Abortion-Derived Vaccines: Conscience over Legalism with Michael Pakaluk and Jay Richards [transcript]
by Thomas Mirus
To view / listen to this podcast: Abortion-Derived Vaccines: Conscience over Legalism with Michael Pakaluk and Jay Richards
Thomas Mirus: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to the Catholic Culture Podcast. In my last two episodes, I promised an episode on the morality of the production and use of vaccines using illicitly obtained fetal cell lines, either in their testing or their development. My last episode was with Phil Lawler, on his new book Contagious Faith about how the Church has responded to COVID-19, but we left out vaccines from that conversation, anticipating that I would do a full episode on the topic. So I just want to make some opening remarks about why I am doing at this episode.
Basically I think there is a lot of unnecessary division, in a certain sense, and anger amongst Catholics, especially I am seeing on social media, over this vaccination issue. I think that fault, to some extent, lies on both sides. There are people who are claiming, contrary to what the magisterium has said (or at least what the guidance of the Church has said from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and elsewhere), people who are saying that it’s intrinsically immoral to take any such vaccines and that it cannot be justified on any circumstances, and so they're trying to impose on people’s consciences something that the Church does not impose. So there's a certain scandal in that, both in the appearing, at the very least, to contradict Church teaching, but also in what I would describe, at its worst, as tyrannizing people’s consciences in a matter that admits of multiple possible decisions.
But on the other side, I think that this division is stoked by people who take a legalistic attitude toward what the Church has said on this topic which is essentially (and I’ve heard this explicitly from people): “the Church says it's OK to take the vaccine.” Simply speaking, that's how they express it. “So therefore any further conscientious objection to taking it is purely on personal, emotional, self-indulgent, scrupulous, or pseudoscientific, or ideological grounds. And there isn't really anything more to say in the way of moral analysis because the Church says it's OK”, which is not an accurate or complete account of what the Church has said on the matter; and in fact it ignores all the other things the Church has said on this, other than the mere permission to take it under certain circumstances. It ignores the principles behind it; it also ignores the moral obligations that are incumbent on us, according to the Church, if we do choose to take the vaccine.
So I think what we are going to be doing here is a little bit different in this episode. It’s going to be more along the lines of assisting people’s consciences rather than telling them what to do. We will be laying down some moral principles, but pretty much moral principles that have been taught by the Church on this matter. We are going to be relying on the Magisterium, but also the broader moral tradition of the Church, in addition to the most recent specific statements about this vaccine in particular, to help people make decisions rather than either squelch their conscience with an overly strict interpretation or with an interpretation that says, “We are allowed to do it, so shut up, there's nothing that your conscience should be bothered by. You shouldn’t even feel uncomfortable about this, etc.”
To do that, we are going to go through a number of the issues related to the use of illicit fetal cell lines and vaccines, and we’re going to focus especially on the 2008 Instruction from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae.
Introduction of guests
Thomas Mirus: And now I’m going to introduce my guests. As I mentioned, we have Michael Pakaluk here. He is a philosopher, for our purposes a moral philosopher, and a classicist. He teaches Business Ethics at the Bush School of Business at the Catholic University of America. Welcome back, Michael.
Michael Pakaluk: Hey Thomas, it’s great to be with you again.
TM: We’ve also got Jay Richards here. Jay is, like Michael, quite a lot of things. He’s a Research Assistant Professor at the Bush School of Business, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the executive editor of The Stream, author or editor of more than a dozen books. Most relevantly and recently with Douglas Axe and William Briggs is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe. So Jay, thank you for coming on the show as well.
Jay Richards: It’s great to be with you.
TM: The reason I’m having both Michael and Jay on here is because they have both signed a statement on the morality of the use and production of vaccines titled “To Awaken Conscience”. They are two of the signers, and I wanted to have a couple of perspectives here on this issue taken from a number of different angles: both in terms of the production and the use by people who aren’t actually involved with the production of the vaccines.
Confusion between the duties of laity and research scientists
MP: Thomas, I think the main confusion here comes from the confusion of the viewpoint of the research scientist and the viewpoint of the layperson who has to use certain drugs. The research scientist is faced with this question of whether to use cell lines of illicit origin (that’s the phrase that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith likes to use). And as far as I can tell, the teaching of the Church in Dignitas Personae, which you refer to, is that research scientists cannot use these cell lines. I would be reluctant to call it intrinsically evil, because the nature of the argument from the documents seems to be that, for sure in a society in which abortion is legal, use of these cell lines constitutes implicit support for legal abortion [which] is inherently scandalous. That seems to be roughly the argument that is given there. And this is, by the way, teaching that applies, not to anyone by virtue of their being Catholic and accepting Catholic revelation, but [by] the moral law. And Dignitas Personae goes further and says that medical personnel who are bound by the Hippocratic oath have an even stricter obligation to avoid the use of these cells.
So let's just suppose that’s true, so to use these cell lines of illicit origin is something that is contrary to the Hippocratic oath. It’s implicitly supporting legal abortion, which is nothing any pharmaceutical company, if they are upright, should have anything to do with. Nonetheless they’re using these things. It’s kind of like the doctor down the street who is doing abortions on the side or giving money to Planned Parenthood. The question now rises for the layperson: should I do business with pharmaceutical companies which are transgressing the moral law or not abiding by or acknowledging the moral law in the way that they should? And that’s the question that rises as regards the use of the vaccine. So that’s a different kind of question. What happens here is that people leap from one to the other and they don’t see the distinction between the two. And the use of the cell lines is something that is absolutely forbidden. The grounds for that we might debate, but that doesn’t imply that the use of the vaccines is absolutely forbidden. Just as it’s absolutely forbidden for a physician to do abortions, that doesn’t mean that I can’t see (if I had no other choice and I’m in an emergency) a doctor who does abortions for medical treatment. I can. That’s the kind of confusion that is very common here. It’s a leaping back and forth between the moral obligations that pertain to the research scientists and those that pertain to a layperson who has to use things that are in development.
Confusion regarding “remote passive material cooperation”
MP: The other thing is this use of the word “remote”. People say that the vaccines are really remote from the abortions which give rise to the cell lines. And that is true. But they are remote not because of the passage of time or the number of cell divisions or anything like that. I think the CDF is pretty clear that cell lines today that are created 40-50 years ago are not remote from the abortions that produce them. It never uses that language. But nonetheless, any product that has made use of the cell lines is in a technical sense remote. The phrase is “remote passive material cooperation”. That’s the technical term, and it generally will express the relationship between the produce and the process of producing that product. And that’s where the gap enters in. So that’s another confusion that people have.
Suppose that currently, right now, we had slavery in the southern United States, and slaves were being used to pick cotton and that cotton was being brought to market. And the cotton which they shipped to England—somebody in England had the choice of using this cotton or not. The use of that cotton which was produced using active slavery here and now, would still be passive remote material cooperation, even though it is active slavery here and now. Because of the distance between the process of production and the product. Nonetheless it’s active slavery. If somebody refused to use that product, they didn’t want to, they say “there’s no way I’m going to ever buy cotton that’s been picked by slaves. I am deeply opposed to slavery.”
Totally within their rights to do that. And the same today. If somebody wanted to say “Look, you know, there’s no way I want to use a vaccine that has been produced using these cell lines. You know that’s an illicit process. There’s no way these pharmaceutical companies should be using these cell lines, I’m deeply uncomfortable using these vaccines.” I believe they should have that scope of conscience to refuse. They should not be compelled, and fellow Catholics should not be pressuring them or saying, as you said, “anything goes, it’s permissible. You can use it therefore you shouldn’t have any moral qualms about using it. We don’t care about your rights of conscience.”
TM: Any comments on that, Jay?
