OPINION: A Cardinal’s All-Too-Human COVID Hypocrisy

Sep 22, 2021
5:24 PM

In this Sept. 6, 2018 file photo, Cardinal Raymond Burke applauds during a news conference at the Italian Senate, in Rome. Cardinal Burke, a top-ranking Roman Catholic cardinal says he will soon begin rehabilitation after contracting COVID-19. Cardinal Raymond Burke is one of the church’s most outspoken conservatives and a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic. He tweeted on August 10 that he had contracted the disease. He was sedated and placed on a ventilator. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

It’s all too familiar: yet another COVID-positive anti-vaxxer was in the hospital on a ventilator. This time, though, it wasn’t your Facebook “friend” but rather a high-profile vaccine skeptic. Cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps Pope Francis’ most ardent, loquacious critic in the United States, announced via Twitter on August 10 that he tested positive for the virus. The rest of the tweet reads: “Thanks be to God, I am resting comfortably and receiving excellent medical care. Please pray for me as I begin my recovery. Let us trust in Divine Providence.”

As someone who constantly criticized medical and public health efforts aimed at stemming the pandemic —from mask mandates to social distancing to the vaccines— it’s ironic (and disturbing) that he benefited from optimal healthcare during these times of healthcare worker burnout and shortage occasioned by the recent surges in several states with lax mask mandates and low-vaccination rates. But Burke didn’t just criticize the vaccines as immoral. He parroted the claim made by alt-right conspiracists that the vaccines covertly implant a microchip under one’s skin, allowing the government to exert mind control over the person. Burke also claims —in almost fatalistic fashion— that human health is safeguarded only by God. (If this is truly his belief, why did he seek “excellent medical care?” Should he not had left “Divine Providence” take its course?)

Disinformation about the virus and the vaccine can be potentially life-threatening, especially for the elderly, for those with compromised immunity, and for those who might not be able to access “excellent medical care” as easily as Burke can.

Privilege can indeed save one’s life. Days after his announcement, Burke was hospitalized, sedated, and put on a ventilator. I imagine the cardinal’s triage wait time was nominal, if not non-existent—a stark contrast to hours-long wait times in cities all across the U.S. Some hospitals in cities like Atlanta are even turning patients away, citing capacity and personnel issues. And then comes the privilege of clerical job security. Burke can afford to take time off from his job without fear of being fired or losing wages. How many in the U.S. —particularly those already struggling economically— can say the same? Burke does not have to worry about providing economic support to dependents or about paying rent or a mortgage. The cardinal, and those in a similar position, lives an uncommon life—one more akin to those of celebrities instead of the common person’s.

Does not his status demand increased moral or ethical responsibility from him? Luke 12:48 reminds us: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” As a cardinal, Burke’s words carry weight. His consistent spewing of alt-right propaganda could lead his flock astray. Many within that flock might be unable to deal with the consequences of heeding the cardinal’s misinformation about the pandemic, since they lack the cardinal’s several layers of privilege.

All people living in the U.S. can receive the COVID vaccine for free. Yet the cardinal insists that the vaccine is deeply immoral and that governments and private entities that mandate vaccinations are attacking one’s religious and civil liberties.

As his state struggles with yet another record surge of new COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, Florida governor Ron DeSantis also continues to defy expert medical advice regarding masks, social distancing, and vaccines. He does so under the same pretense of defending religious and civil liberties. (Paradoxically, DeSantis is threatening to withhold funding from school districts that are requiring masks for students, teachers, and staff.) Since the pandemic, Florida has seen more than 3.52 million COVID cases and close to 52,000 deaths.

Future generations will judge Burke and DeSantis as willful deceptors in the battle against the pandemic. For DeSantis the politician to stake his political future in a libertarian claim for individual freedom is predictable. Equally banal are posts by Facebook “friends” claiming that COVID is a hoax or that the vaccine is a governmental ploy for mind control. But since when can a Catholic leader ignore the common good in favor of pseudo-libertarian stances and alt-right conspiracy theories?

A politician spreading lies in order to gain political points: this is expected. A cardinal (who is supposed to have his flock’s best interests in mind) spreading those same lies: that is egoistic and hypocritical, especially as the cardinal benefits from an unrivaled privilege known only to the most powerful and influential among us.

Burke no longer remains hospitalized or on a ventilator. He seems to have recovered from the acute effects of COVID. Prayers certainly didn’t hurt, but I suspect that the cardinal’s medical team is to thank for his recovery. Let us mourn those whose deaths could have been prevented by better leadership from all-too-human religious and civil leaders instead of praying for miracles that wouldn’t be necessary had solid advice been heeded in the first place.


César “CJ” Baldelomar is a third-year doctoral student in Theology and Education at Boston College. His research blends critical theory and decolonial thought, exploring how knowledge production (theory and scholarship) and consumption (teaching and learning) inform identity formation and the development of local and international ethical and legal paradigms. He holds two law degrees (LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights and a Juris Doctor) from St. Thomas University School of Law and two graduate degrees from Harvard University. CJ is a former legal intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center. See his Boston College profile for more information.