I had a strange exchange with a user on this forum. They took a view I doubt Thomas Aquinas would have agreed with. They felt that anything that interfered with saying the Mass was persecution.

Let me give you two trivial examples where it logically is not and a real-world example where it might be.

Imagine a priest, for whatever reason, may be late to say the mass and is hurrying to church. Rather than go to a corner and cross at the light using a crosswalk, the priest walks between two parked vehicles and crosses in the middle of the street. A policeman detains the priest, even though they know why they committed the misdemeanor of jaywalking. The police officer explains that they never make exceptions based on rank or position and that they were to be detained until the officer writes the ticket. The priest is late but does make it to church.

Instead, imagine the same priest had lived in a different city and had forgotten to renew their vehicle registration. They are pulled over for a broken tail light. Upon inspection, the police officer impounds the vehicle as it is illegal for it to be driven. The priest never makes it to say the mass.

The other person argued that any use of the civil law that interferes with the mass is a persecution of the Christian Church.

There is a real-world flip side to this coin. Richard Nixon's former chief of staff admitted in an interview that the actual reason for the war on drugs and the making of certain drugs illegal was to facilitate the arrest of Nixon's political opponents. The law was targeted at blacks and hippies. If they could be blocked from voting by arrests, then Nixon would likely win the election. The language of the law is neutral but clearly written to target people on the basis of race and political affiliation. A law with completely neutral language could be written to target Christian churches.

Under Catholic and Orthodox theology, when would a law be considered as persecuting the church? Persecution is not a trivial thing, in my mind, and certainly not a claim to vainly bandied about.

  • Is something still persecution if it doesn't target a specific group but simply affects everyone? I think that's the mistake being made here.
    – kutschkem
    Nov 30, 2021 at 7:17
  • @kutschkem I guess that is part of the question to be answered. A sales tax impacts everyone in a state but it is difficult to hold that it is a form of persecution. It may be a bad idea or a good idea. It may have unintended side effects but persecution by sales tax would be a stretch. Nov 30, 2021 at 7:20
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    @kutschkem asks "Is something still persecution if it doesn't target a specific group but simply affects everyone?". If it affects everyone equally, no. The question is, what if it affects some identifiable groups more than others, even though there is no intent to do so? ¶ Criminal violence is bad. Taking action against it is good. But criminal violence tends to be more prevalent in poor neighbourhoods. If those neighbourhoods have disproportionate racial (e.g. USA) or religious (e.g. Ulster) representation, would that be persecution? Nov 30, 2021 at 15:08
  • @RayButterworth I am assuming the question is ACTUALLY about the current pandemic situation. There is no group, religious or non-religious, exempt from current measures against the pandemic. Not even corporate actors. Of course, if it turned out priests are pulled over more often than other people, this would count as persecution, just as it is racial bias if the same happens more often to poc.
    – kutschkem
    Nov 30, 2021 at 15:29
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    A priest is on his way to mass when he decides to shoot somebody in the head. A cop sees him and arrests him. The priest never makes it to mass. Is that persecution? Why not? Nov 30, 2021 at 19:54

1 Answer 1


Oh, I'm glad that I will get to respond in more than just a comment. I think this can offer some clarity to our exchange. My understanding of civil persecution is that laws are made which apply unjustly to a group. Meaning not that laws must be applied equally to all, but that laws must be applied to all in accordance with justice. I will show here that Aquinas would agree that any law which bars priests from celebrating Mass publicly (explicitly or implicitly) is unjust, and hence a persecution of the group to which those priests belong.

For context, my claim was that Ireland is persecuting Catholic priests who offer mass publicly while there is a rule not permitting public gatherings. In fact, it's not persecution because the law is targeted at Catholics, but because the right of the Catholic faithful to attend to their religious obligations should never be infringed. You see, the Church should enjoy a privilege over and above that of secular institutions, and I think that Aquinas would agree with this. The law as written makes no exception for Catholic Masses. There are two relevant points from Aquinas that I've found.

Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, "we ought to obey God rather than man." ST II-I Q96 A4


[I]t happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view. ST II-I Q96 A5

It would seem to me that Aquinas would agree that priests saying Mass publicly during a pandemic where there are emergency orders in place to keep large gatherings from occurring should have exception, under Divine Law and with an eye towards the common good. How much more important is access to the sacraments in times of uncertainty and plague than in better times?

For more clarity, I didn't say any civil law that interferes with the Mass is a persecution, but that there are priests in Ireland who were arrested specifically for offering Mass publicly, which is persecution. In your initial example, the priest isn't being persecuted even though he doesn't make it to Mass because the act for which he was detained was not "offering Mass publicly." In the case in Ireland, the act for which the priest was arrested was "offering Mass publicly," even if the law used to do the arresting doesn't explicitly call out offering Mass publicly as a crime, that is the act for which he was arrested. Referring to Aquinas, this is a case in which "the lawgiver... shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good... [I]f a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed." (ibid) I can think of nothing more hurtful to the general welfare than outlawing the public celebration of the Mass. Hence priests are owed an exception to the law to do so, hence giving them no exception is a persecution, even if the law is applied equally to all institutions (which we know it is not; the political elite in pretty much every Western country have been getting away with breaking their own Covid rules since early 2020).

  • Are they persecuting only Catholics though? Catholics are nearly 80% in Ireland, but if the other religions are also barred from public meetings, it isn't disproportional, and so isn't persecution of Catholics. One could argue that it is persecution of religion in general though, but again non-religious people are also affected by the ban, albeit not quite as much. I think that one would have to show some evidence of intent to hurt Catholics, or the religious in general, to have any reasonable case of persecution. Nov 30, 2021 at 17:12
  • @RayButterworth it is persecution because Catholics have an obligation to follow the Divine Law, which supersedes the civil law. This is no different than rules requiring passersby in Rome to sprinkle incense on the altar of Caesar. This affected gentile, jew, and christian alike, and yet the early church (and most modern accounts of history) counted it as persecution when they were arrested for refusing to do so. The law didn't specifically target Catholics, but Catholics were none-the-less persecuted by it, because they were forced to face punishment or violate the Divine Law.
    – jaredad7
    Nov 30, 2021 at 18:53
  • @jaredad7 a rather technical issue is present in your statement and western law. "Meaning not that laws must be applied equally to all, but that laws must be applied to all in accordance with justice." The problem is that is the job of a jury in the west, not a police officer. They do possess some discretion but most western legal systems require some kind of equal enforcement of the law. The system usually offers procedural justice as opposed to some type of abstract justice. Some legal systems require intent but many do not. US Federal law only requires intent when Congress says it does. Dec 1, 2021 at 5:39
  • @jaredad7 for example US securities laws generally do not require intent to break the law to be guilty of a crime. There was an unfortunate man sentenced to three years under a separate law because that person signed their name in the data section of a federal form and put the data on the signature line. The jury did not believe that they intended to break any law. Dec 1, 2021 at 5:43
  • @jaredad7 in the context of both Catholic theology and western legal systems, how is a priest owed an exception. That implies some entitlement that should pervade legal systems if someone believes any right is violated, not just religious ones. Courts, of course, regularly make exceptions to laws to guarantee the exercise of rights. When they do so, they use standards to determine the balance of rights of the various parties such as the general public versus the rights of observant Catholics. Dec 1, 2021 at 5:47

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