Should Pope Francis wear a mask?

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This is an open letter to Pope Francis by Fr Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest:

Dear Pope Francis, six reasons you should wear a mask

Fr Thomas Reese criticises Pope Francis for not wearing a mask, and even goes as far as saying Pope Francis should go to confession over this. He gives 6 points explaining why Pope Francis should wear a mask. The Society of St Pius X (SSPX), a group of mostly healthy people, are behaving like idiots around the world by shunning mask use and other means of preventing spread of SARS-CoV-2. They can very easily and soundly be condemned as fools. I’m not so sure about Pope Francis.

Three defences come to my virologist mind.

Pope Francis in Korea
Pope Francis in Korea
  1. It is very easy to isolate a pope from infection, and this has almost certainly been done … most of the time. It is therefore extremely unlikely that he could become infected and spread the virus to others by not wearing a mask. Two problems with this that risk his infection and show a lack of protection for him: someone at the Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis lives, has been infected (although possibly he is still well isolated from the people there – I don’t know), and he does seem to get close to crowds (I can’t explain that one away).
  2. The main role of a mask on the pope is to protect others from the pope, not the reverse. If he is adequately isolated, he poses almost no risk to others without a mask. The problem, though, is whether or not he is adequately isolated. There seem to be bodyguards and clerics around him without masks. His situation is, however, probably like most government leaders, where staff in close contact with him are pre-isolated before regular contact and tested frequently. Very low risk of exposure. (Much like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who did get sick.) Low risk isn’t perfect.
  3. The biggest defence, one which I assumed was the case from the beginning – he only has one lung, and based solely on that, I think a mask may likely be a problem for him. Almost everyone on the planet can wear a cloth or surgical mask for hours on end without physical / physiological problems – they would even manage an N95 mask which is a lot more difficult to wear. It may be uncomfortable, it may cause mild claustrophobia, but it’s not going to deprive them of oxygen. Someone with significant chronic lung disease may have legitimate difficulties. And Pope Francis being one lung short, at his age, with unknown other medical issues, may mean that he can’t wear a mask easily or safely for extended periods. Sometimes he would manage, sometimes not. His breathing seems well controlled during his public appearances, though. Who knows what goes on out of the public eye? I haven’t listened to his lungs myself.

I suspect someone may have made a reasonable assessment that Pope Francis shouldn’t (always/often?) be wearing a mask for legitimate medical reasons, and that he is of such low risk of spreading to others that it is safe to have him wander around maskless. The SSPX cannot fall back on that sort of reasoning – they’re quacks, pure and simple, and their masklessness is just another symptom of their wider quack theology and adoption of quack science and fake news. Same quackery with Trump.

Pope Benedict in retirement
Pope Benedict in retirement

And the risk to the pope himself? The pope’s bodyguards and any bishops around him are often maskless – this is also highly problematic. Maybe all of the above have given them a false sense of security. Maybe it’s even, in a limited sense, a true sense of security, because they would be isolated as well, just as bodyguards for political leaders are pre-isolated and tested before assuming their tour as bodyguards. But someone needs to inform them properly. I’m sure someone has. They’re probably ignoring it, and think they’re safe.

My initial assumption about Pope Francis’ lack of masks in some situations was that his health was probably a legitimising factor, and his isolation was also probably a factor. I still think that’s probably the case. I cannot say the same for those healthier people in contact with him. They need to get their act together.

The solution is easy – 1) explain the Pope’s medical condition to us all, 2) correct the masklessness of those around him (even if they are pre-isolated and tested), and 3) set a good example – which could even include a very loose-fitting mask for the pope.

My expectations: 1) Vatican secrecy ensured that Pope John Paul II’s Parkinson’s disease was only speculation for a long time, so information sharing won’t happen here; 2) people like that don’t take instructions well, and if, as pope, Pope Benedict XVI was not allowed his cats and couldn’t even change that rule, and neither he nor Pope Francis could successfully control the Curia … then they won’t take instructions from the pope either; and 3) this depends on 1 and 2, and is thus unlikely to happen.

Further reading:

Dear Pope Francis, six reasons you should wear a mask – Fr Thomas Reese, Religion News Service
Pope reverts to maskless old ways amid growing criticism – Religion News Service
Maskless till the end, the SSPX way – this blog
Pope of the cats – this blog
Hello kitty! A cat may be among ex-pope’s perks – USA Today
Vatican Kitties: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Cat Lover – Petslady*
*The cats were photoshopped in – the middle one obviously so, the first and 3rd needed a TinEye search, and the 3rd image has Pope Benedict pointing at nothing if the cat was not really there.

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