammed in the pews right next to, behind, or in front of another worshiper. Besides, they didn’t suspend service during bombings in WWII:

The Catholic hierarchy readily complied with the Italian government’s decisions. Too readily, according to some. “The interruption of public worship has been welcomed by the Italian Church with some bureaucratic laziness,” wrote the church historian Alberto Melloni in the newspaper La Repubblica. The Episcopal Conference of Italy made a weak gesture of protest — in a statement it complained of a “highly restrictive” decree — but went no further. Some commentators have lamented that religious authorities didn’t try — or didn’t try hard enough — to reach a compromise that would allow celebrations to continue, perhaps complying with the sanitary regulations by, say, capping the numbers of participants or shorten celebrations by reducing them to their most essential elements. Critics of the decision noted that Mass in Italy was not suspended even during the bombings in World War II.

Yes, but you had a choice about going to church during the bombings, and those who didn’t go weren’t themselves at risk if a church were bombed. That’s not the situation with coronavirus, when infection of one believer by another can spread when they go out in public. Believers don’t just go to church and then quarantine themselves, you know.

Finally, Ferraresi wrings his hands one last time when he should be washing them:

The tension between physical health and spiritual comfort is in some ways an irreconcilable one — a dilemma in which acting to protect an indisputable value inevitably generates some sort of interior starvation. Nonetheless, there’s something sad about how this time around, the tension has barely been treated as something real, to be genuinely grappled with.

Well, maybe it’s sad for those who can’t go to church, but remember, they can watch services on television. And what’s the point of mourning something that’s a rational measure to protect public health? The rights of all Italian citizens, regardless of faith or no faith, supercede the “right” of believers to go to church. Ferraresi’s claim that “even physical health, when it is devoid of greater purpose, starts to look like a hollow value”, is simply hogwash, and a justification that regulations shouldn’t prohibit people from infecting others if they do so in God’s House.

The only parallel I can think of in America, and it’s a good one, is the exemption given to religious people for being vaccinated. As Wikipedia notes, every U.S. state save all states except Mississippi, California, West Virginia, Maine and New York allow their children to be exempted from vaccinations on religious grounds. While in most states those unvaccinated children won’t be allowed to attend public school, they still risk the health of others whom they encounter in non-school situations. This is another situation when, I believe, the good of the society supercedes the wishes of the religious. All children, unless they are immunocompromised or have some other conditions that makes vaccination a danger to them, should be required to be vaccinated, regardless of their faith.

Back in Italy, the state has made a wise choice. And desite Ferraresi’s beefing, maybe some good will come out of this: believers will realize that they don’t really need the Church to provide their “ultimate source of meaning”



  1. Ken Phelps
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    As usual, church management understands reality better than its marks do.

    • Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      They know it’s false … but useful.

      • Andy Lowry
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Not to mention remunerative.

  2. Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Read this string on Twi*ter to see how bad it is…

    • Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Yes, based on test results coming in: It seems to me that it is already everywhere.

  3. Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Those Italians got it all wrong: The Italian government needs to sacrifice 17 goats, one bullock, and 113 doves, and then consult with the soothsayer, before making any decisions.

    • dabertini
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Are you forgetting that the vatican has an official exorcist? Isn’t it time he gets to work?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget the augury

      • Filippo
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        And the entrails of some poor beast.

  4. Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Your last paragraph I suspect captures the precise reason that Ferraresi objects to the suspension of church services – he is worried precisely by the prospect of believers realizing that “they don’t really need the Church to provide their “ultimate source of meaning””

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    For what shall it profit a man should he abate a nation’s pandemic yet lose his own soul?

  6. Frank Bath
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    And if our journalist was faced with something as deadly as the plague?

  7. Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Amazingly, the scriptures predicted these troubled times, and hath provided an answer to his troubles.
    “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew, 6:6.

    • sted24
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      I believe that may have been superseded by the elavation of a new Virtue, Signalling.