The state of moral reasoning among Catholics
JR: Yeah, I think that Michael has given—this is precisely why many faithful Catholics are confused on this issue, because it really does require moral reasoning. This is not the sort of thing that you necessarily are going to grasp intuitively—
MP: They haven’t been doing it for decades, so how can they start doing it all of a sudden?
JR: Yes, exactly. So we’re not doing it on the most basic things, we’re not going to do it on something that’s more recondite. My lay Dominican chapter has had a very robust discussion about this. I say that because these are in many cases permanently professed lay Dominicans who take the faith very seriously, who want to know exactly what the Church teaches, and yet and are as confused as almost anyone about exactly what the Church is saying. So I think that in some ways another topic is: “Ok, is what my Bishop randomly said, or what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, I think, said according to CNN—does that guide or is there something else?” That’s a sort of communication problem.
But I think that key distinctions to keep in mind are the distinction between the issue of procurement, Michael did mention this, but of course the initial procurement of the cell line which is by an active abortion. It in the cases of the cell lines that are used for the vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States, in procured, in a coordinated way to be used for this purpose. This couldn’t have been kind of random abortions and then the researcher goes and gets the random material of that abortion after the fact. It had to be coordinated for biological reasons to preserve the tissue to create these cell lines. That part is clear. And then the use by researchers, up to the present, of those cell lines for research, including the development of vaccines. And then the development of those vaccines, either in the development itself or the testing of the development after the fact. That’s a distinct issue or distinct issues. And then the use of the vaccine by third parties, so in this case, any person who might want to get the vaccine. And then the distinctions that are made, so far as I can tell among at least official Catholic voices from the Pope to the current CDF and the Bishops Conference, is to say that use of these vaccines for Catholics can be licit, can be—doesn’t mean that it’s always licit under all circumstances or that it’s always licit for everyone. Nor does that mean necessarily that it’s always praiseworthy, nor does it mean that it should be mandated.
For me it was actually the discussion of mandating this thing that honestly got me involved in this issue because of the fact that we are clearly crossing a line here in which the conscience would be bound in the other direction. So anyone that objects for the reasons that Michael mentioned suddenly finds him- or herself being coerced into receiving the vaccines. That’s the sort of opposite side of the binding of conscience claim that it would “always be licit”, and there seem to be some voices in the Church that have said that. I personally think, and I have told every Catholic that asks me this question, “What does the Church teach?” I say “Google Dignitas Personae and read it.” That’s the most authoritative document. It was written outside the heat of passion, not the middle of the COVID crisis, in 2008. It’s extremely well argued, it’s very careful, and in terms of the hierarchy of authority it has to have greater authority than something that the US Bishops’ Conference says in, frankly, the heat of a moral contagion and a moral panic that is not conducive to careful moral reasoning.
And if you read Dignitas Personae you get the very very strong impression that use of vaccines illicitly procured can be licit, under certain conditions such as a grave matter. Say you’re dealing with a child whose life is genuinely at risk if he doesn’t receive this treatment. There are no viable alternatives. And even under those conditions, under great protest so that your testimony that you object to the origin of these things is still lodged. Those are very specific conditions, and I daresay that not even one Catholic in twenty realizes that. The general impression for my non-scientific polling of this is that Catholics think “The Bishop said it’s fine, so it’s fine. Quit talking about it.” I think that’s a serious problem.
MP: I think that a lot of those bishops, Jay, do know those conditions, and they have done the calculations in their own judgement. They think that the pandemic is very very grave, so what they are doing is just giving the obvious prudential conclusion to draw, and they are giving this to laypeople, because they figure, probably rightly, that most people couldn’t figure this out for themselves. And what your comment indicates, and I think it’s very important that there’s a connection between how you assess the pandemic, how grave you take it to be, and furthermore how grave you take it to be for your particular class. Like if you’re a non-obese person who’s not over 70, you have almost no threat from this pandemic, frankly, right? Who’s not vitamin D deprived and not obese, you’re basically not at any risk from this. So if you use those criteria from Dignitas Personae you would have to say, “This person doesn’t have a very good reason for taking these vaccines.”
TM: I totally agree with what you just said about the Bishops, I think what I’m seeing, and I think you could even see this with the 2020 CDF, Statement is that although it’s better than many of the things that some bishops have said, of course: People are making their prudential judgement for us in advance, even though it's ours to make, and thus the principles, although they are present, although they are being applied either rightly or wrongly, are submerged and somewhat implicit, that they are there. Even in the latest CDF statement, many of the things from Dignitas Personae are referenced and that document is referenced, but it's kind of implicit with the assumption that this of course is a sufficiently grave situation.
MP: Yeah, though they’ll add a tag at the end that the use of vaccines has to be voluntary, and I think that’s kind of a catchall that allows people to draw upon those conditions if they want. But they never really teach them, and I think that there’s a reason for that. Because if you look at the medical literature, and going back maybe 70 or 80 years because this always wasn’t the case in the medical profession, there’s a very very strong alertness to what’s called vaccine hesitancy. So they have a very utilitarian rationalist way of calculating whether vaccines are justified. And they think anyone who dissents from that is irrational and there’s really no good reason to dissent from these vaccines in general. And there has been a lot of irrationality connected with resistance to the vaccines. So they construe or conflate principled objection to these vaccines based on their roots in abortion to just irrationality. And I think that some of our bishops have too quickly sided with that elitist attitude. I actually know Catholic editors who have turned down my pieces trying to make scope for conscience, on the grounds that it will add fuel to irrational vaccine hesitancy. And you find this throughout the whole realm of social media and the internet. And that’s one of the reasons that you can’t put this video on YouTube, because they don’t want there to be any kind of resistance to taking vaccines at all.
Public regard for Catholic moral objections as compared to other groups
TM: Well, this brings up a very serious problem, Michael because Dignitas Personae is very clear on the obligation to, if you take these vaccines, to object to the means of their production. So what you have now is that the prudential judgement or the situational decision that we can and should take these particular vaccines in this particular situation overshadows the duty to object, such that the principles that would make that duty clear to us cannot even be spoken. And to be honest—we are about to talk about some of the overly hard line judgements against getting the vaccine by certain bishops—I think that that scandal is a lot of what drives the overreaction in the opposite direction: the almost total failure of Church leaders to give witness not just in this situation but in past situations in this matter. So in other words lip service is paid to “we have to object”, but the idea that that nobody really asks whether the objection needs to have any efficacy or is it just words. And this is something that Phil Lawler has been writing about at CatholicCulture.org for years. And I’ll just say that I totally agree with people like Bishop Strickland and Archbishop Schneider when they make a lot of these prudential points, that when we do these things we are defects sacrificing our witness. I think that is a very strong case, but it’s more of the philosophical or moral principle that I want to address once we get to that topic.
MP: Yeah, well, you know, Muslims can’t take any kind of vaccine that has products derived from pigs. And this is well known, and nobody is going to come up with a vaccine that has elements of pigs in it and insist that Muslims should take it. They are aware that if they do this, and there are certain ingredients that are very hard to replace, they are aware that if they do this they will have huge resistance for this vaccine in the Muslim population. And that’s just a dietary rule, that’s relatively unimportant. Good for them, because they want to honor God, I admire that. But it’s not the moral law. And Catholics are regarded as complete irrelevancies, as pushovers or irrational, aided even by some of our own leaders.
TM: And if we were OK with being regarded as irrational as the Muslims who don’t want to eat pigs—as probably people privately regard them as being more or less irrational for that—we would probably get similar compliance, you know? And Jay, I just read this afternoon a piece that you wrote for The Stream on this very topic that you had sent me.
