Catholics in France Divided on COVID Vaccine ‘Health Pass’

Access to churches and other faith communities is not expected to be restricted by the country’s anti-COVID measures, which take effect Aug. 1.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on a TV screen as he speaks during a televised address to the nation from the temporary Grand Palais in Paris on July 12. Macron announced that a 'COVID pass' will be needed in restaurants starting Aug. 1.
French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on a TV screen as he speaks during a televised address to the nation from the temporary Grand Palais in Paris on July 12. Macron announced that a 'COVID pass' will be needed in restaurants starting Aug. 1. (photo: Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

PARIS –The French government has increased pressure on its people to vaccinate by expanding the locations that will require a “health pass” for entry. 

The country’s president Emmanuel Macron’s declared objective is to avoid a new coronavirus surge in the fall through an aggressive vaccination strategy. 

“Vaccinate as many people as possible, everywhere, at all times,” he said in his July 12 address to the nation, during which he announced that the anti-COVID health pass first introduced on June 9 will be extended to almost all public spaces beginning Aug. 1.

The requirement, which Reuters reports to be among the toughest in Europe, includes restaurants, cafes, long-distance trains, and cultural and leisure venues, such as museums and cinemas, with more than 50 people.  Previously the health pass was only applicable to large public events that hosted more than 1,000 people. 

In addition, COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for all workers in health care and retirement homes.

Places of worship, however, were not mentioned in the presidential speech, although Macron said that the health pass could be extended to more activities in the coming months, depending on the situation.

Contacted by daily newspaper Le Figaro, spokespersons for Jean Castex, Prime Minister of France, confirmed that places of worship did not require the health pass, as they “benefited from a constitutional protection” affirmed last year during the COVID crisis. 

Despite this new flexibility towards religions, however, Catholics are divided on how the extended health pass may impact their daily lives. 


Question of Access

During his July 12 speech, Macron noted that “vaccination is not immediately obligatory for everyone,” but he added that “the health pass will be extended to the maximum, in order to push a maximum of people to go and get vaccinated.” 

To access venues that require the health pass, any person older than 12 will have to present a negative COVID test, or prove through a QR code (obtained through an app provided by the government, “TousAntiCovid”) that they have received the COVID vaccination or recovered from the virus in the last six months.  

Beginning in August, according to Macron, this compulsory health pass will be applied to cafes, restaurants (including those with outdoor terraces), shopping centers, hospitals, homes for the elderly, and airlines and other modes of long-distance transportation. Vaccination is mandatory for health care workers and those who do not comply risk having their salary withheld or being fired from their positions.

Amid protests in Paris and elsewhere in the country this week, the French government has finalized its proposed legislation and debate has begun in Parliament. 

No Pass for Places of Worship?

The de facto exemption of places of worship from the revised health pass could be motivated by the precedent created by the appeal filed before the Council of State by Catholic associations, at the end of November 2020. The appeal sought to address the government’s decision to limit attendance at religious services to 30 people. Considering that such a decision was “disproportionate in relation to the objective of preserving public health,” that “the activities carried out there are not of the same nature” as in other public spaces and that “the fundamental freedoms at stake are not the same,” France’s highest administrative jurisdiction sided with the complainants. 

Prior to this, in May 2020, the same court reaffirmed that freedom of worship was a “fundamental right” when it ordered the French government to lift a COVID-related ban on religious worship in the country. 

Before the court’s 2020 ruling, the government had imposed a “general and absolute prohibition” on religious gatherings in places of worship as part of the reopening of the country after the first lockdown. 


Personal Responsibility

Shortly after Macron’s address to the nation, the Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) issued a press release in which they took note that churches were not part of the list of places requiring a health pass for visitors. 

The CEF, called on Catholics to take “their own responsibility towards the vaccine,” while also claiming that the conference will “remain vigilant regarding the respect of religious freedom, as it has been since the beginning of the crisis.”

In an interview with the Register, Vincent Neymon, the CEF’s spokesman and assistant general secretary, said that requiring a health pass for access to a church is contrary to the Catholic faith, but the CEF won’t issue injunctions at this time.

Neymon noted that bishops and parish priests may deny people who are not fully vaccinated access to their churches, adding that the CEF understood the president’s approach. 

“We cannot say that we are against it, since the vaccine seems to be a solution in the fight for the common good, which means that the responsibility of each person is engaged,” he said. 

In this sense, the French bishops seem to align themselves with Pope Francis, who during an interview in January, called on “everyone” to be vaccinated, for ethical reasons.

Questioned about the legitimacy of the concern among Catholics about the side effects that can be caused by the COVID-19 vaccines and the moral issue that some of these vaccines can raise, Neymon said that these reservations are motivated by a mere political ideology. 

“The CEF doesn’t have this same mistrust of vaccines, which only concerns a small portion of the population, which includes Catholics,” he said. “Those who do not want to be vaccinated because of the vagueness and uncertainty surrounding these vaccines against the coronavirus have the right not to do so, but they have to draw conclusions for their daily life and accept the constraints imposed by the government.” 

“It is the price to pay for freedom,” Neymon added. 


‘Historical Rupture’

The establishment of the health pass has nevertheless drawn the ire of a number of Catholic faithful, associations and websites like Renaissance Catholique and Le Salon Beige that denounced with one voice a “health dictatorship.”

Catholic philosopher François-Xavier Bellamy, who is also a member of the European Parliament and, expressed his concern in an opinion column published shortly after Macron’s speech. 

In his column, Bellamy considers the extended health pass to be a “historical rupture” for the country. In his view, the implementation of such a measure is disproportionate to the objective pursued, and will transform “credibly and in a potentially irreversible way our daily lives, our human relationships, or society model.” 

Strong opposition also emerged among the clergy, especially on social media. 

On Twitter, Father Simon d’Artigue, who serves at the Cathedral of Toulouse in southern France, satirized the assumption that he would have to stand at the entrance of his church to control with the help of QR codes, which Catholics could attend Mass. Highlighting the character of this pass, he also quoted personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier’s assertion that “the mass of men prefer servitude in security to risk in independence.”

Another clergyman, Father Stéphane Drillon of the Diocese of Nice in southeastern France — best known as “Le curé enragé” (the enraged parish priest) through his YouTube channel — made an appearance at one of the many public protests against the health pass that gathered hundreds of thousands of people across France on July 17. 

The idea of a health pass had already been dismissed by Father Michel Viot of the Diocese of Blois in western France on his blog, a few days before it first took effect in June. 

“It is clear that the current government wants to know everything about the health of each French person,” he said. “For the moment, it only concerns what revolves around the COVID business, but appetite comes with eating!”