Pope Francis on COVID-19 Vaccines: ‘Even in the College of Cardinals There Are Some Deniers’

The Pope may have been referring to Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was placed on a ventilator in August after testing positive for the coronavirus. Afterward, Cardinal Burke had continued to improve.

Pope Francis speaks during an in-flight press conference from Slovakia on Sept. 15.
Pope Francis speaks during an in-flight press conference from Slovakia on Sept. 15. (photo: Vatican Media / National Catholic Register)

Discussing COVID-19 vaccines during an in-flight press conference on Wednesday, Pope Francis said that “even in the College of Cardinals there are some deniers.”

The Pope was responding to a question posed by a journalist at the end of his four-day visit to Slovakia and Hungary on Sept. 15.

The reporter noted that the initial requirement that only fully vaccinated people could take part in papal visit events caused controversy in Slovakia.

He recalled that the Pope had described receiving the COVID-19 vaccine as an “act of love” and asked how it was possible for Christians with contrasting views to be united on the issue.

The Pope said: “Humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines. As children, we got them for measles; for other things, for polio. All the children were vaccinated, and no one said anything.” 

“Then this [opposition] happened. This was perhaps due to the virulence, the uncertainty not only about the pandemic, but also about the different vaccines, and also the reputation of some vaccines which are nothing more than distilled water. This created fear in people. Then [there are] others who say that it is a danger because with the vaccine you are infected. So many arguments that have created this division.”

He continued: “Even in the College of Cardinals there are some deniers, and one of these, poor guy, is hospitalized with the virus.” 

The Pope may have been referring to Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was placed on a ventilator in August after testing positive for the coronavirus. Afterward, Cardinal Burke had continued to improve.

The 73-year-old American cardinal is not the only cardinal to have contracted COVID-19. 

Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso and Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, both tested positive and recovered from COVID-19 in March 2020.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, was hospitalized with the virus in November 2020. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg tested positive in January, as did Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga in February.

After he was taken off the ventilator and moved from the ICU to a hospital room, Cardinal Burke gave thanks that God had brought him to a “point of healing and recovery.”

Known for his outspoken defense of traditional Catholicism, Cardinal Burke is the former leader of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Diocese of La Crosse in his home state of Wisconsin.

He served as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura from 2008 to 2014. Pope Francis appointed him as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in 2017.

LifeSiteNews reported in May 2020 that Burke affirmed in an online talk that it is “never morally justified to develop a vaccine through the use of cell lines of aborted fetuses.”

It added that the cardinal said that vaccination should not be imposed on citizens “in a totalitarian manner” and spoke of the possibility of microchips being planted under people’s skin, permitting them to be “controlled by the state regarding health and about other matters.”

Pope Francis, who received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, in January and February, has repeatedly encouraged Catholics to be vaccinated and has promoted the fair distribution of vaccines throughout the world.

He said in a public service announcement produced in collaboration with the Ad Council in August that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is “an act of love.”

“I pray to God that each one of us can make his or her own small gesture of love, no matter how small. Love is always grand,” the Pope said in the PSA, published Aug. 17.

The COVID-19 vaccine has been a controversial subject in Slovakia, where, as of Sept. 15, only half of the country is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, well below the 71% of adults fully vaccinated in the European Union overall.

A Slovak Academy of Sciences poll in July found that 36% of Slovakians said they did not want to receive the COVID vaccine, up from 30.9% in May. The same month, hundreds of people gathered outside Slovakia’s parliament in protest of possible new vaccine rules.

In July, Slovakia’s health minister and the Catholic bishops' conference announced that only those who had been fully vaccinated would be allowed to attend events during Pope Francis' Sept. 12-15 visit to the country.

But in early September, authorities eased this rule to also allow those with a recent negative test result or recovery from COVID-19 within the past 180 days to attend if they registered in advance.

Local media reports suggested that registration for the papal events had been at just 13% of their capacity, with 57,000 people having registered to see the Pope as of Sept. 2, in a country of 5.5 million people, 62% of whom are Catholics.

“We knew there would be some problems with this,” Father Martin Kramara, the spokesman for the Slovakian bishops’ conference, told CNA in August, in reference to the obligation to be vaccinated.

At the time the decision was taken, the alternative given by the authorities was to have a maximum 1,000 people in attendance at each event, in spaces that could theoretically hold up to 50,000 people, Father Kramara said. He added that the bishops were tentatively expecting as many as 100,000 people at the pope's closing Mass at the national shrine in Šaštín. 

Attendance at some events in Slovakia was lower than projected, with an estimated 25,000 young people present at an event in Košice’s Lokomotiva Stadium, half the stadium’s capacity, and about 60,000 at the national shrine in Šaštín, which could accommodate 100,000 attendees, as originally tentatively projected.

Concluding his response to the question on vaccine skepticism, the Pope said: “I do not know how to explain it well. Some say it comes from the diversity of where the vaccines come from, which are not sufficiently tested, and they are afraid. We must clarify and speak with serenity about this. In the Vatican, everyone is vaccinated except a small group, which they are studying how to help.”