The following is from a letter Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda released on September 22, 2020, concerning Rev. Robert Altier and his comments About the COVID-19 pandemic:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is blessed with many fine priests. We have reason to expect them to teach the truth of the Gospel, faithfully passing on the teachings of our Church. None of our priests or bishops, however, is an expert in public health, infectious disease, epidemiology or immunology. It would be a mistake to attribute any expertise in these areas to us simply on the basis of our ordination.
I have spoken with Fr. Robert Altier about a recent sermon posted online as “The Coronavirus: the Truth Revealed.” He remains firm in his opinions on the pandemic situation, but he has acknowledged that his remarks were inappropriate in the context of a homily during Mass. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (n. 65) directs that the homily “should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.” Pope Francis has said that it is to be “a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth” (Evangelii gaudium, 135).
The use of a homily to present medical or scientific speculation does not serve that noble purpose and could be seen as an abuse of the cleric’s position of authority to address an issue unrelated to the liturgical celebration. In the context of the liturgy, no member of the assembly, even if the world’s greatest expert in this area, would have been in a position to contradict Fr. Altier or to offer alternative points of reference.
I have consulted with the Minnesota Department of Health and they provided a critique of some of the points mentioned in the sermon. I have attached those comments to this letter. I also consulted the local chapter of the Catholic Medical Association and learned that they too considered some of Fr. Altier’s affirmations to be “erroneous” and that they essentially shared the critique by the Minnesota Department of Health (other than the section on vaccinations). They referred me to the excellent resources available at the website of the national Catholic Medical Association (See https://www.cathmed.org/programs-resources/cma-resources/coronavirus-resources/).
Allow me to note that the Catholic Church has long recognized that there are at times ethical questions involved in the production of vaccines. Back in April, bishops serving as committee chairmen at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced to the Food and Drug Administration that, “It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience.” The bishops stressed that there was no need to use ethically problematic cell lines to produce a COVID vaccine, or any vaccine, as other cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available and are regularly being used to produce other vaccines. (See https://www.usccb.org/resources/Letter-to-FDA-urging-ethical-COVID-vaccines.pdf).
Catholic theologians and ethicists continue to rigorously study developments in this area. Those looking for reliable resources would do well to consult the website of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) (https://www.ncbcenter.org/ncbc-resources-for-covid19). A recent podcast can be found at https://www.ncbcenter.org/bioethics-on-air-podcast-cms/episode-43-further-ethical-perspectives-on-covid-19-vaccines. There will surely be more teaching in this area from the Holy See, the USCCB, and the Archdiocese in the months to come. Just this week a statement was jointly issued by the NCBC and Catholic Medical Association on this topic: https://www.cathmed.org/cma-ncbc-issue-public-comment-re-covid-19-immunization-practices/.
Additional materials on the vaccination question will be provided as they become available. In the meantime, please join me in praying for all those who are sick with COVID-19, those who care for them, those who are working on vaccines, and all those individuals and families affected in any way by the pandemic. Our Lady, Health of the Sick, pray for us.
With the promise of my prayers, I remain,
Sincerely in Christ,
Most Reverend Bernard A. Hebda
Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis