Religion and pandemic: the role of the church

The value of a crisis such as the one that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, has devastated economies, and has brought into sharp focus the weaknesses in our political and social structures, is that we are presented with an opportunity to assess and to strengthen those structures and the institutions that form the collective backbone of our societies.

The issue of religion, and the role of the church in society, is one that deserves such reflection.

EU Today spoke with Dr. Massimo Introvigne, sociologist of religion, founder and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, and former OSCE representative on combating racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination.

Pope Alone 2

We asked Dr. Introvigne about the way in which churches have reacted to the pandemic, which took all of European, and indeed the world, by surprise, and also about the role of what we would term as New Religious Movements.

“The Church, indeed religion itself, was not really visible in this context until the pandemic really hit us. Then it became highly visible. When the Pope stood in solitary prayer under a white canopy on the steps of the basilica on March 27th the spiritual relevance of the church was both regained and understood. He was alone, but he was watched by more than one billion people.”

Dr. Introvigne also highlighted the role played by the clergy who worked tirelessly to bring relief and comfort the the sick, and to the bereaved, often at great risk, and at great cost, to themselves.

A thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities, It has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air...We find ourselves afraid and lost. We have realised that we are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other.

Pope Francis

Whilst EU Today has been unable to obtain precise figures, at least 121 priests are known died in Italy alone: the story of Father Giuseppe Berardelli of Bergamo who refused a ventilator in order that it be given to a younger patient who he did not even know with a better chance of survival touched the hearts of many. A healthcare worker who knew him was reported at the time as saying "He was a priest who listened to everyone, he knew how to listen, whoever turned to him knew that he could count on his help."

Dr. Introvigne is particularly known as a leading authority on New Religious Movements. We talked about the need for such: where does it come from and why? Might it be the case that in an increasingly liberal world the established church may be considered too conservative for many?

“It is possible, and yes, people have moved away from traditional authority in some cases. But understand that the new movements cannot be categorised: whilst some may be seen as liberal, others, for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are very conservative. Also, the new movements will over time develop their own authoritarian role.

“The new movements do not seek to absorb or replace that which exists, indeed we can see that the Roman Catholic Church is moving in a direction that is itself less ‘conservative’, with groups emphasising solidarity and actively addressing social inequalities.

“If the new movements themselves face one threat, it is that of ‘scapegoating’. In France, for example, such movements are accused of spreading the virus through the coming together of people. Yes, this is a valid point, but it is taken separately, whilst ignoring the valuable resource that a church brings to a society at a time of great difficulty and uncertainty. Take for example the Mexican Light of the World Movement, which is controversial but very active in doing good work. This good work is underreported due to the unpopularity of new religious movements.”

Scientologist Facemasks

Dr. Introvigne’s words were echoed by Ivan Arjona, who chairs the office that represents the Church of Scientology at the European institutions.

The church deployed “around 2000 volunteers in over 100 capitals and major cities of Europe to work with local authorities; helping to provide face masks, alcoholic sanitisers, gloves, even food where needed, often in the hardest hit hotspots such as Italy and Spain”.

In London, the church provided face-masks its volunteers had manufactured to St. George’s Hospital and other charitable organisations. It has also reached out online through its Stay Well Prevention Center.

The days we are living through will be remembered not just by the COVID-19 pandemic, for the hardship we have endured and the selflessness and sacrifice of the various church groups and indeed civil society as a whole, but also by the civil disturbances and political unrest emanating from the brutal killing of one man, George Floyd, in the United States.

During a speech delivered to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) on October 4th 2001, during a conference focussing on combatting racism and discrimination, Dr. Introvigne stated: “Social theory teaches us that economic crises generate stereotyping and scapegoating of minorities, easily degenerating into racism. Recent experience shows that this stereotyping is unfortunately not limited to marginal racist organisations, but occasionally contaminates mainline political speech.”

Prophetic words indeed….

Dr. Massimo Introvigne, sociologist of religion, founder and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, former OSCE representative on combating racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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