  8. Historian
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I am waiting to hear from theologians opine on how the pandemic is really a good thing since human suffering is necessary because it brings people closer to God and helps them appreciate the wonders of life in those rare moments when there isn’t suffering. It amazes me always how adherents to the Abrahamic faiths fail to realize that their deity is an extraordinary example of sadism, which, to them, is a clear sign of love. But, then again, reason is rare in the human species. Besides, no matter how miserable life is in this world, faith will result in eternal bliss in the next world and that’s what’s really important.

    • Posted March 11, 2020 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      since human suffering is necessary because it brings people closer to God

      Ah, the Mother Teresa doctrine.

  9. GBJames
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 9:31 am | Permalink


  10. Eric Grobler
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    A question for our American friends; is testing for Covid-19 free in the US?
    And is testing available on demand?

    • GBJames
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      It is hardly available at all. Complete bungling by the administration.

      • loren russell
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        certainly true in Oregon. Despite hoarding and minimizing, the state health dept is down to its last 100 kits. And not looking very hard to extend the effort.

        Keeps the numbers beautiful though.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        I suppose the best way to keep figures low is by not testing!

        Is testing the responsibility of each state or the federal government?

        • GBJames
          Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          It is supposed to be led by the federal government… the Centers for Disease Control.

          Unfortunately, tRump and his team didn’t think that it was important to maintain the team that had been established for handling pandemics. And who needs science if you are a very stable genius.

        • Pierluigi Ballabeni
          Posted March 11, 2020 at 6:11 am | Permalink

          “I suppose the best way to keep figures low is by not testing!”

          This is happening in Switzerland. Two days ago the government decided that people with light symptoms will not be tested anymore. They are asked to stay at home and wait until they are cured. Officially to avoid surcharging the hospitals.

          • Eric Grobler
            Posted March 11, 2020 at 7:08 am | Permalink

            “hat people with light symptoms will not be tested anymore.”

            Yesterday Switzerland cases increased by more than 50% to 497!

    • Andy Lowry
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Considering that our government-funded health agencies are censored and prevented from telling us anything useful, how would we even know how to get a test?

      And no, a ball or two were dropped when it came to coming up with test kits.

  11. Posted March 10, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Not even justified during the war bombings. A bomb could have injured hundreds, diverting viral resources to care for them when other people would need care.

  12. Curtis
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Bars and cafes are allowed to be open with the 6 foot restriction but churches are not? That seems ridiculous.

    I am an atheist but I know many people who gain from attending church in a time of crisis. Not allowing someone to talk with their spiritual advisor seems needlessly cruel especially if they have suffered from a loved one’s death.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      “Not allowing someone to talk with their spiritual advisor seems needlessly cruel”

      I think even the religious know how to use telephones and Internet connections. I give them at least that much respect.

      • Curtis
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        IMO, that is awfully condescending. As you are aware, face-to-face discussions are much more emotionally meaningful. We did not evolve with phones and they are poor substitute for connecting to people.

        • GBJames
          Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          OK. I’ll be less condescending. So I’ll say this…

          I give them at least enough respect to understand that avoiding infection of other people with a potentially deadly virus is more important than having a face-to-face meeting with a few hundred other people in order to sing the praises of the lord.

          Even religious people, most of them, would rather not get sick or make other sick. Seems to me that the condescending position is not to grant the faithful with being able to behave responsibly in the face of a pandemic.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

              The Onion has Franky urging priests to refrain from molesting children over coronavirus fears.

          • Curtis
            Posted March 10, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

            My original comment was “Bars and cafes are allowed to be open with the 6 foot restriction but churches are not? That seems ridiculous.”

            I do not see why churches should be more restrictive than bars. Perhaps, there is a medical reason but I cannot think of one.

            • GBJames
              Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

              In churches people sit next to each other in pews, not away from each other by 6 feet. In churches (many, anyway) people share vessels filled with liquids. They kiss hands. They hug the person next to them. They gather in much larger groups than people in a bar.

              Have you always been an atheist? Perhaps you just don’t remember/know the actual behaviors of people in churches?

