Three Catholic Archbishops: A viral infection

Sep 29, 2021
anti-lockdown protest melbourne
Anti-government protesters in Melbourne. (Image: AAP/James Ross)

One would hope that, at a time of crisis, archbishops would be careful not to lend their authority in a way that could be construed as supporting anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown sentiments.

Melbourne Catholics and, indeed, many other Christians, might have been surprised on Grand Final Saturday to read on the front page of The Age that their archbishop was interceding with the Victorian government to allow unvaccinated worshippers to join indiscriminately with the vaccinated when restrictions on church services are lifted in November.

One might have thought that, at the end of a week when violent protests by anti-vaxxers and their associates had disrupted the city, such encouragement by the archbishop was, to say the least, less than timely. Even more surprising and embarrassing to the Catholic community might have been the realization that in making this request the Melbourne archbishop was echoing a similar request that had been made by the archbishop of Sydney of the New South Wales government a month or so ago.

Further, and even more disconcerting might have been their recollection that, also a month ago, the archbishop of Hobart had displayed a similarly cavalier attitude to the dangers of transmission when he had asked the Tasmanian government for an exemption so that unvaccinated Catholic priests and chaplains might continue to provide pastoral services to patients in hospitals and aged care homes.

What is it about these Catholic archbishops that in a pandemic they seem to be more insistent on the rights and privileges of the individual than they are on the danger to the community that mixing the unvaccinated with the vaccinated continues to pose?

This is all the more remarkable when one takes into account the numerous occasions on which Pope Francis has indicated that it is a moral duty and obligation to be vaccinated. It is, to say the least, unusual for Archbishops, especially Australian Archbishops, to be seen to be singing even a little out of tune with the papal chorus.

Except, of course, that this is not the first time in recent history that the incumbents in Sydney and Melbourne have begged to differ from the Vatican authorities.

In racing parlance, they have form.

Over a year ago both the archbishop of Sydney in the first instance, and his Melbourne counterpart soon after, cast doubts on the moral legitimacy of recourse to vaccines that had been developed from cell lines derived from aborted foetuses, specifically the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Despite the consensus of Catholic moral theologians that the use of these cell lines was so remote, both in time and in intention, from the original abortion that, particularly in a time of a global pandemic, their use was morally justifiable, the archbishop of Sydney, along with his Anglican colleague and the Greek Orthodox primate, went out of his way to suggest that access to the AstraZeneca vaccine might legitimately constitute a crisis of conscience for some Christians.

He did this not only despite the consensus of moral theologians but also despite a series of Vatican pronouncements to the same effect between 2005 and 2020, pronouncements of which he belatedly confessed he was aware when he made his alarmist intervention. He was followed in this dissenting view a month or so later by the archbishop of Melbourne.

As we know, many American bishops and archbishops of a reactionary ilk have not hesitated to distance themselves from Pope Francis.

Perhaps these three Australian archbishops are of a similar mind. That is their prerogative.

But one would hope that, at a time when anti-vaxxers and their cohorts are not only casting doubts on the efficacy of the vaccines but also insisting, paradoxically with violence, that discriminating between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in community contexts is an assault on individual freedom, the archbishops would be careful not to lend their authority in a way that could be construed as supporting such sentiments.

Otherwise, we might be inclined to ask how far are the archbishops removed, not only from Pope Francis and “the smell of the sheep” and “the field hospital”, but also in their own archdioceses from the Covid wards and the exhausted staff of their Catholic hospitals.

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