Sunday, November 04, 2007

Eucharist could mean 'water into fine'

A church-state dispute over the unlikely subject of drink-driving could be looming in Ireland.

Speculation that authorities might be contemplating a zero-alcohol limit for drivers has raised fears among Catholic priests because drinking consecrated wine at Masses could put them over the limit.

The Catholic priesthood in Ireland is suffering from a shortage of new recruits, meaning that some priests now have to serve several Masses a day, much more than when the priesthood was a more popular vocation.

But drinking consecrated wine is part of the Catholic Mass ceremony, so serving more Masses means drinking more of the religious wine.

Irish police have launched a fierce crackdown on drink-driving, with some rural publicans saying it has put them out of business with more customers staying at home, fearful of the breathalyser.

While drink-driving laws were enforced and observed with laxity in the past, revulsion at accidents on the country's roads has brought a transformation in public and official attitudes in recent years.

But despite the crackdown, the authorities on both sides of the Irish border are believed to be considering lowering the drink-drive limit even further, with Sinn Fein calling for a zero-tolerance limit such as in Hungary, Estonia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Suggestions of a zero-tolerance approach have been opposed from an unlikely quarter.

Father Brian D'Arcy - perhaps Ireland's best-known Catholic priest - has said that such an approach would be "risible" and would mean priests saying several Masses would be unable to drive legally.

"We want a law that allows people to drive and not drive people off the road. We want a law that's applicable and reasonable, not risible. Nobody in their right mind would want that," said Father D'Arcy, himself a teetotaller.

A household name in Ireland due extensive television appearances, his own radio show on BBC Radio Ulster, and newspaper columns, Father D'Arcy said priests have to drive to visit parishioners and attend emergency calls to administer the last rites.

'Insignificantly small amount'

"At the moment, you wouldn't go over the limit, but if they reduce it to zero it would hardly be possible to say multiple Masses and not break the drink-drive laws," he said.

"Priests are saying more Masses because there are less vocations. Some priests serve clusters of parishes meaning they are saying two or three Masses a day.

"Even if they just lower the current permissible alcohol levels for driving, you would be in great danger of being over the limit after three Masses," he added.

"It's such an insignificantly small amount consumed in saying Mass that it shouldn't affect driving. They should set a limit that's reasonable."

While other Christian churches which use wine in religious services have allowed non-alcoholic wine to be used, Father D'Arcy said the Vatican ruled out the use of non-alcoholic church wine or gluten-free bread in communion hosts - the bread used along with wine to symbolise the body of and blood of Jesus Christ in the celebration of the Catholic Mass.

"It's not possible to use alcohol-free wine. The Vatican said that if alcohol-free wine or gluten-free bread are used, it's an invalid Mass."

Other priests voiced fears of being over the limit, with one unnamed cleric telling the Tuam Herald in County Galway that he often serves several Masses in an evening in churches and nursing homes at which he must drink consecrated wine.

"I would often have to read an evening Mass in the church as well as another one in a nearby nursing home and then drive to celebrate a neighbourhood Mass, all in one evening," the anonymous priest said.

"If I only took a mouthful of wine from the chalice at all three Masses I feel that this could put me over the legal limit for driving. But if a call comes in that somebody is nearing death, I have no choice but drive to where that person is and give him or her the last rites," he added.

Plans in Croatia to bring in zero alcohol limits for drivers prompted criticism in the largely Catholic country in 2004 from the Catholic Church who said priests would have to be provided with transport to perform religious services.

West Belfast priest Father Hugh Kennedy feared the same might happen in Ireland. "It could lead to priests having to walk or cycle between Masses and in country areas where they have several miles to go they would have to take a lift or a taxi," he said.

"We are all for tackling the problem of drink driving and the deplorable problem of death on Irish roads. However we have to approach the problem in a realistic and sensible way. You can't put it down to zero, there has to be a bit of give and take."

Some priests pointed out that the problem could be solved by sharing it - with the congregation.

More traditional Catholic priests in Ireland however have tended not to share wine with their flock.

But zero-tolerance laws for drink driving could mean that even if they did, there would be few takers.

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