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Pope Francis calls anti-vaccine sentiment ‘baseless’ in his annual state-of-the-world speech

Pope Francis leads a Mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on Jan. 9. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

ROME — In a sweeping speech on the pandemic and other global issues, Pope Francis on Monday called for widespread vaccination in all countries and suggested the global coronavirus response was being complicated by “baseless information or poorly documented facts.”

“Vaccines are not a magical means of healing,” Francis said, directly addressing vaccine hesitancy as the omicron variant surges. “Yet surely they represent, in addition to other treatments that need to be developed, the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease.”

Countries that have widely used vaccines, the pope noted, have seen a reduction in severe cases.

“It is therefore important to continue the effort to immunize the general population as much as possible,” Francis said.

After days of halting statements about vaccine morality, multiple Catholic leaders call the shots urgent, important

Francis’s remarks on the pandemic came at the beginning of a 35-minute address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, an annual speech that doubles as a primer on the pope’s worldview. Many of his remarks Monday were familiar, as Francis hit on themes at the center of his pontificate, including climate change and migration, while also drawing attention to global hot spots such as Yemen and Syria.

But the pope also homed in on an idea that he felt connected the crises — challenges he said required global responses.

Instead, he said, there was fragmentation.

“This only fuels further tensions and divisions, as well as a generalized feeling of uncertainty and instability,” Francis said.

To that end, he lamented the declining trust in multilateral diplomacy. He said mistrust was part of the problem in the pandemic, as well: A lack of clear communication from authorities had generated confusion.

Vaccine resistance cuts across nearly all religions, and in Catholicism, some conservatives have critiqued the use of vaccines, based on the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. But the Vatican has made clear that it feels otherwise. Its doctrinal body last year said coronavirus vaccines were morally acceptable. More recently, the Holy See issued a vaccine mandate for all employees. Francis, meanwhile, has described vaccination as an “act of love.”

As part of his speech Monday, Francis delved into one other ripple effect of the pandemic: school closures and remote learning. Many young people have taken refuge in “virtual realities,” the pontiff said, in ways that could be detrimental and isolating.

“In making this point, I in no way intend to deny the usefulness of technology and its products, which make it possible for us to connect with one another easily and quickly,” Francis said. “But I do appeal urgently that we be watchful lest these instruments substitute for true human relationships.”

Francis, 85, is nearing the nine-year mark of his pontificate, and he has made clear that he views the pandemic as an epochal challenge — and a chance for humanity to reevaluate its priorities. As a result, Francis has moved over the past year with urgency, pushing for controversial reforms inside the church and traveling abroad with more regularity than many other leaders.

His speech Monday included one modest papal first: He cited the idea of “cancel culture.” Francis came upon the theme while discussing the weakening of international organizations, undermined by the differing visions of members. In those debates, the pope said, there was diminishing room for freedom of expression. “Cancel culture,” he said, was “invading” many public institutions.

“Under the guise of defending diversity, it ends up canceling all sense of identity, with the risk of silencing positions that defend a respectful and balanced understanding of various sensibilities,” Francis said.

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