JR: Yes, absolutely, I mean I think that’s the difficulty; I do think that part of what Bishop Schneider and Bishop Strickland are doing, though I agree with you that they may seem to go too far on the philosophical point, is that they’re in some ways overcompensating for the lack of witness that we have. Our piece at The Stream that I wrote with John Zmirak was essentially this question: “Could there be viable alternatives to the fetal tissue lines?” Initially I thought, actually the alternatives aren’t easy. But if Catholics from the very beginning had been saying and backing up with our actions: “We’re not going to take these vaccines! Maybe there are some times for it would be licit for us to do so, but on principle we aren’t going to do it if they are in any way implicated in abortion.” We would have drastically increased the basic market incentive for drug companies to find alternatives. We absolutely have not done that, and if anything we have done the opposite in the COVID-19 crisis. We have made it clear that we will very quickly roll over. There’s a famous minority rule talked about by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who describes this is very often why meat is very often halal. You can have a very devoted minority but if they have a distinct requirement very often market actors will figure out a way to accommodate that very vocal minority and everyone else sort of has to deal with it as well. If even 10 percent of the population said that “we are not going to take these vaccines unless you find another way to develop them”, I daresay that by now someone would have found an alternative to do so. For profit reasons. But we haven’t even tried that yet.
Archbishop Schneider, Bishop Strickland, et al. statement
TM: So Jay, you mentioned that your reason for interest in this topic is specifically the point at which people were mandating vaccines. You know, for me, I have been more generally (and pretty well documented on this podcast) against the sort of extreme reaction we have had on COVID. So I had my own reasons why I probably wasn’t going to get the vaccine anyway. And for me, I was less concerned about it because the cooperation with the abortion in the past, as I understood it before I read Michael’s article which sort of changed my mind, was so remote that I was more concerned about cooperation here and now with kind of what seemed to be a massive behavioral control program. And I don’t say that saying that meaning that COVID isn’t real or anything like that. It’s just the way that it’s being responded to is ridiculous. So the thing that got me interested in this cooperation with abortion issue was reading this piece signed by Archbishop Schneider, Bishop Strickland, and some other bishops, called “COVID Vaccines: The End Cannot Justify the Means”. It was published in Crisis and elsewhere, and it bothered me because even though I’m not somebody who is very enthusiastic about the vaccine for various reasons. It bothered me to see bishops that I admire and who are some of the few who seem to actually care about a lot of things, taking a stance that seemed to be contradicting the ordinary magisterium of the Church or at the very least imposing a burden on people’s consciences. But I totally understood where they were coming from in kind of reacting to the fact that nobody seems to care about this at all. Let me just, let's just address this, I think we can do it pretty quickly. So in this statement they made, there are many good points, as I said. What I really take issue with is at the beginning they say that “No level of cooperation, however remote with abortion, whether in the past or ongoing, is morally justifiable.” They say outright that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, both in its most recent statement and in previous statements on this, is contradicting Catholic teaching. They say, “To argue that such vaccines can be morally licit if there is no alternative is in itself contradictory and cannot be acceptable for Catholics.” They go on to say later,
“The theological principle of material cooperation is certainly valid and may be applied to a whole host of cases, e.g. in paying taxes, the use of products made from slave labor, and so on. However, this principle can hardly be applied to the case of vaccines made from fetal cell lines, because those who knowingly and voluntarily receive such vaccines enter into a kind of concatenation, albeit very remote, with the abortion industry. The crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation of this kind, even a very remote one, is immoral and cannot be accepted under any circumstances by a Catholic once he has become fully aware of it.”
Aside from the fact that this is in contradiction with the Church’s repeated statements on that, I mean we could debate—it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of infallible teaching obviously. I just don’t see… no reason is given for this distinction between abortion and slave labor. They say that clearly abortion is just clearly so bad that it is distinct from all of these other possible examples of remote cooperation. I don’t see how you can back that argument up philosophically.
MP: You know, Thomas, I think that these things are really in flux. I don’t have quite the strong objection to Bishops Schneider and Strickland as perhaps you do and others do. I understand they are—it seems like they are—putting a burden of conscience. It seems like they are putting a burden of conscience but one way of interpreting it is that they are setting a kind of bar, and people need to become at least comfortable with what they're doing against these challenges. If Schneider says something like, the CDF teaching has the status of guidance rather than teaching of the Church, I think that is probably correct actually. He is a bishop. I think he is free to say I see things differently. I think we are also free to say his judgment seems extreme. It doesn't seem as well-grounded, it seems to have inconsistencies, like the one we just pointed out. But I think he is certainly not a heretic.
TM: Oh no.
Dignitas Personae and Church teaching
MP: And he's not arguing against the teachings of the Church. You know, the teachings of the Church would be the principles on which Dignitas Personae is based, not the particular applications of those principles. I agree with what you said earlier, Dignitas Personae is clearly the most authoritative statement of the Church on these matters. It's probably too weak to call it guidance. Jay said that it was thought out before the moral panic. Under Pope Benedict, Archbishop Levada, it's a very very strong document. Very serious and very well-reasoned. And coming from a very holy point of view.
TM: It is certainly ordinary magisterium, isn't it?
MP: Well, ordinary magisterium is what the Church has always taught at all times without necessarily even defining it. And I think these issues are just too recent. It’s dealing with techniques that just arose between Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae so the principles have been underlined by ordinary magisterium, without question, but the application of those principles—I think that’s a matter of conscience. You said in the beginning, what’s the difference between prudence and conscience, and conscience in the history of the Church means the application of principles to acts and circumstances, and it seems to be a note of conscience that a people who are making a judgement of conscience are a little bit loath to generalize and to say that others are similarly bound. You see this so clearly in the case of St. Thomas More. He refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, but he never said anything critical of anyone who signed it, actually. He didn’t say “Everyone has to follow what I'm doing, I'm the only one who's doing the right thing here.” He just spoke for himself. I would be a lot more comfortable if Schneider and Strickland said, “I will never take these vaccines, here's why, I urge you to do the same or I would invite you to consider doing the same,” rather than making a general claim about its inherent wrongness or universal wrongness, because I think that is going too far.
JR: I do think, Thomas, that you are right, I do think there is a disagreement between the statement you quoted, and Dignitas Personae, which lays out criteria by which it can be licit to use these things, that statement seems to imply that it can’t be for anyone, and I agree with Michael. If they had simply said “for ourselves we think that there is not a circumstance under which we could do this” it would be different. Nevertheless they are bishops, and so the reality is that because it's in flux, that might be where the disagreement is. Where there is not disagreement I don’t think, I think there is perfect unity in the teaching of Church, in that we’re dealing with something that in its origins is evil, there is a serious moral quandary here, and it should not be mandated. In fact, every statement has said that, even those which went almost so far as to imply that, well, “This should be done for the common good”, and they still fall short of saying it should be mandated. They usually say it should not. So I think the disagreement, there is a disagreement up there at a very high level between these bishops perhaps, and Dignitas Personae which I’m willing to let play out myself. I’m very comfortable with the way that Dignitas Personae hashed these things out. I would be hesitant at this point to say something contrary to it. Nevertheless, I also find the moral reasoning persuasive.
TM: Yeah, and if these Bishops had said “The circumstances do not permit such cooperation for anybody,” I think that would be excessive—I think that would be a problem for them to say that—but it would be less of a problem than what they did say, which is, there are no circumstances in principle which could justify doing this. Which would seem to render ordinary life impossible. I don’t see how that could be true.
JR: It’s very tough.
CDF statement and disposition of Church hierarchy
TM: But I think we have said enough about that. You mentioned the CDF statement. The CDF statement says, “Practical reason makes evidence that vaccination is not as a rule a moral obligation, and therefore it must be voluntary.” Let's just stick that there. We can point that out.
