For some months, we have been grappling with the uneasy knowledge of a shattered practical illusion. The illusion was one of a shared consensus with the rulers of our western societies, a consensus that some rights and freedoms were permanently guaranteed and unassailable. The past months have destroyed that illusion, which was only a “practical” one anyway: We assumed in practice that we talked the same language and shared the same reality as the rulers of this present age. At the same time, in our mediations, in our retreats from the world, in the omnipresent reminders of death and destruction via abortion clinics and contraceptives, we accepted that Christ has no fellowship with Belial. Sooner or later the cultures were bound to collide and Christians would find themselves in open conflict.
Habits die hard, though, and the smooth running of a post-Christian culture with its roots embedded in Catholic truth ensured that such Christian norms as honesty and rule by duty and responsibility, rather than by diktat and fear, was the dominant culture. Until now. The uprooting of these final vestiges of Christian culture joined to the parlous state of moral theology post-Vatican II — not to mention the abandonment of sound philosophy for generations — means that Catholics, including the clergy, find themselves disoriented and unsure of their ground.
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Nowhere is this uncertainty and disorientation more obvious than in the varied clerical responses to the medical dictatorship and its newest poisoned fruit: the vaccine (or rather, experimental serum). Let us leave to one side the reactions of the hirelings who have closed churches without a murmur and denied sacraments to the faithful in need. These clerics are not likely to release a statement worthy of analysis. Let us instead consider here only the reactions of faithful and pious clergy. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, let us also consider purported medicines tested only on and not made with fetal cells.
On the one hand, some ecclesiastics, faced with the undeniable fact of abortion as a factor in the production of most vaccines, conclude that there can be no remote cooperation with the sin of abortion. Cooperation by taking a vaccine tested on the cells of an aborted fetus is, according to these teachers, forbidden — even for a serious reason...even if a person (theoretically) faces death without a vaccine. The proponents of this position are refreshingly clear in their opposition to the medical dictatorship, and consequently, many a Catholic rejoices in such a clear affirmation and is willing to undergo martyrdom for the cause. However, Catholics accustomed to greater nuance and precision in Church teaching are nonplussed. While they welcome the condemnation of the health tyranny, they cannot help but ask: On what basis does the frequently used principle of remote cooperation now falter and disappear?
In the majority of cases, however, the teachers of the “possible” position fail to apply these moral principles to the exact situation we are in: a fake, or at least manipulated, pandemic applying unheard-of restrictions.
On the other hand, there are ecclesiastics who offer more precision. According to their articulate explanations of Church teaching on remote passive cooperation, taking a vaccine would be possible for usually undefined grave reasons and in certain narrow circumstances. In other words, taking a vaccine tested on fetal cells is generally immoral and is only allowed by exception. In the majority of cases, however, the teachers of the “possible” position fail to apply these moral principles to the exact situation we are in: a fake, or at least manipulated, pandemic applying unheard-of restrictions. These members of the clergy decontextualise the Church’s moral teaching and expect the laity to be able to apply the principles without any clerical reference to the circumstances here and now. Their intervention, while reassuring insofar as it uses the Church’s traditional terminology, can be as frustrating as watching a group of food scientists stand about discussing the Wicked Witch's apple in Snow White. Discussions of the apple seem naive when we consider the one presenting the apple. Run! It’s the Wicked Witch!
Perhaps some might interject that the flock demands too much of the teaching authorities. One may say we want teaching which is adult enough to make the necessary distinctions and to discriminate between spirits, avoiding both moral laxity and moral rigorism. Another may say we are looking for a teaching childlike enough to recognise archetypes, villains and heroes and to adapt teaching according to these concrete realities. Are we looking for "jam on it"?
No, we are looking for Holy Mother Church. We are looking for the Mother who nurtures her faithful on concrete reality (paradoxically, the fairy tale is the strongest encounter with reality many of us can handle early in life) and at the same time fences lightly with philosophical terms and distinctions, the Mother who has the mind of a teacher and can be simple enough to reach the joyful heart of a child.
We need this authoritative voice of our Mother, as our minds are easily deceived by error. Catholics of the present era are accustomed to equating error to moral laxity, but error is actually a spectrum. The golden mean, which does not equate to mediocrity, refuses both laxity and excessive rigorism. The golden mean is easy to describe but difficult to find in practice. It requires not only holiness, but also correct philosophical and theological training.
Moral theology doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in an ivory tower.
It is of the utmost importance that our notions of moral cooperation are correct or we risk parking ourselves in inextricable situations. A great many of our livelihoods and daily actions are bound up with cooperation in others’ actions, undesired by us though they be.
Let us consider a very pertinent example: A highly immodest picture is designed and pasted on the outside of a bus which is then driven around town. Most of us would consider the person who cleans the inside of the bus to be completely free from any significant cooperation in this sin of leading others to impurity; whereas we would all agree that the designer of the picture commits a clear sin. (Beyond that, the designer’s subjective culpability is not our concern but a matter for God and the confessional.) In addition, there are many greyer areas in between. What about the bus driver? Is his cooperation remote or proximate? Does his objection lodged with the bus company make a significant difference? What about the degree to which he needs the job? Does not that factor count if his cooperation is remote?
It is in order to answer just such difficult questions that we have recourse to moral theologians, whose answers must be based on a firm philosophical and theological footing. Vague terminology such as a “civilisation of love” or “structure of sin” will not aid the faithful in their concrete moral decisions. It will only alarm them or drive them to despair if they actually try to avoid all structures of sin in a world full of vice. The clarity of a St. Alphonsus or a St.Thomas Aquinas is therefore needed.
A real vaccine for a real pandemic is one thing; a possibly dangerous non-vaccine imposed under the most sinister conditions for a disease no more lethal than flu is quite a different matter.
