Should Pope Francis get the Covid vaccine first—or last?

Pope Francis wears a mask as he attends an encounter to pray for peace in Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome in this Oct. 20, 2020, file photo. The pope has worn a mask for protection from COVID-19 on a handful of occasions. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I have to confess that I am not particularly known for my prophetic witness of humility. Nor do I govern assemblies of much greater moment than a college classroom. Hence, my prudential deliberation with regard to Covid-19 vaccination is relatively simple. I’ll wait for my number to be called and accept it without demur.

But it occurs to me that the moral calculus might be more complex for Pope Francis. On the one hand, he is the head of both a city-state and the universal church. On the other, he has made it a hallmark of his pontificate not to stand on the privileges of his office. He begs blessings from the rank and file, makes his own phone calls, pays his own hotel bills, washes the feet of prisoners, and more. Indeed, Francis’ public image has become so bound up with these gestures of solidarity with the lowly that they raise questions with respect to the forthcoming Covid vaccine. Should the reigning pontiff be the first to receive the vaccine? Or the last? And what kind of criteria might he use to deliberate?

To better focus on the perennial considerations, I will bracket a few accidental considerations. I will assume that Pope Francis is being offered a morally unproblematic vaccine. I will not factor in the pope’s age and diminished lung capacity. Instead, I will consider him as an office holder entrusted with care for the church’s common good on the one hand and with prophetic witness to the Gospel on the other.

There is such a thing as selfless self-preservation.

In light of his office, of course, it is hard to see why justice would assign Francis any other place than the front of the line. Few oppose, I think, giving world leaders first dibs. The great moral tradition of the West, beginning with Aristotle, has attempted to explain such preferments by invoking the principle of distributive justice. Like all forms of justice, distributive justice aims at “giving each what is due.” But instead of regulating what individuals owe each other, as commutative justice does, distributive justice regulates what the social body owes its members. It concerns the relationship between the whole and the part.

As a result, distributive justice determines what is “due” differently than commutative justice. Commutative justice looks not to the offices of the people involved but to the goods or services exchanged. If someone has contracted with a plumber for sink repair, it would be unjust for that person, whether prince or shopkeeper, to pay the plumber less than the contract states. A calculable equality characterizes commutative justice.

Distributive justice, by contrast, aims for proportionality. It distributes to those who have undertaken greater service to the common good a greater proportion of its resources: wealth, protection, honor, etc. The medals awarded to heroic soldiers, the tax breaks given to parents who raise children and the security details assigned to presidents can all be understood as distributive justice at work.

Can the prophetic witness of Pope Francis’ taking the last place in line contribute more to the church’s common good than his own health?

However motivating these social “privileges” may be, they do not technically constitute a private wage, which individuals might simply waive or redistribute as private charity dictates. If presidents want to renounce their security details to be closer to the people, for instance, they have to weigh not only the risk to their own lives but the risk to the political order. There is such a thing, in short, as selfless self-preservation.

I had the opportunity recently in America to note that Pope Francis’ own religious family of origin, the Jesuits, appealed to this principle of selfless self-preservation when preventing their professors from undertaking public ministries during the so-called Plague of St. Charles in Milan (1576–78). I did not then mention, however, that the Milanese Jesuits imposed similar restrictions on superiors. In a letter to St. Peter Canisius dating from 1562, the Jesuit secretary Juan de Polanco succinctly summarizes the policy in effect and explains its logic: “Let no one be sent to hear confessions who is afraid. But let the rector not go, whether he is afraid or not.” This seems to have been commanded because it is important to guard the life of the rector for the good of the others. The principle of Ignatian indifference required detachment from all impulses, not only those toward self-preservation but those toward self-immolation as well.

In light of this tradition, the more interesting question turns out to be not whether Pope Francis may justly accept an early vaccination but whether he may prudently renounce it. Can the prophetic witness of Pope Francis’ taking the last place in line contribute more to the church’s common good than his own health? There is likely no single criterion decisive in every time and circumstance.

Pope Francis’ early vaccination might set a good example of a different kind.

One gathers this from the fact that popes of no mean judgment have also from time to time renounced the posture of selfless self-preservation. In 452, for instance, St. Leo the Great rode out “exposed” to confront Attila the Hun, when he might have justly accepted the special protections of the Roman people. Closer to our times, St. Paul VI made a now largely forgotten gesture of prophetic solidarity with those in harm’s way. In October 1977, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa flight bound for Frankfurt, Paul VI sent a telegram to the German bishops with a rather astonishing proposal: “If it were of use, then We would offer even our own person for the liberation of the hostages.” The use of the plural of majesty (“We”) for a sacrificial self-offering suggests Paul VI’s awareness that he was renouncing prerogatives to which he had a just title. And though the telegram arrived only a few hours before special forces freed the hostages by less peaceful means, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity.

In the final analysis, of course, Pope Francis is in the best position to judge what is most helpful for the greater universal good of the church. But if, however improbably, the Holy Father asked me which would most help the U.S. church, I would likely urge him toward early vaccination. If the greater danger stateside were people trampling each other to lead the vaccination line, the witness of Christlike self-emptying might be more useful. But the greater challenge will be overcoming widespread suspicion of a vaccine fast-tracked through clinical trials. For the latter, Pope Francis’ early vaccination might set a good example of a different kind.

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