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A corrective to the Schneider statement on the COVID vaccines

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 18, 2020

I wish to address the statement promulgated a week ago by five bishops insisting that it is in all cases immoral to allow oneself to be vaccinated with any vaccine which has been tainted by the use of fetal cell lines. This statement was apparently written by the very articulate Athanasius Schneider, an auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, and promulgated jointly by Bishop Schneider; Jan Pawel Lenga, the retired bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan; Archbishop Tomash Peta of Astana, Kazakhstan; Cardinal Janis Pujats, the 90-year-old former Archbishop of Riga in Latvia; and Joseph Strickland, bishop of Tyler, Texas.

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The statement was released on the Crisis Magazine website. It had been added to our library also, for a few days, but I have removed it because, while it raises important questions, it also deliberately and directly contradicts what the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church has taught on the subject.

Catholics must understand that there are two aspects or levels to the debate over whether to make use of a vaccine that has been, in one respect or another, unethically derived. Moreover, these two aspects or levels are necessarily in tension with each other. I don’t want to write a book on this subject, but let me just make ten points, each brief enough in itself to prevent overload.

First, the two aspects or levels are these: (1) The question of whether one may receive such a vaccine; and (2) The question of how, if one does accept such a vaccine, one must make known one’s opposition to the immoral elements in the history of the vaccine’s development.

Second, unfortunately, these two aspects or levels of the discussion naturally impinge on each other. Obviously, at the level of the effectiveness of the witness given (which is a prudential question), it is a more effective witness to protest while refusing the vaccine than to protest while receiving it. This concern is the best aspect of the statement in question—the legitimate observation that acceptance of the vaccine will, practically-speaking in the minds of most observers, weaken the witness against it.

Third, but as a matter of moral reasoning, this prudential concern does not outweigh the strict moral considerations which determine whether or not one can make use of such a vaccine. This is a difficult question which primarily involves the distinctions between proximate and remote cooperation with evil on the one hand, and formal and material cooperation with evil on the other. In a very small nutshell, we may not engage in proximate (near) cooperation with evil, which would mean playing some sort of direct role in making the evil possible; and we may not engage in formal cooperation with evil, which would mean approving of the evil in question.

Fourth, I hope it is obvious that that there are gray areas between proximate and remote cooperation with evil, since the lines between playing some sort of direct role and not playing any direct role can be blurry. But it is also important to note that it is completely impossible to avoid remote material cooperation with evil in this life. We engage in remote material cooperation with evil every time we pay our electric bill, use the Internet, shop at a drug store (which, analogously to the present case, may well sell abortifacient drugs), patronize a company whose directors or shareholders use their profits to promote anything evil, and pay our taxes.

Fifth, to identify (as the statement does) abortion as an evil which is in a horrendous class all its own, a class that excludes the normal rules of moral reasoning, is more a function of the politicization of this evil over the past two generations than of sound analysis. We cannot suspend the long-established rules of Catholic moral reasoning just because of our revulsion at a particular form of evil. There are a great many grave evils that we can commit, and which of these seems “the worst” is largely a matter of (a) our own emotional response; (b) our conditioning or sensitization; and (c) the range of evils which we ourselves have experienced or had to deal with.

Sixth, an analogous situation may help to see the kind of things moral reasoning is supposed to take into account, though no two situations are exactly alike. But suppose, for the moment, that you come across the body of a murdered man just after he was murdered. Suppose his kidneys are still fresh enough to be used in a transplant to save someone else’s life. Would this be moral? As a particular example of a similar kind, this at least bears reflection.

Seventh, and critically important, the most obvious and most fundamental problem with the aggressive statement I am discussing is not that it offers arguments of various kinds against the use of the questionable vaccines, but that it presumes to settle the fundamental moral question definitively—including a direct contradiction and condemnation of Dignitatis Personae, an instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approved and ordered to be promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI. In the relevant section, this statement of the Ordinary Magisterium, states:

Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision. [no. 35]

Eighth, let me repeat that it is not wrong for a theologian to argue respectfully that a statement of the Ordinary Magisterium may be imperfect and that the matter should be given more thought and clarified further. But it is wrong to dismiss the Ordinary Magisterium as wrong, and to counsel people to ignore its statements. Done publicly, this is what we call giving scandal. The statement expressly states that the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium is “in itself contradictory and cannot be acceptable to Catholics”.

Ninth, I want to emphasize that any Catholic is absolutely free to take a “harder line” in his personal decisions. It is unquestionably a legitimate moral choice (and almost certainly a superior form of witness) for someone to refuse to be treated with a morally-tainted vaccine and, at least in most foreseeable cases, to refuse to allow his or her children to be so vaccinated. Expressing the moral possibilities of using a particular vaccine is not the same as denying the morality of refusing to use it.

Tenth, and finally, it is time to put the “traveling episcopal genie” back in the bottle. By this I mean that bishops have no teaching authority outside their own dioceses, and it is an abuse of their office to make individual or joint statements pretending to answer critical moral questions for the whole Church. This sort of freelancing, however sound spiritually and morally any particular statement may be, is actually a usurpation of the office of the Pope. Even in the worst of pontificates, this can only create unhealthy partisanship and more confusion. This sort of episcopal freelancing needs to stop. It only makes things worse.