              • Curtis
                Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                I thought it was obvious that I supported churches having a the same restrictions as bar – 6 feet distances with no kissing or sharing of anything. Perhaps bars have more experience with disinfecting things. If that is the reason, then I stand corrected.

          • sugould
            Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            Televangelist Jim Bakker can still make a killing off his flock his peddling his Silver cure. Can he be forced to stop?

            • rickflick
              Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

              Bakker is an incurable fraud. in 1989 he was sentenced to 45 years in prison for fraud. The sentence was later reduced to eight years, and he was released in 1994. He could have gone on to sell high end cars or real estate, and made a good living, but he just couldn’t resist the thrill of defrauding millions. Somehow these criminals have it in their blood.

    • Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      It would be reasonably easy to mark the pews, and/or standing places, at 6 foot intervals. I’m with Curtis – the least restrictive rule should be used that can accomplish reasonable protection.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Come on, guys, church-going is about ritual… doing things like you always have. Marking 6 foot distances on pews? Unlikely.

        Public health considerations really should trump ritual habits.

  13. Posted March 10, 2020 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Don’t you think the whole “six feet is safe” idea is BS? In a bar with a working a/c system, presumably the virus would be carried in directions determined by whether it was on when an infected person sneezed or coughed and what direction the vents were pointed. People also touch surfaces in a bar then move on. If an infected person had a drink and left, where they sat is presumably a hot zone for quite a while. All we really know is that 6 feet is better than 5 and worse than 7.

    • dabertini
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes it is all relative. Best possible scenario is to quarantine oneself. But 7 feet is better than 6…

      • rickflick
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        I now carry a ten foot pole.

        • Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          I walk into a bar… and knock myself out.

          • rickflick
            Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            You need to wear a helmet.

            • Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

              Lol, yes and apparently a helmet will help against Covid-19 (from pictures I’ve seen)

              • rickflick
                Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

                A helmet can help when you hear a sneeze in the grocery store and you dive for cover. 😎

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but I read a Corvid infected person’s sneeze carries the virus 10 feet. Plus everything else you said.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Is that 10 feet as the crow flies?

        Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

        • Mark R.
          Posted March 10, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          Ha…or Caw! damn typos. 😉

      • Posted March 10, 2020 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        “a Corvid infected person’s sneeze”

        Hah! I’d like to see that!

        Assuming you meant COVID, I totally believe a sneeze could carry it 10 feet or more. Viruses are tiny so the droplet that carries them can be tiny as well. We all know that tiny droplets can actually circle the globe when suspended in moving air. And what exactly kills a virus in that environment anyway? It’s not like a virus consumes anything. It’s not going to starve like a bacterium. Sufficient sunlight or harsh chemicals would do it but I suspect that under most conditions it is another one of these half-life things. If someone says it lasts 2 hours on a surface like a cup or a desk, it means that half are still alive after two hours and some live to the next day.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 10, 2020 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

          I have read that the virus does not travel large distances due to a sneeze. Not sure exactly why except that most of the spray drops quickly groundward. Would a tiny number of viruses in a very small droplet cause illness? I think it varies with the kind of virus.
          Heat, of course, kills virus. It is expected the problem should subside in the temperate zone around the beginning of June when temps climb.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Good grief even the pope self isolated and performed a normally packed ceremony remotely using technology and he’s the head religious guy the Catholics

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Because Christians were thrown to the Lions only infrequently and during specific times during the Roman empire, I had a professor, when I studied Classics, who said that the Romans were uninterested in watching Christians and lions fight because Christians were were pacifists and died easily. Ha ha. He was Scottish.

  16. Taz
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Having grown up Catholic, I’m certain there are plenty of Italian kids who are secretly happy they’re not “allowed” to go to church.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as a lad forced to go to church, I would be overjoyed if the church closed. Most of my friends weren’t church goers, and by the time I got home on Sundays, they were all out having fun and I’d be left at home to ponder how church sucked. If cell phones existed back then, I guess I could have hooked up with them.