We commented on the statement a bit already. It focuses on the application to the particular situation. But it does acknowledge that certain circumstances are required in order to even use such vaccines, so that again is a prudential judgement. That is something on which good Catholics can disagree. We can disagree about whether the circumstances for any given person justify the taking of the vaccine. And I don't even in this episode want to do a casuistical analysis for each possible situation because—you know, gravity itself is relative, when we are talking about circumstances. It is easier to point out what is a great moral evil versus a venial sin based on Church teaching than to point out what is a grave circumstance or a grave reason for doing something. That's never really—we could even point out the debate about natural family planning, that's never really been clarified. What is a sufficiently serious reason or a grave enough – whatever you want to use. Should we move on to discussing Dignitas Personae more directly now?
JR: Thomas I just want to underscore a point you made very briefly, that with the recent bishops’ statements I do think that the submerged premise that you say, really does govern their tone on this, that they assume that COVID-19 is just incredibly deadly, so they sort of treat it—if we’re dealing with Ebola then the prudential judgment about whether or not to take the vaccine is different and you're right, what is sufficiently grave is hazy. But we know that death is grave right? So immediate death would be grave. Slight cold symptoms or nothing would not be grave. And that's the difficulty, it comes down to—the premise is based very much on our empirical assessments, how dangerous is this thing for particular people? But I think the bishops, I mean I hate to say it, but the bishops are mostly old men, maybe they're not in perfect shape and they’re sort of evaluating it for themselves, when we know empirically that there's just virtually no risks for small children and so if you're the parent of a small child trying to weigh this, and you're just looking at the CDC numbers, you’re faced with a very very low known risk if the child gets COVID-19 versus at best an unknown risk to taking the vaccine itself, and that's just purely looking at the risk assessment of the vaccine without looking at these moral questions. The truth of the matter is that once you admit that it can sometimes be morally licit under certain grave requirements, then you're going to have to deal with these empirical questions at some point. And that's precisely why prudential judgment needs to be used here, because it's going to be a mix of moral choices, and moral judgments, and empirical judgments and assessments.
MP: I want to add something to that, I think that there’s has been a too quick alignment of the Pope, the CDF, and our bishops with certain elites in our society who have certain views about what is for the common good and seem prepared to tell other people to assume risks for the sake of this common good. And this is not an attitude that I can take as a parent towards my children, for example. I must strongly advise them not to take the vaccine for the reasons that Jay gave. Their own risk from COVID is zero.
TM: And the likelihood that they will dangerously infect someone who has had the vaccine, as even that psychopath Fauci said yesterday or the day before, is incredibly low.
MP: But I have never agreed with the strategy of locking up healthy people. I mean, lock up the obese people, and cause them to lose weight. That would have helped everybody in our society. I have an 86-year-old mother who is living at home, and she basically isolates herself in a basement apartment, we've had no issues with that. That's the way it should be done. We don't isolate all the children so that the 86-year-old can go out, that makes no sense whatsoever.
MP: So I disagree with the whole approach. I disagree with the way they look at young people. I think it's not an attitude of love. Whatever the common good is, it cannot be contrary to the love of the individual person. So I am deeply, deeply disturbed by this actually; I do not see a good pastoral attitude coming from our bishops, who should be trying to protect the young people under their care.
MP: Let's throw them to the wolves in the name of the common good. I think that's grossly mistaken.
TM: I agree with you totally, and Phil Lawler in the previous episode, we talked about that aspect of it for like an hour and twenty minutes. Just the way that our shepherds have responded. And we even just touched on the idea, which I think he got from Bishop Paprocki, of extraordinary versus ordinary means of medical care and how that applies to the situation, and what obligations somebody might have to vaccinate themselves for somebody else. We can debate about whether vaccination, as an uncertain preventative measure by nature—against the uncertain prospect of getting such a disease—might always be extraordinary means. But with the moral situation we have with these particular vaccines I would say it certainly qualifies, and the Church seems to think, in at least Dignitas Personae that it qualifies as extraordinary means. Jay, since you brought up this prudential judgment thing, I do want to say just one last thing about the CDF statement, because it makes this reference to the common good it says there's no absolute obligation to get vaccinated. But then it says,
“Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse the vaccines produced from fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk for the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and who are the most vulnerable.”
I think that there is clearly some kind of moral principle at work here, but it is so drowned in this heavy prudential assessment of the particular situation. And that word "avoid any risk”, I think that really tips us off that this is a prudential judgment, because obviously it's a hyperbolic statement. It's not possible to avoid, and it's not moral to seek to avoid, any risk. So therefore the question is basically up in the air of how much risk it's reasonable to try to avoid.
JR: That's right, it's one of these principles that clearly cannot be taken to that extreme, it is completely unworkable because if I was literally going to put no one at any risk of an infectious disease they caught by me, I would just have to isolate myself forever, because somebody may catch something at some point. I think the general principle is that you want to do everything that you can, within reasonable limits, to prevent infecting someone else with a dangerous disease. And I think that's the kind of general moral principle, as you said, the way that they kind of framed it is too strong.
Dignitas Personae, the morality of vaccine production, and science research culture
TM: Alright, so this Dignitas Personae, the relevant section has several paragraphs. What would be the best place to start? I don't want to overly beat it into the ground or be redundant in our discussion of it, given our limited time.
MP: I think it should be said earlier in the document there's a reference forward to this criterion of independence, and this is the main thing that is getting attacked in that section: that it's sufficient for ethical purposes if the procuring of the abortion and the production of these cell lines is institutionally, and probably in intention and choice, separate from the scientists who are using the cell lines for research purposes. I'm not sure that sort of independence can really ever be attained. You know, for example, one of the immortalized cell lines was immediately licensed by its creator and sold for profit. So if you're entering into a contractual relationship to purchase this—even if you're in another lab and you had nothing to do with the abortion—are you really isolated from it? Are you really independent? It's a kind of argument, so to speak, hypotheticals: suppose you could make them independent, would that mean that there were no ethical issues remaining in use of these cell lines? And the CDF argues no, there would still be an ethical problem. That there would be a contradiction in someone’s saying that they are opposed to abortion and are using these cell lines. It's not possible to avoid that contradiction and the CDF seems to say that this contradiction is particularly salient and important in societies and research cultures in which abortion is regarded as permissible.
TM: Yeah, that’s very interesting. I will say two for the listeners because we’re going to be talking for a while mainly about the morality of the production of these vaccines rather than taking them, this will in a sort of indirect manner affect the sort of way that we form our consciences about taking the vaccine, because how seriously we take that issue depends on precisely we think we are cooperating with. I didn’t like the EPPC statement, which we will perhaps touch on later, primarily because it sort of dismissed the Church’s teachings on the morality of the production of these vaccines. Nut in principle before reading your piece in Crisis, Michael, I kind of thought, Well OK, if all I’m doing is benefiting from an abortion committed in the past, it seems plausible to argue that there really is no cooperation to speak of, which you indeed agree with in your piece—if that’s all you’re looking at, if something is completed in the past, there cannot be cooperation with it, strictly speaking. So it was really your ethical analysis of what’s being done in the production of these vaccines and the kind of ongoing nature of it, that kind of pinged my conscience more and got me thinking in a deeper way about, well, not that I had an inclination to take the vaccine anyway, but now I had much stronger reasons than I previously did. So Dignitas Personae itself focuses on the production, but it’s very relevant to our judgement of the ethics of taking it.
MP: Now one of the things that this document says, and a lot of people who think about this don’t think very carefully about it, is there’s a kind of granting that the abortion wasn’t done for the sake of producing the cell line, but I think that as Jay pointed out, people have looked into this carefully say that’s not possible. The cell line has to be taken out of a still live unborn child. And that is possible only if the abortion has been coordinated in such a way and done in such a way— there’s a technique called “waterbag abortion” which is favored in these cases which expels the unborn child without killing it and sort of shredding it in any way and then gets transported immediately to a laboratory. So it’s coordination, right.
