Following your conscience? 2. The COVID problem
Having set forth the general principles of conscience and its formation in the first part of this essay (Following your conscience? Not a blank check), I turn now to the moral questions surrounding the COVID vaccines. Some moral questions are relatively abstruse, and certainly these are among them. Happily, such questions are a relatively small proportion of the moral challenges we face. But the rule for any Catholic unskilled in such matters is to find, perhaps through trial and error, the most reliable Catholic guide(s) to consult, based on their clarity and consistency in espousing exactly what the Church teaches, neither more nor less. Then, if there is any further question or doubt, they should find and read for themselves the most authoritative statement the Church has made on the subject.
The most authoritative statement on COVID vaccines
On the COVID vaccines, as everybody should know by now through one of these methods, the most authoritative statements the Church has made are those Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have ordered to be promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2008 and 2020, respectively. These statements concern vaccines using stem cell lines which originated from aborted fetal tissue, either in their manufacturer or their testing. I have linked to these texts, but I will report the overall conclusions as I remember them. The CDF (with the help of the Pontifical Academy for Life before it) has noted the following matters of fact surrounding these cell lines, which are correct as far as we can know:
- Abortions have not been performed for the purpose of producing the vaccines.
- The cell lines in question are not part of the original fetal tissue, but cells that were propagated from that tissue many years ago.
Consistent with the facts of the case, the moral problems identified by the CDF were as follows:
- The illicit use of cell lines originally derived from human fetal tissue, for which the human person(s) in question could not give permission
- The moral proximity of this use to the serious sin of abortion, vaccine development being a benefit derived from that sin
One significant conclusion of the CDF in determining the morality of utilizing these cell lines in the testing and production of the vaccines was that there is a moral obligation on the part of vaccine developers to stop using this tissue and to find other ways to develop effective vaccines.
With regard to vaccination itself, the moral conclusions of the CDF were as follows, fleshed out minimally so that they can be understood in context:
- The connection between using these vaccines and abortion is remote;
- Remote cooperation with evil, since it is unavoidable in life, is morally permissible as long as it is only “material” cooperation (cooperation without approval of the evil), and does not rise to “formal” cooperation (favoring the evil, in this case abortion or the use of the illicitly-derived cell lines in developing the vaccines);
- On this understanding, a person may receive these vaccines in good conscience if there is a serious reason for doing so;
- But vaccination must be voluntary, since even remote cooperation with evil may not morally be compelled;
- Moreover, given the clear and widespread recognition of the connection of the vaccines with the sin of abortion, those who choose to use the vaccine are obliged to indicate their opposition to the use of the cell lines in question; and, finally
- Catholics as a group are morally obliged to both oppose abortion and press for alternative vaccines.
Observations on mindsets
The use of cell lines initially derived from fetal tissue is fairly widespread in the development of a number of products in our commercial culture, including some cosmetics. It would be difficult to find a serious reason to use these other products but it seems that opposition to the vaccines is somewhat selective; there appears to be no similar level of outrage over other products. Clearly the vaccine has touched a nerve, doubtless partly because of the publicity given to it and the pressure to accept it.
Speaking purely personally, I would guess that a good deal of the opposition is bound up with a mindset which reflects the following attitudes: (a) The dominant culture in our society is morally untrustworthy; (b) Those who govern our society are increasingly totalitarian in outlook; (c) The dangers of COVID have been significantly overblown from the first; (d) The public response to COVID has been as bad as or worse in its impact than the disease itself; (e) The Church has failed significantly in her own response to the Pandemic; and (f) The person with this mindset is also sick and tired of having his life orchestrated by those who do not share his values, and who neither respect Christianity as properly understood nor have the best overall interests of Christians at heart.
Now it so happens that I am at least sympathetic to every one of these attitudes. But there is moral danger in letting disaffection with the dominant culture color our reactions to the extent that we make moral decisions based on attitudes which are insufficient for a full moral analysis of the question at hand. I say this while granting that a desire to be acceptable to the dominant culture can be an even more powerful deterrent to clear moral thinking, and one which is likely to affect an even larger number of people. That, after all, is a significant part of what makes the dominant culture dominant.
Observations on remote material cooperation
Of course, the use of the vaccine necessarily weakens Christian witness against its origins, but so does paying your electric bills weaken the witness against the provision of electricity to abortion providers; as does shopping at a typical pharmacy weaken the witness against both abortion and contraception. That is the nature of remote material cooperation with evil. To take one more example, in the United States today (and undoubtedly under most governments throughout history) paying taxes involves remote cooperation with evil. A helpful understanding of “remote” is when the evil under consideration will occur whether you engage in the action in question or not.