One argument against the refusal to admit passive and remote cooperation in the case of abortion-tainted vaccines is that the proponents of this stance seem to give abortion a sinful status beyond every other sin. Some of them directly reference the horror of abortion as the reason for refusing all, even very remote, cooperation with the sin. This does not appear carefully founded on theology. While acknowledging the extreme horror and gravity of abortion, we are guilty of anthropocentrism if we hold that the sin of abortion is the gravest possible sin. In fact, sins directly touching God such as idolatry, blasphemy and heresy are graver.
St. Paul, nonetheless, permitted Christians to eat meat sacrificed to the gods. It is worth knowing that no other meat was available, yet if the eating of meat consecrated to idols was in fact proximate cooperation in idolatry, the Christians were bound to abstain even if such abstinence resulted in death (an unlikely scenario). The question of cooperation with idolatry which arose at that time is much more pertinent to the vaccine issue than the often-cited example of grains of incense burned before a false god. The scattering of grains of incense before a false god was proximate and mediate cooperation, since the matter of the idolatry was actually the burning of incense to indicate divinity. In contrast, the eating of the meat or the taking of a vaccine tested on fetal cells uses the produce or by-product of sin in some way distant from the actual sin itself and gives no consent to the sin. It may, of course, indirectly encourage or support the sin- and this factor, taken by itself, may render the taking of the serum immoral. I return to this point below.
Some current thinkers might have chided St. Paul for not expecting his Christians to betake themselves forthwith to bread and herbs. That position appears to be the logical one if we deny, in principle and in all circumstances, any cooperation, even the most remote, with any v tested on fetal cells. Such a position seems to land us in inextricable difficulties. For instance, blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, satanism, black magic and superstition are rampant. All of them directly attack the honour of God, some more so than others. In cases of blasphemy and heresy, which attack God directly in Himself, it is abundantly clear that they are sins more grave than any we could commit against even our tiny innocent neighbour. Yet occasions of cooperating with such sins very remotely, as for instance by necessary financial transactions with companies, must be so frequent as to make pious Catholics weep were they not reassured by a Church whose moral Law is sane, just and merciful.
Whether or not the taking of the vaccine by the Catholic people in large numbers might encourage future abortions is certainly a relevant issue and may well render the taking of the vaccine to be immoral in all circumstances.
The Catholic realist doesn’t waste too much time thinking about these things, any more than she considers the tiny beetles she must squash while walking. We live in a world desperately needing salvation. To extricate ourselves completely from all the doings of our fellow man is actually impossible. If we most honourably seek to extricate ourselves from all involvement with our neighbour’s sins, as indeed we ought to do, we must have a firmly principled basis for our extrication. Hence the sanity of the Church’s moral teaching on remote passive cooperation, a teaching which recalls the surprising patience of God in allowing weeds among the wheat of His creation.
This reminder of weeds among the wheat brings us back to the other demand of sane theology, namely, that it be rooted in concrete reality. Moral theology doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in an ivory tower. Teaching doesn’t exist outside of the concrete situation, or if it does, we must call it something different: speculation, perhaps, or exercises in logic. Teaching, conversely, deals with the real world. A real vaccine for a real pandemic is one thing; a possibly dangerous non-vaccine imposed under the most sinister conditions for a disease no more lethal than flu is quite a different matter. The plea found in some ecclesiastical responses that we must bow to the medical expertise and that each is free to have his own opinion on the matter is a most unsatisfactory application of the principles.
First of all, to which medical expertise should we defer? We are given a choice between a new, untested product that might kill or harm us (as some highly qualified experts say) or an experimental serum that might reduce our symptoms from a not-very-lethal disease while leaving us open to significant side effects (as other highly qualified experts say). This is not a choice we can consider morally neutral. Is it legitimate under the current circumstances to accept a treatment with such dangerous side-effects? Are we not bound to give serious consideration to the testimonies of doctors who have sacrificed their time, resources and in some cases their careers in order to warn us against the vaccine?
Regardless of how it is done, and difficult as it may be to do under the omnipresent eye of Big Brother, we must be able to count on our Catholic leaders and teachers to transmit to us the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, with precision and nuance, in light of the exact situation we are in here and now.
In addition, a thorough commentary on cooperation must surely consider the new and pertinent facts which emerge and which may change the initial judgement. In this connection, the resolute opponents of cooperation via any tainted vaccine make a valid point. For instance, the remote and passive cooperation argument was partially based on the incorrect idea that the abortions were both few in number and already carried out. Whether or not the taking of the vaccine by the Catholic people in large numbers might encourage future abortions is certainly a relevant issue and may well render the taking of the vaccine to be immoral in all circumstances. This issue needs to be further explored in order to illuminate the consciences of the faithful.
Of course, the clergy may find themselves uncertain as to the answer, a totally understandable situation when the Pope, the Pastor of pastors, remains silent — or worse still, takes the side of the wolf. Even so, fearless articulation of the whole problem, including the non-lethality of the present pandemic, and a thorough discussion of principles seems necessary.
It might seem that the word “fearless” above is meant to accuse the clergy of cowardice. Not so. Their fear is surely not for themselves but for their flock, whom they nobly wish to tend and probably fear to harm by a clear and public statement. If the media-generated persecution is so dangerous that one fears repercussions for articulating the truth about the pandemic (indeed a well-based fear), a response might be to shut down website analyses and instead send letters to the flock in various countries, as did the early Church under persecution.
Regardless of how it is done, and difficult as it may be to do under the omnipresent eye of Big Brother, we must be able to count on our Catholic leaders and teachers to transmit to us the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, with precision and nuance, in light of the exact situation we are in here and now. Tell us all the reasons the fruit is poisoned, including the motives of the monster presenting it to us. And if we must run from the Wicked Witch, by all means, tell us to run.