TM: If that’s the case, then why do they need to kill it? I must confess I don’t know the science on this very well.
MP: In removing the cells, they kill it, and it’s going to die anyway because it's outside of the womb of the mother, so by expelling it it’s going to die. It’s before viability. It’s 12-13 weeks.
JR: It’s a rumor that got spread, unfortunately, in Catholic circles, that “maybe this was from a spontaneous miscarriage”. For listeners, there’s actually a terrific article on The Stream by Jose Trasancos that goes through the details on this. The gist of it is that biologically speaking you need fresh cells, you need living cells. Some cells work better than others. Kidney cells in particular work best, so essentially what you are doing is—really picture it as an abortionist in one room, extracting the unborn child, immediately extracting the kidney, putting it on ice so that it slows the process of decay down, and then immediately transfers it, maybe into the very next room. This is something that absolutely has to be coordinated. So even if the woman who procured the abortion was not really saying “I want to be part of an experiment”, all of the researchers and the abortionist had to be coordinated so this one big act. So any Catholics who have heard that this is maybe spontaneous miscarriage, don’t believe it, it doesn’t make any sense.
MP: Right, and so once that biological material, as the CDF refers to it, arrives in the laboratory, the scientist is morally obliged by the moral law to deal with that as if something from a five-year-old had arrived in the laboratory. It has to be given to a priest, returned to the parents, blessed and then interred. That’s all you can do. You can’t do anything else. You’re not allowed to do anything else. So they begin operating on this and extracting cells and turning them into cultures, that’s an additional crime on top of the abortion. That’s committed by the research scientist, it’s not committed by the abortionist.
TM: That’s a key point, because first of all, Dignitas Personae refers to the origins of these cells often, and that includes what the scientist did initially as well as what the abortionist did, assuming they weren’t the same person, or working directly together, but also it's important because it makes our degree of cooperation with something that’s closer than the initial abortion itself, with our taking the vaccine.
MP: Right, so there’s this notion in the Church of formal cooperation, which is that you’re collaborating in such a way that you share in the purpose of the person who is doing the criminal action. And is a research scientist today who is using these cells formally cooperating in that sense with the research scientist who produced the cells? To me, if the cells were immediately licensed and then sold then that makes it clearly true that there was formal cooperation. If they were just sort of given, so to speak or bestowed upon the research community and used in sort of a generalized way, I think the case is not as strong. But I think that there is formal cooperation in that case. It’s kind of interesting that the CDF doesn’t really emphasize that, it uses the term cooperation, it leaves open the possibility but it doesn’t really explore that argument, that’s not the one that it’s really interested in, because it’s mainly interested in refuting this independence claim. And I think it’s granting this independence claim more strength than it can possibly have: you know, for the sake of argument, let's say that the research scientist who got it was completely independent of the person who originated the cell lines so that means maybe a claim of formal cooperation was really very weak. What can we say in that case? And that’s what the CDF goes on to discuss, it says, even in that case the use of the cell lines is not permissible. But it doesn’t foreclose the idea that there’s formal cooperation even with the so-called independent researcher and certainly in most other cases.
TM: So you mentioned that this is partially a judgment, the reason that you said you would hesitate to call it intrinsically immoral is because the judgment there does depend partially on the culture, the legal situation, in other words it says that particularly because if you’re operating in a culture where abortion is not seen as immoral and where the use of abortion for scientific research is not seen as immoral, that’s one of the biggest reasons that it’s wrong to use these things. In other words, if you were not in such a culture where it was understood everywhere—now the obligation to treat human remains respectfully remains obviously—but in terms of benefitting from research and things like that, the obligation is much less to avoid it in a situation where it’s clear to everybody that just because you are benefitting from something that happened in the past that you approve of it.
MP: I think it’s actually a pretty complex document, and it’s not so easy to read, and I’m just finishing a revision of a scholarly paper based on it. And I do think that the document is taking for granted that there is no case that you can use these cell lines of licit origin. I think it takes that for granted and it uses the language of cooperation and I do think that there is cooperation. But what it chooses to do in numbers 34 and 35 is reply to something like what can be said to be the strongest argument on the other side, which is, "Suppose there is a claimed independence of the use of these cell lines from their origin. Could in that case could the use of the cell lines be permitted?” It's not saying anything about all the other cases or all the other arguments and considerations. It doesn’t say it. I think it really does believe there is formal cooperation in all the other cases. But let's say that—there is a term that’s sometimes used its kind of ironic—a “Chinese wall” is what’s used in the world of business, like a Chinese wall between the production of this cells and the use of these cells. In that case could they be used? There would be a very strong prima facie claim that there’s no sort of formal cooperation going on between the two, right? And that’s the argument that the CDF chooses to engage in those numbers. And I think it's a kind of a fortiori argument. Look, if it’s not permitted in even this case then it’s not permitted in any case.
TM: So it’s not saying that it's necessarily OK in societies where this is viewed as wrong.
MP: It does not say that.
MP: And by the way, that’s where people get it wrong, there’s a sentence in the English translation that: “this independence criterion may not be sufficient”, and in Latin its simply “potest”, and that means that there are cases in which it exists in which its not sufficient. And the case in which it’s not sufficient is our current case, where abortion is legal and the research culture permits and tolerates abortion. Look, it wants abortion, or it allows abortion, or it favors abortion, so much that even as the EPPC signatories grant, if the only cell lines that were available were mortal cell lines that gave out after a certain number of passages or divisions, like you know 20 cell divisions and then they cease to exist, the EPPC signatories admit that the research culture would be all in favor of having more abortions so that they can replace these cell lines. That’s why they are clinging so desperately to the HEK293 cell line, which is immortalized. “Oh, it’s immortalized, let’s just stick to this and then that way our fellow scientists won’t clamor for more abortions”. They are conceding that the whole research culture is completely open to doing abortions to replace these cell lines if that’s necessary. That’s the kind of culture that scientists are basically part of, and it’s very sad.
The CDF is saying that when you’re in that kind of culture and when you’re in a society when abortion is legal, even assuming some idealized independence of the cell lines from their origin, you cannot use them because your use of them constitutes a kind of implicit statement of support for legalized abortion. Because you’re making yourself a beneficiary of abortion and that’s kind of the whole essence of the problem in our society.
Philosophical incoherence of the Ethics and Public Policy Center statement; the tendency of Catholics in science to capitulate to the consensus of the day
JR: Do we want to say something about the EPPC statement?
MP: I want to cite it directly and condemn it. It’s unbelievable that the so-called leading pro-life scholars, you know, Carter Snead and Ryan Anderson and Robby George, went on record making a statement that directly contradicts Dignitas Personae, and they never even flagged that fact and nobody called them out on it. I find that to be completely scandalous!
TM: I thought it was a wretched statement when I read it, even before I read your piece, and I commented when it was posted on Facebook by Ryan Anderson, “You know, this pretty much contradicts what the Church has said on the matter”, and he said, it absolutely doesn’t. You know, I don’t even know if he realizes that it does. I was disappointed, too, to see Fr. Thomas Joseph White signing it, and not so surprised to see Fr. Nicanor Austriaco signing it, but the reason we, just for the listener, the reason we dislike this statement is because it is so clearly, it just does away with any objection to not only taking the vaccine, of course, but the use of these cell lines, the continued use of these cell lines in research, as though it were an unalloyed scientific good.
