Pope Francis, well-known for his freewheeling conversations with journalists aboard the papal plane, yesterday called out COVID-19 vaccine resistance within church ranks as he flew home from Hungary and Slovakia. And he went straight to the top.
“Even in the College of Cardinals, there are a few ‘deniers’ [‘negazionisti’] and one of them, poor man, is hospitalized with the virus,” Francis told journalists on the flight, according to a translation of his Italian remarks.
Then he added, “Mah, ironia della vita…”
Well, the irony of life…
The comment was an apparent reference to American Cardinal (and frequent critic of Francis) Raymond Burke, who spent time on a ventilator this August after contracting COVID-19. Burke, who is now engaged in intense rehabilitation, has been a public critic of vaccines. And Burke’s concerns have extended far beyond the more common Christian concern about using a product tested on fetal cell lines derived from abortions.
According to a recent Associated Press article, “Burke also has warned people that governments were using fear of the pandemic to manipulate people. He spoke out against mandatory vaccinations in May 2020 and said some in society want to implant microchips in people.”
Pope Francis has been vaccinated. He also approved a December 2020 document on the “morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines.” The document made it clear that, “when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available,” it is “morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” (The document does call on pharma companies to “produce, approve, distribute, and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience.”)
At the same time, the Vatican argues that vaccines are not “moral obligations” and thus should be “voluntary.” But those who do not want them must still “pursue the common good,” which means that they “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and who are the most vulnerable.”
The vaccine issue has been roiling the Catholic church, not just in the US but around the world. The topic came up in Slovakia during the pope’s visit there; it has appeared in recent Canadian op-eds; and it’s a live issue in Italy, where a 72-year-old local doctor complained to his bishop that a convent’s Mother Superior was an anti-vaxxer who spent way too much time forwarding misinformation from her phone. Plot twist? The Mother Superior is the doctor’s own sister.
As for Francis, he doesn’t seem to know what to make of the current clamor around vaccines. Humanity “has a history of friendship with vaccines,” he said yesterday, including the measles and polio shots that are given without objection to most children around the globe.
As for the resistance, “I don’t know how to explain it well,” he said.