I like to joke that it is not a bishop’s job to set the whole Church straight: That, obviously, is the job of the writers for CatholicCulture.org. But there is an important truth in this humorous statement. When I speak or write, I neither explicitly nor implicitly claim an authority I do not possess, because nobody in his right mind would think I have any ecclesiastical authority whatsoever. That’s not true when bishops abuse their office. Let each bishop, in union with the Pope, instruct the faithful in his own diocese, advise his brother bishops, and bring critical questions to the attention of the Holy Father. Done well, that is actually pretty much what the Church needs most.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 18 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 13, 2021 10:09 AM ET USA

    yesmarklapointe4625: The passage you quote is certainly correct, but if you look at my follow-up piece On the limits of episcopal poachers, there is a huge difference between a bishop's rightful solicitude for the whole Church and any effort to settle a controversial question by his own authority for those outside his diocese.

  • Posted by: yesmarklapointe4625 - Feb. 12, 2021 12:47 PM ET USA

    Can. 763 Bishops have the right to preach the word of God everywhere, including in churches and oratories of religious institutes of pontifical right, unless the local bishop has expressly forbidden it in particular cases. Can. 782 §2. As sponsors of the universal Church and of all the churches, individual bishops are to have special solicitude for missionary work, especially by initiating, fostering, and sustaining missionary endeavors in their own particular churches. [Europe is mission ter.]

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 21, 2020 5:18 PM ET USA

    yesmarklapointe4625: I'll have to disagree with you on this point. It is certainly true that each bishop is responsible to the Church, but you'd have to cite me a Magisterial passage that states each bishop is responsible for teaching authoritatively to the whole Church, or has any protection by the Holy Spirit in doing so. This is manifestly not the case. Even in his own diocese a bishop is protected only insofar as he remains in union with the Pope. Imagine how you would respond, as the bishop of a particular diocese, if some other bishop claimed to definitively teach the Catholics in your ecclesiastical territory on some controversial point. You would be justifiably outraged. The same is true of the Pope, who certainly would not want bishops freelancing, attempting to instruct the faithful in another bishop's territory, let alone the universal church. A bishop can, of course, defend the faith—and should—but not in the form taken by the text under discussion, which is very much in the form of purporting to issue a definitive statement to the whole Church, and one in contradiction to what the Holy See had previously stated (and stated again today).

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 21, 2020 5:14 PM ET USA

    philq1039: A good place to start on the status of the various available vaccines is Phil Lawler's recent post, Covid vaccines and fetal tissues: the moral calculus.

  • Posted by: ILM - Dec. 20, 2020 5:48 AM ET USA

    Question: if the contribution of aborted cells to the coming COVID vaccinations is so distant and trivial, why did they do it?

  • Posted by: yesmarklapointe4625 - Dec. 19, 2020 11:12 PM ET USA

    Not bad, but your 10th point is not true. Doesn't Vatican I specify that every bishop is responsible to the whole church? Hmm or am I mistaken, was it Vatican II that cleared up the ambiguity left by Vatican I on this point? Either way, you need to revise it. Imagine the Arian crisis (or any other) if each bishop didn't have a responsibility for more than his assigned diocese!

  • Posted by: winnie - Dec. 19, 2020 8:29 PM ET USA

    Clear and convincing. Thank you!

  • Posted by: toddvoss1511 - Dec. 19, 2020 8:04 PM ET USA

    Thank you Dr.Mirus. Took courage to write this.

  • Posted by: dianekortan5972 - Dec. 19, 2020 2:20 PM ET USA

    Amen!

  • Posted by: jonesd3170 - Dec. 19, 2020 1:21 PM ET USA

    Your analysis is on the money, but omits consideration of the practice of bishops who keep silent when a similar situation in their diocese cries for comment. In such circumstances someone has to become the beacon of truth.

  • Posted by: Kevin S - Dec. 19, 2020 8:15 AM ET USA

    Excellent points, expressed with admirable clarity. Thank you.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Dec. 19, 2020 7:11 AM ET USA

    As usual, your analysis covered as many points of the argument as I could think of. Except maybe pointing out the agony which ensues when people live in a world in which every detail of every controversy becomes a matter of personal responsibility to think and act on.

  • Posted by: mmackey19758168 - Dec. 18, 2020 11:15 PM ET USA

    This is a great analysis. Very thoughtful and reasoned. Thank you.

  • Posted by: ILM - Dec. 18, 2020 9:11 PM ET USA

    Waiting for an untainted vaccine.

  • Posted by: jacquigill25711 - Dec. 18, 2020 7:48 PM ET USA

    I understand that logic cannot be tossed out the window as our Church values reasoning. Nevertheless, my question is when the “lead” Shepherd of the flock is not leading, or is actually misleading the flock in the wrong direction, or is actually harming the Church he is suppose to defend, then Who is to protect the flock? Will the faithful not hear the Truth of the Church unless they live in a geographical location that has a bishop who seeks to lead the flock to the Truth?

  • Posted by: tywilliams151670 - Dec. 18, 2020 7:08 PM ET USA

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Schneider, Strickland, Burke, and others are often the few remaining voices of sanity in our doctrinal quagmire. They point out the problems in Amoris Laetitia, the catechism revision, and the Abu Dhabi statement while their brother bishops remain silent. That said, these ill-considered and needlessly political takes can nullify their efforts, because (importantly!) they are not matters of faith, and sometimes flirt with lunacy (see what happened to Vigano...)

  • Posted by: philq1039 - Dec. 18, 2020 6:48 PM ET USA

    Do we know that these new COVID vaccines are from illicit origins? I haven't seen anything stating such but I may be less informed.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 18, 2020 5:57 PM ET USA

    I haven't read the article in "Crisis", but I will say that consideration must be given to the nature of the vaccine itself. The chosen vaccines are not offered as a "cure" but as a preventative with serious immediate side effects. The long-term efficacy and side effects of the vaccines are not known, just as much about the virus itself is yet unknown. The most glaring weaknesses in our knowledge are: (1) everyone is presumed a carrier, and (2) the effectiveness of antibodies is unknown.