JR: I mean, the way to make it clear that it disagrees with not just Dignitas Personae but the most recent guidance by the CDF and the bishops, is that they insist that there’s actually no moral distinction even between the different vaccines. So the Moderna, the Pfizer vaccine, which use these cell lines in testing but not in development, and then of course the Johnson and Johnson which used it in both, and Astra Zeneca vaccine available in Europe which is even more implicated, based upon the kind of moral reasoning in that document, there’s no distinction between this, and so whatever you think about the argument, it clearly really directly contradicts what the bishops have said on this matter, so they cannot both be right. I can say that for me on this statement, I’m deeply disappointed because the people that we have already mentioned, I still respect them, many of them are personal friends. They are so good on a number of things and I’ve said before, this is an issue that cuts between bone and marrow because it cuts between the moral principles, but it is also an opportunity for us to do a little bit of teaching about what moral reasoning actually involves. And that’s the reality, as I tell my fellow Catholics, it’s not going to be an issue in which everyone you otherwise trust on these issues is necessarily going to agree, in fact it’s actually an issue in which they are disagreeing, so we are just going to have to deal with that. And the only way to deal with that is to do what we’re doing, to engage in serious moral reasoning.
TM: So this statement by the EPPC, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is what prompted your statement, “To Awaken Conscience”, and Michael, it also prompted your article on why you signed this statement, in Crisis, which was kind of the reason for doing this episode. I just want to note, because I mentioned Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, he’s a scientist, a Dominican at Providence College, and I say it doesn’t surprise me because with some Catholics in the field of science there does seem to be kind of an over-attachment to the kind of science of the day or the kind of consensus of the day on certain things because he also—this is a pattern for him because in his Thomistic Evolution project, for example, he kind of floats the idea of polygenism, the idea that we weren’t descended from a single pair, as compatible with Catholic teaching, but the presumption seems to be that it’s not. And also, he and his colleagues in that project suggested that our ancestors interbred with non-sentient creatures that were very similar to them biologically but just not ensouled. I only mention that because there’s a certain disconnect from an intuitive understanding that we all have as Catholics about human dignity that is found both in that claim and in this EPPC statement, And he also, as you mentioned in your article, Michael, suggested, I believe in Public Discourse, that although vaccines shouldn’t be compulsory strictly speaking, unvaccinated people, it would be legitimate to bar them from public social life, from airports, from social spaces, which I find abhorrent. You know, maybe if it was some other disease you could make that argument, but not with this one.
JR: Ebola for instance, but I think I should mention on Fr. Austriaco, I think you’re exactly right. I think that in this case and in the case you mentioned with respect to reconciling evolution and Catholic teaching that there is this kind of tendency to capitulate to whatever the kind of intellectual orthodoxy is. And it’s actually Fr. Austriaco that passed on the rumor that perhaps the original cell line had come from a spontaneous miscarriage, which makes absolutely no biological sense, and because he’s a scientist I would think that he surely would have known that… I honestly think many of those who signed the statement didn’t know the scientific details all that well. I don’t really know the motivation for the EPPC statement. I think some signed it and didn’t necessary realize that they were disagreeing with the bishops and maybe believed some of these false things on the science, but that’s ok because they’re not scientists. But Fr. Austriaco, he surely has to know the details of this, perhaps better than anyone who has signed the statement.
Understanding “immortalized” cell lines
TM: Michael, can we talk about this “immortalization” concept that you discuss in your article? The idea that, well the cell lines are immortalized and that’s supposed to somehow distinguish them from the original cells, which seems counterintuitive. But what do people mean when they say “immortalized”? How are they using that argument and what’s your counterpoint?
MP: Almost all cells are designed by nature to reproduce a certain number of times and then die. And when they don’t do this any longer, they grow without limit and they are basically cancers. So these immortal cells were actually made to be cancerous so to speak, that’s the best way of understanding it, once they were removed from the unborn baby. So they basically grow without ever dying. Each cell will die, but it keeps reproducing, it doesn’t have a preprogrammed certain number of divisions that it will go through and then they will cease dividing, that’s my way of putting it. So the cell population as a whole will just continue to exist. There are other cell lines that are such that the individual cell lines will only divide a certain number of times and when that’s lapsed, the whole thing collapses, and the whole cell culture just goes away. It dies. So these are immortalized cell lines, and they treat them as ethically different. Strangely, they’re actually very consequentialist in the way that they think about ethics. They think about moral species or moral kinds in a way very different from the tradition. They basically think that something is cooperating with an abortion if it’s such as causally to incentivize abortion. So an immortalized cell line will never give out, so if you stick just to that you’ll never be doing anything in a market kind of way that will incentivize the production of other abortions. If you can get everyone else to agree to immortalized cell lines, which is a huge assumption, right?
And I just want to say that these immortalized cell lines, they originated in the 60s and 70s, they are well known to the CDF in 2008 which engaged in extensive scientific consultation. There’s no distinction made there for cell lines of illicit origin, whether they are immortalized or not. The ethical problematicity of these cell lines has to do with where they came from, not what they incentivize, and not simply where they came from but also what the use of them declares or states. For instance, there is this idea of witness and statement of implicitly supporting, of giving scandal through implicitly supporting. That’s the kind of thing the CDF is concerned about, not whether your use of certain cell lines creates a market incentive for other companies to produce other cell lines. So it’s kind of a non-starter, and it's kind of, besides being contrary to Dignitas Personae, it’s just based on frankly wacky ethical criteria.
TM: So Michael, you made an even stronger argument in your piece in Crisis, which is that these cell lines in a very real sense still belong to this child who was aborted.
TM: Precisely because they were immortalized.
MP: Well, if you look at Fr. Austriaco’s writings, and Chris Tollefsen, another signatory, speaks in the same way, and so does Melissa Moschella, who’s not a signatory but she’s related to that group—They speak of cell division as if it’s like a factory producing another factory which produces another factory. And so if you’ve gone through these cells, they reproduce about once per day, if you’ve gone through 300 days times 50 years, so many divisions, it’s like you’re very very very far away from the origin, if it's a kind of production. So I think that they are committing a philosophical mistake in how they understand cell division. It’s not production.
TM: Can we say that these cells are still body parts from this child essentially?
MP: Well you could say that that’s the way in which the body part which is a tissue keeps itself alive over time, yeah. You could say that or you could say—it’s a kind of tumor. There are some HeLa cells such that they were taken of a tumor, from a cervical cancer, and you know, it’s the same. It’s just another part of that tumor that existed in 1954 when the thing was removed from Henrietta Lacks. Nobody would say that that’s not the same tumor, that is the same tumor, it’s the same tissue, it’s been manipulated in various ways.
There’s another conceit which is in the writings of these people, which is that they think of the cell line as an artifact: in fact that language is used in the EPPC statement. An artifact is something that is made by man! So they actually think that these cell lines are made by man, so they think that—the cell lines are living right? Living things don’t come from man, and we haven’t, at least yet, succeeded in making any living things. Living cells have to come from a living organism, unless they are single-celled organisms, and they came from that child. If they are alive, they’re a continuation of life. Well, whose life are they a continuation of? They weren’t made by man or by scientists. They’re a continuation of the life of that child.
MP: So nothing which is a continuation of the life of that child—admittedly it's not the child and it's not the body of the child, it’s a living thing so it's some kind of sharing in the life of that child. Nothing which is the confutation of the life of that child can be remote from the life of that child or from the deeds that were done to that child. So I think that there are some fundamental philosophical mistakes that underlie the way that they look at this and are deeply, deeply disturbing. It’s reductionist. It’s Cartesian. It’s materialist. It’s not well informed by the moral philosophy of the tradition.
TM: That’s really profound, Michael, what you said, that we cannot create life and so it is somebody’s life, it is something’s life. It’s not abstracted from an organism. So that really opens a whole other aspect of this discussion, which is this desire to become God and the extent to which some Catholics may even be participating in some of these essentially kind of atheistic ideas…
MP: I think it’s fundamentally sacrilegious and that there’s some aspect of Moloch worship that’s part of this, frankly…
TM: Absolutely. So just to bring it back to the taking of these vaccines, this is what we are cooperating with. It’s not just, although origins is mainly what the CDF Dignitas Personae talks about, when you understand the nature of those origins, it’s the origin because it’s an origin in a person, and that origin is not something that’s just purely in the past. It is an origin not just in a chronological sense, I guess is what I’m getting at.
