ROME – A doctor in northern Italy recently sent a letter to his bishop making an allegation that the mother superior of a convent and five other sisters are refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Primo Brugnaro, 72, a retired physician who worked for decades as a primary care doctor in the area of Vincenza, “denounced” his own sister, Mother Angela Brugnaro, 70, to their bishop not only for refusing to get vaccinated, but for spreading “anti-vaccine messages” as well as attending Mass without a face mask, which is mandatory throughout Italy.

“Despite the appeal for vaccination by the pope, the bishops and [Italian] President [Sergio] Mattarella …. you have a hive of antivaxxers,” the man wrote in a letter addressed to Bishop Claudio Cipolla of Padova. “It is the monastery of Montegalda with the mother superior who lives on her cellphone and daily spreads silly antivaccine propaganda. The last straw is that she is my sister.”

According to the retired physician, his sister has been in denial since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over four million people worldwide.

“I resent her position,” Brugnaro wrote to the bishop in a letter partially published by local newspaper Il Gazzettino. “My sister receives anti-vaccine messages and immediately forwards them. If she doesn’t want to get vaccinated, let her keep her ideas to herself. But the rules must be respected.”

In its response, the diocese stressed that the bishop himself “on several occasions has spoken about the responsible choice towards oneself and others” when it comes to receiving the vaccine, and has “periodically informed the parish priests and religious entities of the need to abide by the indications of the government on the rules and behaviors to adopt, such as distancing, [and the] use of masks.”

However, the diocese notes, the matter of the vaccination is “exclusively the personal responsibility” of each citizen, and no one can be forced to receive it.

The mother superior told the paper that “I am not vaccinated” and will probably do so “in September,” once the summer is over, and only if the disease starts again and “claims so many victims.” If this is the case, she said, “then I’m going to get it.”

Though neither Pope Francis nor the Italian bishops have made vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory for Catholics, there has been a clear pro-vaccine attitude from both, particularly the pontiff, who’s spoken about it as “an act of love.”

Francis himself was vaccinated against COVID-19, along with Pope-Emeritus Benedict, in January 2021.

In December, when some vaccines were still on their trial period, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document saying that using them was morally acceptable, despite the fact that they were developed or tested on cell lines deriving from an aborted fetus.

“It is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the document said, highlighting that due to the situation of the ongoing pandemic, “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

In July of this year, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for life, together with the World Medical Association released a statement calling for an all-out effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and correct the “myths and disinformation” that are slowing the fight against the coronavirus.

The most “pernicious form” of hesitancy, they argued, is being driven by fake news, myths and disinformation about vaccine safety, including among religious groups and some in the medical community.

On Aug. 18, Pope Francis headlined an Ad Council public service announcement for the coronavirus vaccine, titled “Unity Across the Americas,” in which he was joined by several cardinals and archbishops from the Americas, including Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

When it comes to the vaccine, the pope has also called for its access to be universal, saying that “on an ethical level, if there is the possibility of curing a disease with a drug, it should be available to everyone, otherwise it creates injustice.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma