Hairdressers, pubs and restaurants stay open while our religious leaders fail to put a strong case for places of worship

closed church
The myth of the wealth of the Catholic Church is about to be well and truly exposed. It might own plenty of buildings, but the church has little cash. Its parishes and dioceses are massively dependent on their weekly collections.

According to the Dublin archdiocese, revenue from the two collections staged each Sunday was down 80% in the three months ending in June, compared with the same period last year. The archdiocese is in the process of shedding dozens of staff, because the money is running out. Some priests have told me it will soon be difficult for their parishes to cover their insurance costs.

Since public masses were allowed to begin again at the end of June, collections have recovered only a little, because of strict limits on the numbers allowed to attend. This is true around the country, and must be affecting other churches as well.

Those who don't care for the Catholic Church, or religion in general, may welcome what is happening as a positive side-effect of the pandemic. But hundreds of thousands of Irish people are still actively engaged in their churches. Religious organisations continue to offer moral, spiritual and material support to individuals up and down the country, including to those who have no religion at all but receive help from the likes of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Even before the pandemic, numbers attending church were declining, but the coronavirus has accelerated this trend in a big way. According to a new Amarach Research poll commissioned by the Iona Institute, of which I am the director, regular mass attendance among Catholics prior to this outbreak was 27%, far lower than a few decades ago but still high by the standard of most European countries.

No one was allowed to attend public worship right through April, May and almost all of June. What happened to religious practice during that unprecedented time? Another Amarach poll showed that, by mid-April, 27% of people had watched religious services online, which is the same level as were attending mass weekly before the lockdown. One in five people said they were praying more.

On June 29, the public were allowed to attend religious services again. How many Catholics have returned to regular mass attendance since? The new Amarach poll puts the answer at 36% of those who were coming pre-Covid. Given the strict limits on how many can attend church at any one time, that's not bad. The poll shows that most other worshippers are also not back yet, either because of the limits placed on numbers or because they are too scared. A majority of mass-goers are above the age of 65 and therefore in the age group most vulnerable to the virus.

From the church's point of view, the most important question is, how many will come back once the pandemic is over? About 4% of people who were going to mass regularly before the pandemic told Amarach that they would not come back, but an alarming 19% said they didn't know. In other words, almost a quarter of pre-Covid mass-goers either definitely won't be back or are not sure. The longer this goes on, the worse things will get.

When any part of the country goes into level three of the government's new plan for living with Covid, public worship must stop again. Dublin has now been placed somewhere between levels three and four. Under level three, pubs can stay open "with additional restrictions". You can attend an outdoor gathering of up to 15 people. You can go to your hairdresser or barber, to the gym, or to a shop to buy clothes. But under level three you won't be able to go to mass, or the mosque, or a synagogue for anything but private prayer.

To put it another way, the government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) think being able to get your hair done is more important than attending public worship. They may protest that going to a church, where there will be dozens of people, is more dangerous than going to the hairdresser. But there might be dozens of people in a restaurant as well. And your hairdresser or barber will be hovering directly above your head.

So what is the justification for banning public worship again? What is the evidence basis for the decision to impose tight restrictions on churches in level three rather than waiting until level four or five?

Earlier this month, Nphet produced a report showing where clusters of infection had erupted since the pandemic started. Most were in private houses or care homes. A handful started in pubs or restaurants. None was recorded as starting in a church. That's mainly because the churches, thanks to big teams of volunteers, have been fantastic at ensuring the health guidelines have been observed. Going to mass is extremely safe. Yet Nphet and the government are not allowing for this.

In addition, no European country I can find has stopped public worship again, including those with much higher infection rates than Ireland, such as Spain and France.

Why aren't religious leaders here demanding to see evidence that justifies the government policy? Why aren't they pointing out what is happening in other European countries?

In France last May, a group of Catholics legally challenged the ban on public worship there. Judges ordered the French government to permit public worship on the grounds that the ban was causing "damage that was seriously and manifestly illegal", and was "disproportionate to the objective of preserving public health".

At the rate things are going, I think the pandemic will accelerate the decline of attendances in the Catholic Church, and probably other churches as well, by about five years. Covid is devastating whole sectors of society including city centres, the hospitality industry, sport, the arts. What is happening to the churches is merely a symptom of the enormous damage being wreaked on civil society as a whole, quite aside from the gigantic economic hit we are taking.

What is particularly galling is the lack of any pushback from religious leaders. Why are they being so spineless? Why don't they look to what happened in secular France? Why don't they consider making an argument about the constitutional rights of religious worshippers?

Religious leaders should be making the strong case that what the government and Nphet are doing seems wholly disproportionate, given the lack of evidence that attending public worship is dangerous.