At Catholic Vote this morning: “Bishop Orders Unvaccinated Priests Not to Minister to the Sick.” I’m not going to comment on the details of that case, which others know far more about than I ever will. What I want to discuss is the concept in general, and why it deserves serious scrutiny. To do that though, let me tell you about my parish priest.
Who are we talking about when we say “unvaccinated priests”?
I have no idea whether my pastor is vaccinated. Haven’t asked, and if he’s mentioned it I’m not aware of it. I do know that he had COVID last fall, and that came as no surprise to anyone. Why? Because he is one of the many, many priests who have given their lives wholeheartedly to living in persona Christi.
Compared to his previous post, where he flew into active combat zones to make sure soldiers had access to the sacraments? Donning the PPE and administering Last Rites is just another day at the office to this guy. Yes, in fact he would rather die than risk your going to Hell. He’s that kinda guy, and there are many many other priests just like him.
So yep, despite doing all the things, no surprise he eventually got COVID, just like many healthcare workers who were observing precautions religiously have gotten COVID. Thankfully he recovered.
I’m not aware of any case of a parishioner getting sick from his non-vaccinated self administering the sacraments over the course of the first year of the pandemic (nor since), though it’s possible, of course. From what I’ve seen, he remains meticulous about using precautions at Mass. (And he was always the guy you could count on not to get spit on his hands giving communion on the tongue. Love that man.)
Since day one he has made sure parishioners could stay involved in parish life while isolating, and even as most parishioners have been able to return to in-person Mass and parish activities, the parish continues to livestream Mass and offer zoom-access to meetings and Bible studies.
Given his natural immunity as someone who has already had COVID, I trust he and his physicians have examined the question and made whatever decision is the most prudent on whether, how, and when to get vaccinated.
I expect many, many priests are in a similar situation.
In contrast, since these are the guys who do the funerals, I expect this late in the game there aren’t so many priests who simply think COVID is “no big deal.” They are on the front lines. They anoint the dying and bless the cadavers. They know.
So what are the effects of vaccine-shaming guys like this?
It shows you don’t know the difference between “unvaccinated” and “COVID-naïve”.
Given the age minimums for ordination, most if not all priests are in the age range where vaccinating is almost certainly the more prudent course if somehow Father has managed to evade COVID infection all this time.
And of course it’s possible that Father Heeldragger has somehow both never been infected and declined vaccination, despite Bishop Dataguy begging and pleading for his COVID-naïve priests to please, please, please just get the shots.
At this point, though, having seen Delta work its way through the population, I’m wondering what priest (not an introvert’s dream job) is both a COVID-denier and hasn’t been infected? Because the people I know who pretend this is no big deal (until the right body drops dead and then they realize it is)? These people aren’t staying home. They are out, getting exposed, getting infected. If Alpha didn’t get them, Delta’s doing sweep.
So yes, indeed, if there’s a priest out there who isn’t taking the virus seriously and who also hasn’t acquired immunity one way or another, for the priest’s sake the bishop might feel compelled to act, and is perhaps tempted to act in a dramatic fashion. But if a bishop is indulging in vaccine-shaming in the much more likely scenario that Father does have acquired immunity? It’s not just dumb, it’s dangerous.
When you “make an example of” of someone, you make an example of him.
You’re Bishop Prudentius and you want people to know that COVID is serious business. So you to say yourself: People need to know that Father Bullhead is a walking health hazard!
Okay, well, bad news: Father Bullhead has a following.
Now maybe Fr. B’s been at war with Bishop P. for the past year, and Bullhead’s unvaccinated status is public knowledge and a point of pride, and the vaccine-shaming is just another skirmish in the on-going war between the two. Fine. Whatever. I have no advice.
But what if Bullhead is in a far more common scenario: He’s kept quiet so far. Maybe he’s afraid of the vaccine because of a bad personal experience, or because of poor information he’s received. Maybe he thinks he already had COVID, even though it wasn’t confirmed at the time. Maybe he’s just overloaded or chronically disorganized and he meant to get vaccinated but never quite got around to it. But until now, Father B. has not made public his unvaccinated status.
What happens when his bishop does a public vaccine-shaming? Suddenly a whole pile of anti-vaxxers are affirmed in their decision to dig in their heels. Father B.’s not vaccinated, and he’s awesome! We love him! See, we’re not the only ones! If we got our shots now, we’d be betraying him!
Is it dumb? Sure. But do you really want to feed that dynamic? I hope not. What’s even worse, though, is the other kind of ignorance vaccine-shaming feeds.
Why yes, your vaccinated priests can also spread COVID.
Does vaccinating slow the spread? Looks like it, and thank God. But when you vaccine-shame priests (or anyone) by setting double standards on precautions, you are putting people in danger.
You are doing this by lying.
To act, in explicit, public ways, as if Vaccinated = Safe, Unvaccinated = Unsafe is to lie. It is simply untrue.
Vaccinating reduces risk of contagion, but it does not make your vaccinated priests safe to others. A vaccinated priest can still kill his vulnerable parishioners.
It doesn’t matter if, now that he’s had his shots, only a mere 5% of Father Compliant’s elderly and immune-compromised parishioners die at his holy, venerable, and vaccinated hands, thanks to the infection-reducing powers of modern medicine. Those people will still be dead, thanks to an attitude of devil-may-care, he’s vaccinated, la la la. Better than more parishioners dead, if that’s how you want to look at it, but still too many.
Y’all. Knock it off. And for goodness sakes the flu hasn’t gone out of business either.
Which would be why my parish’s clergy are still sanitizing and masking up for communion, ya know?
Vaccine-shaming is a dangerous distraction.
The best information we have at the moment suggests that COVID-naïve adults (at least those of ordination-age and older) should get vaccinated unless they have a serious contraindication otherwise, and that at-risk persons of any age should get vaccinated if possible. So yes, bishops should strongly encourage their COVID-naïve priests, if they have any, to get vaccinated. Please.
But the reality is that vulnerable persons remain vulnerable, and that vaccinated persons remain potentially infectious.
Therefore, the prudent course is to:
Use basic hygiene and ventilation for everyone all the time. Who really wants that nasty stomach virus the kids are about to start spreading anyway? This includes, by the way, having subs lined up for your religious ed teachers. Yes, I said that. Don’t pressure volunteers to come serve sick.
Default to specific measures to prevent infection in close-contact situations, such as when administering the sacraments. You could still allow a less-vulnerable, asymptomatic priest to say something like (if true), “If want me to remove my mask while I anoint you, I’m comfortable with that, but the default is to leave it on. Whatever you prefer is fine.”
Use extreme caution with highly-vulnerable persons, even if the priest administering the sacrament is vaccinated and asymptomatic. Continue to dispense the faithful from Sunday Mass if they have serious reasons to avoid public gatherings. Continue to offer lower-risk ways of accessing the sacraments. Continue offering ways for parishioners who need to isolate to remain involved in parish life.
And if the priest is the highly-vulnerable one, keep on protecting him, too. Please.
Photo, worth a click-through: Rainbow Valley, Australia. CC 2.5. On first glance the red-rock formations remind me of parts of the US desert southwest, but when I look again, nope. Completely different. Except when it’s not.