MP: It’s an ongoing outrage, that’s what I would say.
TM: So that’s what we’re cooperating with.
MP: If you personalize this, if you think, say, that your wife or good friend were abducted and murdered and the cells were extracted and then used by scientists, you would be clamoring for these cells to be brought to an end and the whole thing to be brought to an end. It’s only because we think of these things as clumps of cells, and it’s very similar then to the pro-choice mentality. “It’s just a clump of cells in a laboratory.”
TM: Wow, yeah, I’m still processing what you just said, that’s really heavy stuff. Jay, I want to give you, before we move on to a couple of smaller points, I want to give you a chance to jump in on what was just said.
JR: Absolutely. This not an issue that I had spent all that much time on. Frankly, it’s great to have Michael Pakaluk as a friend and a colleague. In fact, he literally just lives right around the corner from me. I had spent a bunch of time thinking about the virus itself and the lockdowns and the lack of effects of the lockdowns and the kind of social contagion that has surrounded this entire thing. Michael has thought as deeply about this as absolutely anyone. And he’s schooled both of us on many of these details, but the reality is that what we can’t let happen is this just gets kind of swept under the rug. Especially for serious Catholics to just assume that “OK, there’s really no moral problem here”. Whatever particular individuals in their particular circumstances decide they ought to do, look, it’s not my job to tell them exactly what they ought to do. I’m not in their circumstances. But they need to take these things seriously, and they need to face the reality of what it is we are cooperating with, to face it squarely, and not just to fool ourselves with these frankly very bad analogies and metaphors that we would never accept. As Michael said, we would never accept the kind of “lump of cells” analogy when we are talking about abortion. We wouldn’t even accept these arguments if we were talking about some individual who was just now killed and then his or her body parts taken. It’s in many ways the results of sloppy thinking combined with this incredible social pressure to participate in the use of these vaccines. I think it's causing us to not think as clearly as we otherwise would. And so I think we need to take this as an opportunity to think clearly about this because this is going to come back. We are going to have other public health crises, and in fact, I would be willing to predict that every attempted state confiscation of power in the future will have a public health aspect to it, because don’t know quite how to resist it. So as Catholics, we need to think long and hard and deeply about this issue now, because it's going to have implications not just for the current crisis but for the crisis to come.
The alleged ubiquity of HEK293 in modern medicine
TM: OK, so I would like to cover a couple of small points just to wrap up here. One is going back to the morality of taking these vaccines. As I understand it, both hearing from people who oppose the vaccines and who support them, HEK293 is quite ubiquitous in modern medicine in general. In pharmaceuticals and quite important to modern medicine which kind of makes me think: “Well modern medicine is just demonic then,” and we don’t need a 1619 Project, we need a HEK293 Project, if you want to talk about systemic injustice and systemic corruption. Well, this leads to some people saying, “You’re being inconsistent if you only object to taking the vaccines”, or rather, “It’s basically impossible to avoid this, so why are you singling out vaccines?” This has been raised, for example, by Fr. Matthew Schneider, who put on his blog a list of all the different products that use this and said, I’m against the use of HEK293 in all of these, but what are you going to do? Are you going to stop using all of these products? So I imagine that there’s a number of different angles that one could come at that from, which is “Well, perhaps we should be doing our best to avoid all of these things.” But is there a reason that it would take on a greater significance with the question of this vaccine than with Tylenol or whatever?
MP: Yeah, well, the main thing that they’re used to test is processed foods, and I don’t use any processed foods, so that doesn’t touch me. And you know, what Fr. Schneider does is he just does a literature search and he looks up names of drugs and he looks up whether HEK293 occurs in any of the citations for the drugs. Was my particular brand of Ibuprofen tested using HEK293? I don’t really know that. So I’m a little bit skeptical of his broad claims. But the vaccines are presented to us as specifically out of a deep concern for the common good, which is the life of all of society. We have governors who have locked down healthy people and shut down, bankrupted, entire businesses, so that 80-year-olds can live 4-5 months longer. But they won’t lift a finger to stop that woman from going to the abortion clinic to kill her unborn child, which has a whole lifetime ahead of him or her. So it’s a gross hypocrisy and it’s a gross abuse of the concept of life, and if the vaccine is being presented to us on those terms, I think it does call forth reasonably in some people a certain kind of zeal to say “I’m sorry, you’re just missing the whole boat here on what’s going on in our society.” It has a moral significance very different from whether I’m going to take this brand of Ibuprofen or something else.
TM: What do you think, Jay?
JR: I think that’s exactly right, and so far as I can tell, actually, the use of these things is not nearly as ubiquitous as you might think. It’s used in some cases and not others, it’s hard to chase down. Nestle Foods for instance and various processed foods, apparently they have used it. But if it’s used all over the place, that’s not an argument for participating. That’s an argument for realizing how systemic this problem is. The very fact that an evil is spread around the world is not an argument to participate in it. It’s an argument to stand aghast at how common it is and figure out what we need to do to unwind ourselves. So even if we were to grant that the use of these cell lines is quite ubiquitous, I don’t think the implication there would be, therefore let's not treat it as any big deal. That thought doesn’t follow.
TM: And also the question of witness, as Michael said. If people are aware this and are saying “Let’s do it anyway”, that’s a bigger problem than if people are not aware of it.
Catholic duty of moral witness and other considerations depending on role, status
MP: Dignitas Personae even raises that kind of objection, it raises it more in the context of scientists, and it says, look, you’re not supposed to go around the world trying to save the world and stomp out every single problem. But if something arises within your specific professional competence and activity, everybody in a society, and it cites Evangelium Vitae on this, is under an obligation to take a public position opposing legal abortion, and you absolutely have to avoid what would appear to be giving contrary signals to other people. So, you know, we talk about virtue signaling and so on: the document is actually concerned with signaling, what we signal about life, we should be frank about that. It’s what it’s concerned about. So these cells, the vaccines, people are saying maybe you should be required to take it. “Must I take it in order to go to work?” That’s coming up immediately in my daily life, in my professional work.
TM: Including in the Catholic world.
MP: This brand of Ibuprofen is not, and therefore I have an obligation to consider whether my witness to life should take the form of refusing to take these vaccines.
TM: And there is that question of the practicality of this witness. In other words, if you’re going to say that we shouldn’t refuse to take the vaccine over this, then you have an obligation to say, “What other way can we get them to stop using these materials?” You have to be creative, that that’s the thing—these documents, all these Church documents, say that it's more incumbent on you to witness against it if you are taking the vaccine. Your obligation is stronger than mine is. But in practice what we have is that the people who are taking it are probably saying less about it than the people who aren’t taking it.
MP: And by the way, doctors have a stronger obligation to witness against it, but they are going to be the first ones who tell you that you should take the vaccine when you go to their offices.
TM: Michael, may I quote the unpublished paper that you sent me? Because it pertains to this.
TM: You said that, “We are worried that the widespread use of cell lines derived from abortion has already made many Catholics complacent about it. Some have even argued as if the status of some cell lines as industry standards or the widespread use of the cell lines in their product testing counted in favor of their permissibility in such use.” Now you said this in the context of pointing out there is another danger in using such vaccines, which is that it does dull the conscience of the people taking them. So that’s why even though in principle you could say, “You can take it as long as you protest against it”, maybe that doesn’t work so well on a practical level, because what has happened is not that. What has happened is that nobody protests about it, essentially.
