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Pope Francis sets the example

| Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dear Members of the Notre Dame Community,

Thomas Paprocki and Gerard Bradley argue that Catholics do not have a moral obligation to get vaccinated. Whether or not one agrees, it is important to realize that the leaders of the Catholic Church not only approve of vaccination, they highly recommend it. 

Pope Francis has called coronavirus vaccination a life-saving, ethical obligation, and has described the refusal to get the vaccine as “suicidal.” He has backed his words with actions. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have received the same Pfizer vaccine Notre Dame offered to its students. Further, Francis has mandated that all Vatican employees must be vaccinated. During Holy Week, the Vatican provided 1,200 doses of Pfizer to Rome’s poorest and most marginalized people.

Paprocki and Bradley also state as fact a number of claims that numerous medical experts disagree with. Citing no sources, they claim that those who have already had COVID have natural immunity and have no need to be vaccinated. This runs directly counter to the advice of the Center for Disease Control, which notes that reinfection is possible and recommends that those who have had COVID in the past should still get vaccinated.

Paprocki and Bradley further state “college-age students who test positive rarely experience severe symptoms.” This statement, which is apparently based only on hospitalizations and deaths, is highly misleading. Numerous studies are finding that as many as one third of those who initially seemed to be little affected by COVID, including younger people, later suffer from COVID-induced long-term health issues, such as cardiac problems, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder

Indeed, here on campus, Notre Dame student Megumi Tamura described how she was one of the many struggling with the loss of the senses of taste and smell. Similarly, Nathalie García wrote about how brain fog has disrupted her school year. I personally know a graduate student who still suffers from serious cardiac problems six months after contracting COVID. I have heard several other anecdotal reports of members of the Notre Dame community who are struggling with the long-term effects of COVID. To imply that hospitalization and death are the only symptoms of COVID that count as “severe” greatly understates the harms that COVID can and is creating for many people, including some of our students.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) firmly stated that those who decline to get vaccinated are still morally obligated to find other means to protect others. As Paprocki and Bradley note, the CDF said “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” 

Perhaps because they understate the risks of not being vaccinated, Paprocki and Bradley say very little about what such an obligation would entail. At Notre Dame, this might mean the continued wearing of masks, ongoing testing and avoiding public events such as parties and sports events. 

If students choose, for religious or other reasons, to decline the vaccines that the Pope himself used and recommended, I hope and expect that they will take the steps needed to protect the faculty who teach them, the staff who serve them their meals and clean their rooms, the immunocompromised students who may be forced to sit next to them and the members of the St. Joseph County community they interact with. (Incidentally, obligations to the community surrounding Notre Dame receive little attention from Paprocki and Bradley. While the Notre Dame campus may be able to achieve herd immunity, St. Joseph County is currently far from that mark. Our obligations to others do not end at the campus borders.)

We have the luxury of debating Notre Dame’s vaccine mandate; but while we do so, the world and the United States continue to suffer from the ravages of the pandemic. More than three million people have died from COVID worldwide and thousands more join them every day. There are millions of people in India and elsewhere who would be thrilled to have the simple and easy vaccination opportunities that so many Americans now take for granted or decline to take advantage of.

We must not delay any longer or continue to underestimate the risks we still face. I urge all members of the Notre Dame community to join with Pope Francis and Pope Benedict and get vaccinated as quickly as possible, so we can finally put the pandemic nightmare behind us. We should do this not only for ourselves, but for the countless others who are at risk of the disease and who are affected by our actions.



Richard Williams

professor of sociology

April 27

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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