The news that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is unvaccinated just cost him a visit to a church in San Francisco.
“Because Cordileone is not vaccinated and we’ve had breakthrough vaccinations in the church, I’m not comfortable. I’m not comfortable with him coming unvaccinated,” said Rita Clunies-Ross, St. Agnes Catholic Church parishioner.
December 19 was the day Archbishop Cordileone was scheduled to visit Saint Agnes Church. Several weeks before his visit, churchgoers like Rita Clunies-Ross voiced concerns. Now this church is taking a stance.
“I called him and spoke with him and asked him to re-schedule his visit for a later time because many people in the parish had expressed concern about this. I feel it is important that everyone feel safe, and we all do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially now with the new Omicron Variant. These are stressful times enough and I felt his pastoral visit to us would be overshadowed by concerns about the pandemic,” said a bulletin Pastor George Williams posted on the church’s website, letting the parishioners know Archbishop Cordileone won’t be visiting them for now.
The San Francisco Archdiocese has been outspoken about the COVID vaccine, encouraging San Franciscans to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the archbishop is unvaccinated.
“It’s not that he is saying we don’t want you. We would more than welcome you here if you came vaccinated, if you respect the community you are visiting,” said Clunies-Ross.
In a statement the Archdiocese responded, “Health care decisions are a very personal matter. Archbishop Cordileone has every confident in Father Williams’ ability to know his people well, and respond to their sensitivities with compassion.”
In August, Pope Francis urged people to get vaccinated, calling it an act of love.
During an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Cordileone said his personal doctor told him, “it’s probably not necessary for him to be vaccinated,” citing his “immune system is strong.”
“If there was some health reason I could see it. There is not religious reason from the Catholic Church that would stop you from being vaccinated. I can’t see another reason,” said Clunies-Ross.
Pastor Williams said to ABC7 news, “It’s our policy here that all the priests who celebrate Mass need to be vaccinated out of concern for our parishioners. When I explained this to his Excellency, he graciously understood. We look forward to his visit when circumstances permit.”
Color me unsurprised. San Francisco’s homophobic gem of a Catholic Archbishop, who’s more concerned with making abortion and gay marriage illegal again than with a silly pandemic, claims that his personal physician has told him he doesn’t need a COVID vaccine.
Maybe the Catholic Church in San Francisco employs physicians who practice Christian Science-style faith healing, but Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone says that his doctor has, bizarrely, advised against him getting vaccinated because, and we quote, “my immune system is strong” and it’s “probably not necessary” for him to get vaccinated. This is odd but hardly surprising given what we know about the man — and all this came out during an interview this week with the Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast in which Cordileone was glad to discuss the conservative-leaning Supreme Court’s likely upcoming overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“The problem is… that too many women have no choice,” Cordileone says, making a circular argument about why women get abortions instead of being pro-life. He argues that many women are lied to in abortion clinics and when they change their minds at the last minute, they’re pushed by clinicians to go ahead and abort their pregnancies.
As for why he’s not vaccinated, Cordileone says, “There are a number of reasons, and from what I’ve been able to learn about the vaccines, and about the dangers of COVID, and talking with my own primary health care physician, I do have a good immune system, and he told me that it’s probably not necessary for me to be vaccinated. He didn’t dissuade me from being vaccinated, but he said it was fine if I didn’t get vaccinated.”
He then goes on to parrot various conservative-pundit talking points, spouting some pseudo-science about how these “aren’t really vaccines in the traditional sense” because they don’t offer long-term immunity from the virus, only temporary protection. And he says something that no scientist has asserted, which is that booster shots will likely be needed “every six months” going forward.
And then he blathers on about how he’s been in multiple situations in which he probably would have been infected if he didn’t have this blessed-by-God immune system, including being in an enclosed space with someone who later turned out to be COVID-positive.
He’s also not concerned about spreading the virus to others unknowingly, because, again, he’s a self-appointed expert and he says that asymptomatic people “very rarely” spread the virus, and he would stay home if he were feeling sick.
Anyway, he’s an asshole! We knew this already.
As ABC 7 notes, after the Pope told all Catholics that getting vaccinated was an “act of love” to our fellow humans, Cordileone issued a statement saying, “I join Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in advising you to get vaccinated if your doctor recommends it.”
But, he’s still a political animal who’s at odds with most of the residents in the city in which he lives. And he’d rather go with Joe Rogan and Fox News on this.
“This is not my first plague.” In 1982, Rev. Steve Pieters was the first minister diagnosed with AIDS in the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a denomination that lost a third of its clergy to the disease. In 1985, he was the first openly gay man and person with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker on ThePTL Club, a Christian TV show and cultural staple of the early Christian Right. Today he’s retired from ministry, locked down at home, and “trying to be of service over the phone and zoom” to people in his church facing another pandemic.
Pieters is part of a unique cohort for whom the current pandemic is both eerily familiar and puzzlingly different. LGBT Christian clergy who ministered in queer communities in the 1980s and 90s are engaging Covid-19 using some lessons learned from AIDS ministry in the years before treatment. They’re also grappling with the spiritual, political, and social lessons we failed to learn in that epidemic; lessons that are re-emerging in this one.
Bishop Zachary Jones re-experienced the feeling of being utterly absorbed in the immediacy of a medical crisis when taking part in the daily ritual of thanking New York health care workers. “While I was banging this tambourine I was like oh my God, I remember what it meant to deal with case after case after case.” Jones, a bishop in the Unity Fellowship, started his work in AIDS and LGBTQ ministry driving Unity founder Rev. Carl Beans to his seemingly endless hospital visits in the AIDS units of 1980s Los Angeles.