As for the difference between material and formal cooperation with evil, the cooperation is formal only if one approves of the evil in question. Thus proximate material cooperation, which enables the evil to be done in that instance, and all formal cooperation are wrong. But remote material cooperation is essentially unavoidable in life, and is morally permissible.* To illustrate the difference between proximate and remote material cooperation, this is the difference between paying your electric bill and transporting your pregnant female friend to the abortion clinic.
The relevant point in the vaccine discussion is that, in perfectly moral ways, remote material cooperation (getting vaccinated) can eliminate an opportunity for bearing a stronger personal witness against the remote evil in question. And of course it is immoral to coerce anyone to engage in such remote material cooperation if he or she prefers to bear a stronger witness, which may include a personal sacrifice of some good.
So what do we know from the actual clarifications of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church? We know that, on the one hand, if you have conscientiously decided to take the vaccine, you are not to be dismissed as deficient in your Catholicism. And, on the other hand, if you have conscientiously decided not to take the vaccine, you are not to be dismissed as deficient in your Catholicism, and further that it is immoral for any Churchman to tell you otherwise, or any civil authority to force you to take it.
Nonetheless, every Catholic (and indeed every human person) is morally obliged to oppose abortion, and every Catholic is morally obliged to contribute something, in Christ, to the renewal of both the Church and our larger society. We are also morally obliged to avoid rash judgment of those who accept a remote material cooperation with evil which we have chosen to avoid. We must be very careful in our speech so as not to give scandal to others, especially if we regard the others as “weaker brethren”. And we must pray constantly for the grace of right judgment ourselves.
In all, we should reread St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 14, especially verse 4:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.
* Ignore the following if it confuses you: Sometimes the terms “immediate” and “mediate” cooperation with evil are used, with “mediate” cooperation being divided between “proximate” and “remote”. Immediate cooperation means you are actually participating in the evil (such as performing or assisting at an abortion), and can be permissible only if you are coerced (sufficiently coerced, let us say, to eliminate full consent of the will). Then, in the “mediate” category, proximate material cooperation would not be direct participation but something that enables the evil to occur, whereas (again) remote material cooperation typically has no bearing on whether the evil occurs or not. But in this discussion, too many ingredients spoil the broth: I am not considering the nature of the cooperation with evil on the part of those involved in abortion itself or those who use the illicitly acquired cell lines in the manufacture of the vaccines. All that is relevant in receiving the vaccination is “mediate” cooperation with evil; hence the distinction between proximate and remote is sufficient to the purpose.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Aug. 30, 2021 11:43 AM ET USA
garedawg: Obviously this question doesn't arise often, if ever, in real life, because no government is going to admit that paying taxes is any kind of cooperation with evil. So we need to turn this question around: Would it be moral to withhold taxes from a government which consistently engages in obviously evil acts of aggression, either against other countries or its own people? And should that government get the message and change its policies? Clearly both answers are affirmative. But since we know we will be coerced into paying those taxes anyway, it is normally a moot point--until the issue of revolution arises. Revolution, however, must be morally assessed according to the principles of just war. Of course, you know the old expression about death and taxes. In general, the only way to avoid either is the Second Coming! And this illustrates why there is no mortal sin when our actions are coerced, for there is no full consent of the will. Depending on the nature of the coercion, there may not even be any venial sin.
Posted by: garedawg -
Aug. 30, 2021 2:36 AM ET USA
So if remote cooperation with evil must not be coerced, and paying taxes is remote cooperation, should the state not require the paying of taxes?
Posted by: cvm46470 -
Aug. 28, 2021 10:59 PM ET USA
The vaccine could not have come to market without the data that came from testing, so the use of fetal cell lines does taint that vaccine "forever". Another issue is that the "testing" is not a "once and done" event. Product batches need to be constantly re-tested for efficacy/purity for continual FDA approval. So there is a continual connection to abortion. If only Pfizer would put some of the $26 billion it has made already into creating an ethical cell line, there would be no dilemma.
Posted by: 1Jn416 -
Aug. 27, 2021 5:37 PM ET USA
Jeff, one moral analysis I think needs to be done in detail is to explore the morality of the vaccines which were tested for efficacy using aborted cell lines, but were otherwise not developed or manufactured with them. This seems like a "one and done" situation which cannot be undone, and is not ongoing. Someone made a bad decision, but does that truly "taint" the vaccine itself or cause remote cooperation in abortion by those who receive the vaccine? I am not sure that it does.
Posted by: miketimmer499385 -
Aug. 27, 2021 11:41 AM ET USA
Together with Phil you've presented, to my mind, the clearest explication of the true moral position of the Church in this matter. It has the power of being established well before Covid became our bete noir. It beggars the mind to listen to the obfuscations employed by clerics across the country. I'm truly sad for the state of the moral formation for what is too large a portion of priests and bishops and the undue influence they are exerting on the consciences of an equal number of parishioners