Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

When a bishop plays public-health bureaucrat

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 09, 2021

In a signed document explaining his “Rationale for a Diocesan Vaccination Covid-19 Policy,” Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario, opens with a curious statement about the Church’s role:

Our Church must be mindful that we are a component of society, unique in our vocation, but similar in operation and exposure as many others.

Granted, from the perspective of a public-health official—that is, from the outside—the activities of the Church might seem similar to those of other institutions. However from the perspective of the Church—that is, from the inside—there is no comparison. But then, if you read the entire directive, you realize that for all practical purposes, Bishop Fabbro is writing as a public-health official.

And a combative public-health official at that. “Covid-19 is a clear and present threat to society,” the bishop writes. “It is not imaginary as some suggest…” I have not encountered anyone who thinks the disease is imaginary; that sort of straw-man argument is used only by people over-anxious to drive home their point. The question—as surely the bishop knows—is whether the extreme steps being taken in the name of public health are justified.

On that question, too, Bishop Fabbro has a clear answer: “We must operate under the premise that the potential for damage caused by Covid-19 means that the common good must prevail over individual rights for society to protect itself.” In the tradition of Catholic social teaching, individual rights are defined in terms of the common good, and vice versa. Individual rights must always be limited by the requirements of the common good. But to say that the common good should “prevail over” individual rights is to betray a strange understanding of what the “common good” actually means.

“We must operate with the understanding that the vaccinations are both safe and necessary,” the bishop continues. (Have you noticed the prevalence of that formula: “We must”?) Why must “we,” the Church, operate with that understanding? Why not leave questions about the efficacy of vaccination to the scientists and public-health officials? Why should the Church weigh in on the issue?

“That there may be side effects for some does not negate the general need for these vaccines to be used by the general public,” the bishop continues. What about those people—“some” people—who suffer from the side effects; should their suffering be included in any calculation of the common good? If Bishop Fabbro feels any sympathy for them, he does not show it in this statement.

Instead Bishop Fabbro proceeds to set a diocesan policy requiring vaccination for all priests, deacons, lay ministers, and staff in the diocese. And the mandate extends even beyond those who work full-time for the church:

“Visitors to diocesan, parochial and cemetery offices and any independent contractors are also subject to this Policy,” the bishop announces. And then, with the all the delicacy and warmth of a seasoned bureaucrat, he adds: “There is no requirement for the Diocese to accommodate any of these people.”

Who are these people, who come to diocesan and parish offices with their business? Why, ordinary Catholics. When the bishop refers to the Catholic faithful as “these people,” and sees no reason for the diocese to accommodate them, something has gone profoundly wrong—something that will not be fixed by a vaccine.

“‘Mandatory’ in this context does not mean employees must get a vaccine,” the bishop assures us. Which would be reassuring, except that he follows up by saying that those who are not vaccinated cannot work, and will not be paid. They aren’t required to take the vaccine; they are only required to take the vaccine if they want to keep their jobs—or, in the case of clergy, to continue active ministry.

Nowhere in his policy statement does Bishop Fabbro admit the possibility that a Catholic (or anyone else) could have valid moral reasons for declining the vaccine. Nowhere does he mention the 2020 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation, and that therefore, it must be voluntary.” Nowhere does he mention the Vatican’s consistent advice that, even if one is obliged by necessity to take a vaccine produced using fetal tissues, one should lodge an objection and press for an ethical alternative.

“It is the position of the Diocese that receiving a vaccine is not contrary to the law of the Church, nor does it infringe any canon law,” the bishop writes, in his only reference to the morality of vaccination. Yes, but it is quite a leap from saying that something is not forbidden by the Church to announcing that it is required by the Church, at least in the London diocese.

While Catholic employees should not bother to make a moral argument against vaccination, Bishop Fabbro leaves the door slightly ajar for others. “Non-Catholic employees who seek exemptions for religious reasons must outline these in writing for consideration by the Bishop’s Designate.” Yeah, and good luck with that.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 10, 2021 2:52 PM ET USA

    Your title of this article says it all. Are we returning to the equivalent of a Medieval Church, but without the Catholic conscience of the Church of these centuries?

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 10, 2021 12:25 PM ET USA

    If the "vaccine" is such a miracle drug ("safe and effective" according to Biden) then why is Pfizer granted legal immunity from liability over possible future harmful side effects? And how can mandates be morally and legally justified if the maker is fully exempt from responsibility? Chantix was another "miracle" drug made by Pfizer for the past 15 years and just recently discovered to cause cancer. In June it was taken off the shelves and the company is facing first lawsuit filed on August 12.

  • Posted by: visions - Nov. 10, 2021 8:43 AM ET USA

    Wisdom Chapter 6, 2- Hearten, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!