MP: Yeah. And I think the protests in this, if you go back to the letter that the Pontifical Academy for Life wrote, in I think it was 2005. It looks like it’s a one-time protest because you’re not going to let it happen again. It’s like if you actually protest once, and then you just acquiesce the second time, it's not clear that you protested. So again as Jay was saying, Bishops Schneider and Strickland, they have a very good point. Don’t forget that vaccines for rubella have generally been developed using cell lines derived from abortions. And many moms have gone to their bishops saying “I don’t want to take these”, and they have been compelled to take them to attend Catholic schools for the last 15 to 20 years. So this is not a recent problem. It hasn’t been addressed.
Compulsory vaccination and competing notions of the common good
TM: I read Roberto de Mattei’s 70-page paper on the liceity of vaccinations, and he makes many sound points in there. I think that it’s fairly one sided. I think that he’s missing quite a bit especially on the prudential level. But I wanted to mention one thing that he does say at the end. We have been assuming that compulsory vaccination is wrong. De Mattei says that the argument that compulsory vaccination is wrong in principle is a liberal one because it neglects the idea of duties towards the entire society for the common good. And he gives an example that is pre-vaccine but referring to very draconian measures during the 1830 cholera epidemic taken by Pope Gregory XVI, where he set up what de Mattei describes as a severe medical dictatorship. “Medical barricades controlled by the military rigorously preventing anyone from crossing the borders.” Quarantines. Medical passports. “Suspension of all religious festivals, feasts, and gatherings of any kind.” “Violations of these measures could result in so far as life imprisonment or the death penalty.” So he says all this to point to the idea that draconian compulsory measures in response to disease are not necessarily wrong. How would you respond to that both generally and as applies to this particular situation?
MP: Well I would say, what’s wrong with liberalism? Our founding fathers didn’t want to have a standing army. They said that if there was a true need for war, then citizens would volunteer for it at their own volition. We don’t need to compel them to fight in a war. So maybe that was not realistic completely, but that was a pretty good instinct, I think, so I’m all for that kind of liberalism, and let the ideas play out and see whether it is so important, and we’re actually seeing that take place right now with people choosing to get vaccinated or not as they wish. But the other thing to say is that what’s wrong about liberalism in de Mattei’s sense is not really liberalism, it’s individualism, where you think that the group exists for the sake of the individual. I can see that the individual’s good should be sacrificed for that of the whole when it’s necessary. I mean that has to be the case, that’s why we do ask people to die in warfare. The problem is that, first of all, the need isn’t really that serious, and in that case it’s not at all like yellow fever or cholera.
And then secondly and most importantly, there are competing concepts of the common good here, and this is a really important point. People speak as though you just add up the lives that are just lost and that’s the common good, but the common good of society includes such things as, for example, whether abortion is regarded as bad or not, that’s part of the common good. You have a choice of two societies, you have a society in which everybody dies of a virus, but they die believing that abortion should be absolutely illegal and they would never get abortions themselves. Or everybody lives, but they are all in favor of abortion. The first is a better society on the basis of the common good. So to claim that the only good that is available that’s public and that’s at stake—(is the lives of 80 year olds is, frankly, what we’re talking about, I’m not downplaying that, but let’s be realistic, it’s actually whether 80 year olds will live 4 or 5 months longer, that’s basically what’s at stake here)—that versus how abortion is viewed in society. If someone refuses to take the vaccine or doesn’t wish to take it or thinks it's a violation of his conscience to take it. On that conception, that’s not individualism, that’s not liberalism, that’s a different concept and a better concept of the common good.
TM: And that does seem to be reflected in the Churches statements against compulsory vaccination.
MP: But you have to admit that our bishops have worked with a very reductionist view of the common good. It’s basically how many people live or die.
TM: So I just want to wrap up, then, and I want to ask you both, and we’ll start with Jay, how would you bring this back to, not an imposition on people’s consciences, but since most people working on this don’t work in the medical field or in science, to make this relevant to how it might affect their personal decision whether to get the vaccine?
JR: I think at the very least that they should consider the fact that, no matter how you slice it, there’s going to be some form of cooperation with tissue that was illicitly derived from an intentional abortion, and they need to weigh heavily those kinds of realities. Read Dignitas Personae, starting with paragraph 34 to the end, at the very least, and see the threshold that’s raised there for when it might even be illicit to do this. At the very least, consider that, and don’t sort of accept this idea that’s out there in the water and in the air, that “Yeah, really this is no big deal.” It’s not what the Church teaches and it’s not consistent with the facts of the matter.
MP: Oh, I think he makes a very good statement. I would add this, I would also advise people to go look up, there’s a very good English translation of Liguori’s manual on moral theology, Theologia Moralis. And look at his treatment of cooperation, it’s near the end of the first volume. And you’ll see he takes very seriously the view that we should not cooperate with evil. He cites several authorities which hold that this is the case and he carves out material cooperation as a very very stringent type of cooperation, that if certain unusual conditions are met then it’s possible to cooperate with ongoing evil. I find the viewpoint of so many Catholics is the opposite of Liguori’s, and they cite him but they are very far from his mindset. They think “We are implicated in evil right and left in everything that we do, and that’s fine because it’s material cooperation.” It’s not fine, it’s not correct, it’s not how the term is supposed to be used. Material cooperation with evil is always lamentable, it’s always regretted, it's always in a certain sense necessitated, and it’s to be avoided if possible. It’s not a pass to do whatever you want. So what I’m saying is just reinforcing what Jay said, I think he put it very well. I don’t want to add anything to that, I would just say that, to say that something is justifiable because of the conditions of material cooperation is still to say that we are in a pretty tough bind.
TM: And I’ll just say this by way of conclusion, bringing it back to the topic of conscience and virtue, and I kind of owe this somewhat to discussions with Leila Lawler, which is that just because something is allowed in certain circumstances, or just because it is allowed even in your circumstance, doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons in conscience not to do it. And even among what’s permissible there are better and less good options. But also, the idea that we need to be submissive to the Church, but the Church itself tells us what the Church’s essential competence lies in, and it’s not in assessing science. So I think that we need to recover a sense of prudence, and not just that virtue but in all of the virtues, because, as has been objected against manualism, (whether that’s a thing or not historically I don’t know), but as has been alleged about manualism, you see a similar approach today, where the idea is that the Church is supposed to kind of give us how to act under every single circumstance, but that’s not how virtue is. It’s not an external rule that we apply, it’s a habit of the soul that spontaneously generates right action. This is the Thomistic understanding of virtue. So even where a rule has been given, a hard and fast rule, it’s still, at best an internal impetus that helps us apply it to the circumstances. And so in this situation, as you say it's all in flux, so that is all the more important. So we can’t simply allow ourselves to be complacent by a permission that’s given or circumstantial judgements, and we don’t actually (that’s why I asked for John Henry Newman’s intercession before we started this), we don’t actually farm out our consciences to the Church. Even though we submit them to the Church, it doesn’t render our consciences, and it doesn’t render personal virtue, redundant.
MP: Very well said.
TM: OK, well both of you, I thank you so much for coming on.
TM: OK, after that somewhat abrupt ending, just a couple of things that I want to note, first of all in the description for this episode I have linked to many of the different documents that we reference in this conversation both magisterial texts and non-magisterial commentaries along with Jay Richard’s book The Price of Panic. Thank you for listening, and if you’ve gotten to the very end of this, if you’ve benefitted from this discussion, please do share it with your friends, family, on social media, etc. I don’t normally ask that, but in this case I think that some of these things are important to get out there. Please remember that CatholicCulture.org runs on listener donations, so if you liked this episode please consider donating. You can go to catholicculture.org/donate/audio for your donation to be funneled specifically towards future podcast productions. Huge thanks again to Michael Pakaluk and Jay Richards for doing this. God bless you and I’ll see you next time.
To view / listen to this podcast: Abortion-Derived Vaccines: Conscience over Legalism with Michael Pakaluk and Jay Richards
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