Pope Francis Tells Catholic Media Consortium: Accurate Information on COVID-19 Vaccines Is a ‘Human Right’
The Holy Father criticized ‘fake news’ about the vaccines, but according to some Catholic commentators the consortium’s catholic-factchecking.com website is biased itself.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said on Friday that it is a human right to be “properly informed” with scientific data, rather than “fake news,” in a meeting with a Catholic fact-checking group focused on COVID-19 vaccines.
“To be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right,” Pope Francis said on Jan. 28.
“Fake news has to be refuted, but individual persons must always be respected, for they believe it often without full awareness or responsibility,” he said.
The Pope met with the International Catholic Media Consortium on COVID-19 Vaccines, which runs the website catholic-factchecking.com.
“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,” the Pope said.
“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.”
The consortium includes Aleteia, I.Media, Verificat, and Our Sunday Visitor. It receives scientific consulting from the Barcelona-based Institute for Global Health. The group was awarded a grant in 2021 from the $3 million COVID-19 Vaccine Counter-Misinformation Open Fund sponsored by the Google News Initiative.
Google announced last March that, through the fund, the Catholic consortium would join a “scientific committee and two research centers to source misinformation and create a database of related fact checks available in seven languages for Catholic media outlets around the world.” That entity was subsequently established as catholic-factchecking.com. The media giant’s corporate values on such issues as contraception, abortion, and gender ideology place itself firmly in opposition to the Catholic Church.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., operates a health care division called Verily that has worked closely with major vaccine manufacturer Pfizer and other large pharmaceutical companies, and also on projects related to the COVID-19 vaccines. It is currently working with Pfizer and the Duke Clinical Research Institute to look at the long-term safety of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Because of the site’s funding by Google, its impartiality has been questioned by some other Catholic media outlets, including the Church Militant which first reported the funding connections.
In a Jan. 20 post, Aleteia responded to reports about the project’s funding sources, saying that allegations that Aleteia had ties to George Soros or Bill Gates were “unfounded.”
“Aleteia has never solicited funds from either the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Open Society Foundation. Aleteia accepted the Google grant only on the condition that we would maintain our editorial independence. As a result, the grant has not directed or influenced our editorial line,” it said.
In its most recent article — posted four months ago — catholic-factchecking.com provides “the opinion of the WHO and the FDA” in response to a question about an article claiming that nasal irrigation could reduce the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
Another fact-checking entry posted in August 2021 states: “An article asserts that deaths from Covid-19 ‘are increasing’ in the United Kingdom, and that ‘the vast majority of the people who allegedly died from covid-19 had been vaccinated.’ This is DECEITFUL.”
“Although the official data show that the majority of deaths recorded are of vaccinated people, this has nothing to do with an alleged ineffectiveness of the vaccine, but because Scotland has fully vaccinated 65.5% of the population, so it is to be expected that more and more of the deceased will be vaccinated (because there will be hardly any people who are not). This is because the efficacy of the vaccine against the most severe forms of the disease and death is never 100%.”
Some Catholic commentators have expressed skepticism about the phenomenon of fact-checking. Writing about the consortium on Jan. 14, Phil Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, argued that fact-checking is a “practice in which self-appointed watchdogs claim to have refuted a statement, when in fact they have merely offered another opinion.”
Lawler examined the catholic-factchecking.com site, and noted that it promises not to “offer polarized information for or against the different vaccines.” But Lawler said “that is simply not true” and that the site “offers a steady diet of support for vaccines, with never a nod to the public-health experts who question the effectiveness and/or the safety of the vaccination campaign.”
He added that the site’s “‘experts’ patiently explain why there is no plausible moral objection to the Covid vaccines; the site provides no room for the moral theologians who disagree.”
The Pope told the group that in its mission to combat disinformation and fake news, “the fundamental distinction between information and people must never be overlooked.”
He underlined that a Christian communicator should be a “builder of bridges” in the search for truth, rather than inciting conflict with “an attitude of superiority.”
“His or her approach … does not simplify reality, so as not to fall into a kind of ‘fideism’ when it comes to science,” Pope Francis said.
“Science itself is a constant process of advancing towards the solution of problems. Reality is always more complex than we think and we must respect the doubts, the concerns, and the questions that people raise, seeking to accompany them without ever dismissing them. A dialogue with those who have doubts.”
Pope Francis 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 last August that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is “an act of love.”
The Vatican underlined its support for COVID-19 vaccines shortly before Christmas amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
Pope Francis told the fact-checking group that “the search for truth” should not yield to the “commercial interests of the powerful.”
“Being together for truth also means seeking an antidote to algorithms projected to maximize commercial profit,” he said.
He added that the “antidote to every type of falsification is to let ourselves be purified by the truth.”
“For Christians, truth is never merely a concept having to do with judgment about things. Truth regards life as a whole,” Pope Francis commented.
“The only reliable and trustworthy One — the One on whom we can count — is the living God,” he said. “Hence, Jesus can say: ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6). We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves as the loyalty and trustworthiness of the one who loves us.”
Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin contributed to this report.