Pope Francis, in an address this morning to participants in the meeting promoted by the International Consortium of Catholic Media “Catholic fact-checking,” spoke out strongly against spreading misinformation and false science about the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccine.

He spoke about the duty of journalists and those who work in communications to work together with the scientific community to combat the spread of false or misleading information to the public. He described how such a collaboration is, in itself a witness, explaining how “At a time when we are feeling the effects of the pandemic and of divisions in society – and divisions in opinions – the fact that you are networking as Christian communicators is itself sending a message.”

The pope lamented how pervasive misinformation has become. “We can hardly fail to see that these days, in addition to the pandemic, an ‘infodemic’ is spreading: a distortion of reality based on fear, which in our global society leads to an explosion of commentary on falsified if not invented news. Contributing, often unwittingly, to this climate is the sheer volume of allegedly ‘scientific’ information, comments and opinions, which ends up causing confusion for the reader or listener.” This is an urgent message, especially when we consider the prominent Catholic figures and media outlets today who have eschewed both the scientific consensus on the pandemic and the Magisterium on the moral liceity of the vaccines—not to mention Pope Francis’s pleas that people receive the vaccination.

In his report on the address, Philip Pullella of Reuters also emphasized the relevance of this message in light of the current state of Catholic media, pointing out how “Some right-wing Catholic media regularly host Francis’ most severe critics, such as Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, an Italian who has been in hiding for nearly three years since issuing a broadside against Francis demanding his resignation.” Pullella reminds us that just this month that Viganó wrote that the virus was part of a conspiracy “to erase all traces of our identity as Christians,” and in the past has denied the existence of the pandemic, saying Satan is behind it.

Pope Francis then went a step further, stating that “to be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right. Correct information must be ensured above all to those who are less equipped, to the weakest and to those who are most vulnerable.”

Despite the strong and consistent message of the pope and Church leaders on our moral responsibility to take measures to prevent the transmission of the virus, many Catholics remain confused or unconvinced. I am frequently confronted by Catholics who reject the scientific consensus and the Church’s moral teaching on the vaccine. This is the sad result of our polarized Church. Those of us who are neither scientists nor ecclesial authorities are left with no choice but to rely on the guidance of others when deciding our response to the pandemic.

How do we, as Catholics, decide? It seems to me that the answers are straightforward. In matters of science, especially when the scientific community has reached a consensus about a particular issue, it makes the most sense to listen to the scientists who have dedicated their lives and careers to researching the question. This is what the Church has done, traditionally. Certainly there is a chance that the scientific establishment has gotten it wrong (the Galileo controversy being the famous case-in-point), but when it comes to choosing between the findings of peer-reviewed and repeatable scientific research and the claims of the types of independent researchers who have become popular on the internet, I’ll take my chances with the scientists.

Likewise, when it comes to moral and ethical questions, I’m not going to listen to radical traditionalists who embrace conspiracy theories and think the pope is an agent of the devil. I’m also not going to listen to the scientists. They are scientific authorities, not moral authorities. The scientists are very good at providing us with the facts and data, and they help us understand that data. But when it comes to making a moral choice in response to a scientific finding (whether it’s a question of medical care, climate change, or COVID-19), as a Catholic, I’m obliged to turn to another authority.

When it comes to moral questions surrounding the pandemic, I’m going to listen to “the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 100). And the pope has been clear about this: “Each of us has a responsibility to care for ourself and our health, and this translates into respect for the health of those around us. Health care is a moral obligation. … Vaccines are not a magical means of healing, yet surely they represent, in addition to other treatments that need to be developed, the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease.”

Here the pope applies the most reliable scientific knowledge available to Catholic morality on the common good for ourselves and those around us. He arrives at what seems to be, based on all the most reliable information at hand, what we should do. May more people follow his lead.


Image: Adobe Stock. By MuhammadSyafiq.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Pope Francis and the COVID-19 fake news “infodemic”
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