Rev. Penny Nixon, who ministered in MCC’s San Francisco congregation in the 1990s, felt bodily memories of AIDS ministry rise in the first few weeks of Covid and then recede in the face of the also-familiar need to put feelings away and get to work. “How we got through the last pandemic,” she said, “it became the reality. You put your head down and you do it.”
For Karen Ziegler, the political parallels have been almost uncanny. She was the pastor of the MCC congregation in Greenwich Village for a decade that spanned the emergence of AIDS. “I realized early on in the Trump administration that it felt like the 80s when Ronald Reagan was elected and then there was this sharp, visible turn to the right,” she said. Part of that rightward turn is the way that AIDS and Covid revealed the often implicit American political calculation of whose lives are valued. The contrast between the anti-gay backlash in the first years of AIDS and the backlash against people of color evident in both epidemics is “helping me to understand that the original lie of America is this white superiority and all the kinds of supremacy that allows some people to think that other people don’t matter. All of that has become so visible.”
There are big differences in the physical and social trajectories of the respective diseases. In its early years AIDS was a very visible disease and, as Rev. Jim Mitulski recalled, an ugly one. Mitulski ministered with Nixon at the MCC congregation in San Francisco. Jones remembered seeing people getting sicker and sicker, week after week. “Death was much slower,” he said. And for all of the losses of Covid, the length of illness, for most, is much shorter and the possibility of survival much greater.
When Pieters was first diagnosed there was no treatment for AIDS. He considered himself lucky to have a doctor who advised “if there’s a one in a million chance that you can survive this, why not believe that you are that one in a million? Just believe that. And act like it.” People with Covid have a much higher rate of survival. “Eighty percent, eighty-five percent will survive this. And that’s a lot easier to believe than one in a million,” he said.
“It’s baffling,” Jones said, “the difference stigma brings to a pandemic.” It’s the most striking difference between the diseases these clergy have noticed. An early AIDS diagnosis was often intertwined with sexuality, sometimes with substance abuse, and always with social shame. Clergy had to minister to all three in addition to the disease. Jones remembers it as a kind of spiritual triage where he was always trying to figure out the most pressing need to respond to in any given case. “There were times that we just didn’t know what we were dealing with until hindsight,” he said. AIDS, recalled Nixon, was “religiously stigmatized in a way this pandemic is not.”
Isolation and aloneness have been challenges of pastoral care and spiritual leadership in both epidemics, albeit in very different forms. In the early years, the isolation of people with AIDS was visceral. Many were socially—and sometimes medically—shunned. The pastoral challenge was to make congregations spaces where people with AIDS were seen, welcomed, touched, and included. Nixon remembered how MCC San Francisco shaped ritual around the experience of AIDS. “[W]hether it’s the men coming with their IV poles coming to church [or] laying on the pews, their bodies were recognized as sacred and holy in that moment. That was a powerful corrective to society. And to religion. And to church.” All the clergy I talked to made church environments that countered the fear of disease by bringing people physically close.
With Covid, Bishop Yvette Flunder notes, the challenge is to keep people connected when the virus keeps them physically apart. Flunder started Ark of Refuge, one of the first AIDS ministries in a black church, in the mid-80s. Today she’s the pastor at City of Refuge, a UCC/Metho-Bapti-Costal church, and leads The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a global community of churches committed to radical inclusivity. With AIDS, she recalled, people who looked sick were marginalized “because of the position that the church took that if you have this dirty disease you’re a dirty person. But in this particular environment it’s the church that’s the dirty person. It’s [coming to] church that can make church people sick. Which flips the script.” And flips the pastoral task.
Ministry in LGBTQ communities provided at least two tools that have been useful in that new task. One is spiritual grounding in what Flunder calls a “consistent ethics of self care.” “[W]e talked about barriers and condoms back in the day, and safe sex practices. I now talk about social distancing and masks. And for me it’s six in one hand, half a dozen in another. Protect yourself. Be responsible not just for yourself but for your partner. . . . It’s really not different.”
Another is the skill of ritual innovation, honed in ministry to people whose life passages were not ritually marked in the eyes of the dominant culture. “God didn’t go away” in either epidemic, said Mitulski. “Our ability to craft ritual, our imagination has not dissipated or dried up.” Queer churches have long had to create rituals to counter that exclusion and make the sanctification of queer life feel real.
This has translated into creative experimentation with making virtual church feel real. Flunder’s church has grown since the epidemic. “We’ve had all kinds of ritual online,” she said, including different sacraments from the African-American Christian church and the indigenous spiritual communities that make up her congregation. They’ve also experimented with outdoor rituals. “[We] broadcast through our radios and through cell phones so that we could see each other. . . . We gave people little disposable communion kits and we had communion on the parking lot and blew our horns something fierce… you know, made a lot of noise.”
Like all of us, these ministers are looking toward the time when science and medicine change the trajectory of the Covid epidemic. But they also remember the challenges that change can bring. One is the need to address the compounded grief and loss that can so easily be skipped over in the midst of crisis. Pieters remembers that “when the drumbeat of death slowed down in ‘96, ‘97, there was a palpable feeling of deep depression among a lot of people who worked in AIDS. A deep grief,” which he attributed to losses unattended to.
“Think about all the un-mourned people who’ve died.” Mitulski said. “And the fact that they died in solitude. We’ve got to deal with it or it’s going to fuck people up for a long time.” In a 1999 sermon, given three years after protease inhibitors changed the course of AIDS in his congregation, Mitulski reminded them that AIDS wasn’t over. AIDS still isn’t over. And it fuels his admonition that, if and when the course of Covid changes, we attend to its afterlives. And especially to the enduring inequalities that both epidemics make inescapably clear.