Editor’s note: The following opinion piece from Fr. Brendan Hoban was originally published by Western People newspaper and appeared on the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) website. It was suggested to The Current by reader Jack Madigan who says he regularly visits the ACP website “as it is a forum for priests and laity that are seeking a voice to reflect, discuss, and comment on issues affecting the Irish Church and society today. Regularly there are articles on topics such as, women in the Church, celibacy, LGBTQ issues, lay involvement, financial transparency, etc.” Above: Fr. Brendan Hoban, PP., Ballina. Picture Henry Wills, Western People
What, I wonder, will be the response to Ireland’s latest footballing star, Callum Robinson, scoring five goals for Ireland in just two international appearances, after 18 matches with just one goal? Up to this week, Robinson seemed to be more noted for having contracted Covid on two occasions yet famously refusing to take the vaccine than for his footballing exploits in the green jersey. A fair question is whether his example to his now legion of young (and not so young) fans leaves an ambivalent legacy?
As I write, numbers contracting Covid have reached a worrying 2,000-plus, numbers being hospitalised are rising (slightly), and numbers in ICU remain stubbornly high. The word from the deputy chief medical officer is that the spread of Covid can be partly explained by the refusal of 370,000 people to take the vaccine. And it’s emerging that a significant percentage of those who have opted not to take the vaccine are the people getting the virus, having to be hospitalized and needing ICU.
It isn’t that we didn’t know the repercussions of not getting the vaccine. The statistics before it became available tell the true story and no doubt we would be still in lockdown if the vaccines hadn’t raised the siege that Covid has laid at our doors.
The logical and obvious conclusion is that, despite all the evidence for the effectiveness of the vaccine, those who have influenced others not to accept the vaccine have brought and are bringing on themselves, their families and their neighbours, a legacy of serious illness, hospitalisation and sometimes death. There’s no sensitive way to say that. But it’s true. And we need to face it.
For some odd reason that I can’t get my head around, some very extreme Catholics have bought into the strange belief that a vaccine that has saved so many lives is part of a conspiracy to take over the world. At any level this is dangerous stuff but it has become almost a badge of honour in the foothills of religious extremism.
The example of some of the more infamous anti-vaxxers, including Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, has given a certain air of religious respectability to a campaign that to most people is the polar opposite of the unequivocal pro-life stance that’s a fundamental part of their agenda. Notoriously Burke, an emphatic presence in Rome among those criticizing Pope Francis, refused the jab, contracted Covid, was on a ventilator for some time and is now being looked after by his sister in Monterey, California.
Now, not undone by the influence of reason or common sense or the irrefutable evidence that their campaign is bringing illness, hospitalization and death in its wake, the anti-vaxxers are unapologetically extending their campaign to include harassing individuals they perceive as ‘leading the people astray’.
This is evident in their picketing of the homes of politicians Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris and the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, which has brought the anti-vaxxer campaign to a new low. To such a degree that questions are being asked as to whether a more robust approach needs to be taken, not just in terms of protecting public figures but in protecting public health and life.
For a time, the anti-vaxxers were a distraction, even an amusement, the nearest the media could find to an interest-group opposing public policy. This faded a bit after a few of their more vocal enthusiasts attempted to explain their rationale. The focus changed a bit towards a policy of giving them ‘enough rope to hang themselves’, giving them a platform to let them expose the very nonsense that they subscribe to by getting them to explain what they mean when they say that some (like Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton) are attempting to rule the world by establishing a new world order.
An example of such exposure was the stunning interview conducted some months ago by Claire Byrne on her RTÉ television programme with a woman completely out of her depth. In a strange way, it elicited not resistance or antipathy but pity that such a nice person had been so taken in by such blather that she had become an unwitting and ineffective vehicle for publicising it.
Generally, the anti-vaxxers occupy the same ground as other conspiracy theorists, like the QAnon protesters who were involved in the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington. What seems to be happening is that the usual control that common sense and intelligence bring to bear on outlandish and absurd notions seems to have been progressively diminished by figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson gaining electoral support despite how ridiculous the policies they adopt.
For Trump, as for Alice in Wonderland, words mean whatever you want them to mean. For Boris, lies are just part of the weather of his life, and blend effortlessly as the truth as he sees it.
This is what someone called ‘the progressive weirding of public life’ where logic and what we used to call ‘truth’ no longer really matter. And, if you get enough people to follow you, logic and truth are created on the hoof so that the margins between what’s true and untrue, what makes sense and what’s nonsense, becomes progressively narrower, even to the point of evaporation.
Who are these guys, as Butch Cassidy once asked the Sundance Kid? And what do we do with these people?
It’s coming to the point when the common good will demand that we do more than just accept that freedom involves the right to damage health and possibly end life? Or even maybe to question whether sports stars playing for team Ireland (like Callum Robinson) have larger responsibilities than just scoring goals against poor opposition.