  17. rickflick
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Confusion reigns. It not only reigns, it pours.

  18. phoffman56
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Alternative: Go in, but stay for at least two weeks.

    At 30 sec. per ‘Hail Mary’, you’d get in slightly over 40,000 of them. That would free up a lot of space in purgatory.

  19. Steve Pollard
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    One of my daughters lives in Italy. Her partner is head chef at a restaurant that has been forced to close until this crisis is over. I’m a lot more bothered about him and his 18 co-workers who aren’t going to be able to earn a living for the next month or so than I am about this joker who’s not being allowed to talk to his invisible magic friend in public.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 10, 2020 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, no one has a handle on how hard the world economy will be hit. It’s just starting here in the US and the response has been anything but adequate.

  20. Filippo
    Posted March 10, 2020 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    In today’s hard-copy NY Times, a page one headline reads:

    “Italy Puts the Whole Country On Travel Limits Like China”

    From the article:

    ” . . . the scope of the clampdown In (sic) Italy . . . immediately raised the question of whether an entire modern European nation protective of its individual freedoms would make the necessary sacrifices.”

    No government has met the exacting requirements of the NY Times in its response to the coronavirus. the Times has gotten in every dig it could at authoritarian China, as evidenced by the headline. (I contemplate whether one should give the Times a quitclaim deed to his/her/their life.)

    But now several of the United States governors have issued state-of-emergency statements. What is the individualism of a “modern European nation (one of several with socialist tendencies) protective of its individual freedoms” compared with that of that hothouse of “American Exceptionalism”?

    (Ain’t nobody gonna tell me whut to do! Ah’m an Amuricun!)

    A few days ago there was a Times op-ed to the effect of the ordeal an Amuricun had to endure in having to stay on board a cruise ship. (I wonder how that would compare with the ordeal of actually having been sick with the virus.) Today there’s another, “My Ordeal to Get a Coronavirus Test.” I gather no one else had to endure that particular ordeal, or was worthy to have it written up in the Times.

    I figure any government, of whatever political/ideological stripe, is going to do whatever it takes to contain the spread of this virus. If the U.S. deems it necessary to take the steps taken by Italy and China, I look forward to seeing the NY Times squirming to square its coverage of U.S. efforts and curtailing of freedoms with its coverage of China’s. I look forward to its editorial position on the Italian journalist’s whining about church closings.

    (I’m reminded that I frequently hear from the Times about Chinese and Russian propaganda. The word is never used in conjunction “American.” The Times couldn’t report China’s successful landing of a moon probe, – an accomplishment in which any country could take reasonable pride – without uttering “Chinese propaganda.”)

    • Posted March 10, 2020 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      “I figure any government, of whatever political/ideological stripe, is going to do whatever it takes to contain the spread of this virus.”

      I think you overestimate the U.S. government, as shaped by recent policies. It’s devil-take-the-hindmost around here.

      • Filippo
        Posted March 11, 2020 at 5:59 am | Permalink

        “I think you overestimate the U.S. government, as shaped by recent policies. It’s devil-take-the-hindmost around here.”

        Do I overestimate the likelihood of Amuricun individualism (and sense of entitlement) to be a stumbling block to containing the virus in the U.S.?

        (Yesterday I heard some fifth graders caterwauling about having their field trip cancelled. I told them they should take it up with the coronavirus if they thought it would do any good.)

        • Posted March 11, 2020 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          Amuricun individualism seeps into our government too, is what I was trying to say,

  21. Pierluigi Ballabeni
    Posted March 11, 2020 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Il Foglio is a right wing obscurantist newspaper. It is not a surprise that they could publish such an article.

  22. FB
    Posted March 11, 2020 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Watching Mass on TV is fine, but there should be a delivery service of the Holy Communion, as well. I don’t know what the regulations are about transporting body tissue, though.

    • FB
      Posted March 11, 2020 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m working on my syntaxes.

  23. Posted March 12, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Many Italians also traditionally get comfort – sometimes – from soccer. Are the soccer games cancelled?

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