Churchgoers in Victoria call for the reopening of churches in 2021. The Archdiocese of Vancouver has announced it will review the impact of the pandemic and restrictions on the Church in Vancouver. B.C. Catholic files

Archdiocese of Vancouver to assess impact of pandemic restrictions

  • April 1, 2022

The Archdiocese of Vancouver will conduct a review of how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Church in Vancouver, how the archdiocese responded and what, if anything, should be done to improve responses in future emergencies.

The announcement of the far-reaching review was made March 23 and came while criticism mounted over the narrow parameters of a B.C. government pandemic review that will not be examining the consequences of the province’s pandemic-fighting orders, including restrictions on faith communities.

The archdiocese said it will assemble a working group to examine how the Church — including the archdiocese itself, all 77 parishes and individual Catholics — responded to the pandemic, which was officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.

An archdiocesan spokesman said the working group will gather submissions from outside experts, clergy and laity and will consult with other faith communities on the impact of the disease itself, media, communications, social changes and government measures on the Catholic community, as well as the archdiocese’s handling of the pandemic and various restrictions.

It will consider what has been learned and identify areas for improvement.

The working group wants to complete its work by summer in order to capitalize on the ongoing public discussion regarding how governments, churches and individuals should handle future pandemic responses. Much of that discussion currently centres on the B.C. government’s internal review.

As announced March 16 by Deputy Premier Mike Farnworth, the review’s terms of reference will focus only on how decisions were made, precluding it not only from assessing the impact of economic and public-policy decisions made by the government, but also from tabling any recommendations.

As well, the review team will not be assessing any lockdown, mask or vaccinate-mandate policy orders issued by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

B.C. Liberal health critic Shirley Bond told The B.C. Catholic that the government should have launched a comprehensive, independent review of every aspect of the pandemic response.

“That must include public health decisions and the impacts they had on various groups — including faith communities,” she said. “We need to look at how prepared government was going into the pandemic and what lessons need to be learned in order to ensure government is better prepared to respond to future crises.”

Bond’s former colleague in the B.C. Liberal caucus, Rich Coleman, said it is “highly disappointing” that the provincial review is so narrow.

“I think what they’ve left out is all that is important,” said Coleman, who was an opposition MLA when the pandemic broke out and is now retired from politics.

Coleman, a member of St. Nicholas Parish in Langley, said restrictions on religious gatherings “never ever got justified” by Henry. Incongruities such as orders that shut down church gatherings while still allowing hundreds of people to shop at a Costco were never adequately explained and therefore now need to be put under a public spotlight.

“I think we deserve to know,” he said.

Andrew Bennett believes the B.C. government didn’t consider the importance of religious faith when it closed churches during the pandemic because officials lack understanding of the nature of religious life.

“Government has an ignorance of the nature of sacramental worship,” said Bennett, program director for Religious Freedom and the director of Faith Community Engagement at Cardus, a non-partisan think tank.

“They were also responding to so much fear stoked among the public. They had the idea that we have to keep people safe, take prudential measures, vaccinate, distance, masks.”

The government’s failure to see the importance of having churches open likely contributed to questionable decisions such as harsh restrictions on churches while allowing liquor stores and restaurants to stay open, he said.

Asked about the need for a full and open review of the impact Henry’s restrictions had on faith communities, Philip Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League, cited a remark last year by B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, who noted Henry never had to explain fully her decisions.

Horgan said the justice’s observation “exposed the inadequacy of the outreach (to faith communities) by medical officers and questioned the extent to which those authorities took seriously religious freedom, generally.”

The government’s lack of transparency in making its pandemic-related decisions clearly needs to be reviewed, said Heidi Tworek, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in History and Policy of Health Communications at University of British Columbia.

“I’m genuinely perplexed by it because I think it leads to suspicion,” Tworek told reporters. “This is quite strange, in a way, to have a review that is so limited, and I think that does raise questions as to what are going to be the findings that come out of it.”

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