In which I commit the unforgivable faux pas and talk about vaccines on the internet.
Hey, I’ve done yoga, I’ve done Harry Potter, so why not complete the trifecta of taboo?
Lately I’ve been observing a curious trend both online and in conversation with friends and strangers alike.
Call it another casualty of covid, but I’ve begun to wonder whether the appeal to the individual conscience, or intellect, is a thing of the past.
Suddenly a massive cross section of the culture, many of whom prior to 2020 would likely have identified as fairly individualistic in their thinking, have almost unilaterally made the appeal to authority the highest and most potent argument.
It’s become increasingly common to hear disclaimers like, “well, she’s no moral theologian” thereby calling into question one’s right to speak into a moral issue or, “I don’t want to hear about science from a guy in a collar,” which, frankly, has given me a bit of whiplash, coming from faithful Catholics who would, apparently, prefer that Father stick strictly to the bread of life discourse and not wade into the waters of bioethics during his homilies.
Forgive me for thinking that the era of the institutional authority had passed, but you see, I did grow up with a front row seat watching the edifice of respectability for the Catholic Church in the US crumble into ruin as horrific scandals were uncovered, decades of fetid, filthy laundry shoveled out into public view.
Couple that with my undergraduate years spent on an exceedingly liberal college campus where it was a forgone conclusion that absolutely everybody minored in questioning authority, and I find myself discombobulated by the present cultural milieu.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean without veering too far out of my lane which, for the most part, involves diapers and carpool runs at the moment.
It started early in the covid era, when suddenly doctors, nurses, and other respected medical professionals were elevated from, well, respected medical professionals to, like, demigods.
Sure, I clapped for healthcare workers (actually, here in Colorado we howled. 8 pm every night. You had to be there, and the cat needed Xanax honestly.) and I profoundly respect my friends and family members and our family doctors of various disciplines who trained for careers in medicine. They have skills and valuable knowledge I do not have, and will likely never have.
But this new trend goes beyond respect and admiration, and I think it’s a little dangerous
Fascinating to me has been the cultural transformation, virtually overnight, from a nation previously studded with moral relativists, agnostics, and plain old general skeptics of any and all authority, to a booming chorus of “yessirs” who stand at attention whenever Dr. Fauci or another media darling issues another proclamation, never mind that the “clear science” has done a 180 since the month before.
(And I can’t judge him or anyone else on the frontlines of this thing, because this IS confusing as hell and the science, truly, is not, in any sense of the word, settled. I’ve watched dozens of family members respond to a Covid infection in dozens of ways now, and it is truly an confusing and often unpredictable disease course.)
And yet, if you find his – or any other of our new ruling class’ – conclusions questionable? I mean, you’re basically cancelled; maybe professionally, almost certainly virtually. Perhaps interpersonally, too.
There are at least two major issues with this way of thinking: first, the idea, suddenly, that adults with basic critical thinking skills and reasonably well formed consciences cannot possibly come to different conclusions over an issue without representing an existential threat to one another; and secondly, the notion that only an “expert” in a given field has any right to speak into an issue or hold an opinion about it.
Guys, this is the grossest form of clericalism, or scientism I guess when it’s outside the Church, and it’s bizarre. We’re not talking about an uncredentialed layperson attempting to perform brain surgery here; no, I’m talking about the idea that a reasonably intelligent person cannot read the research, study the information as it becomes available, self report on their own experience, and arrive at a different conclusion. Should they then venture to speak into an area “outside” their vocational sphere of expertise? Better be prepared to be sneered at and chastised for stepping out of her lane or “ignoring the science.”
A similar phenomena is now making its rounds in the Church as at the vaccine rollout threatens to rend the straining seams of communities already ravaged by months of lockdowns and often unconstitutional and illogical suppression of the freedom to worship.
Now that the “end” is in sight, at least in terms of having a solution available to those who desire to obtain a vaccination against Covid 19 , the newer arguments bubbling to the surface involve, basically, the very murky morality surrounding the use of aborted fetal tissue in vaccines, which is of course a foundational issue, but as these things tend to be, it’s more complicated than that…
Because it’s not “only” the aborted babies.
Though, hold that thought, because about those babies…
Drill a little deeper into the data beyond that which is included in the oft-referenced 2005 document from the Pontifical Academy for Life (or the more recent statement from the CDF) and you may find yourself shocked, as I did a few years back, to learn that there is profoundly more fetal tissue in play in the realm of medicine than is popularly reported, and from profoundly more recent babies.
Anyone who remembers the sting operation in California involving undercover videos of executives from Stem Express and Planned Parenthood will recall that there is actually a brisk trade in baby parts which feeds into the medical research and development. From a WaPo (of all places) piece in 2016 :
Her company’s innovation, as she describes it, is isolating the stem cells from donor tissue from the clinic, which extends their lifespan for research…Dyer said the company provides the samples to researchers at a financial loss to expedite the creation of medicines and vaccines — and that fetal tissue represents less than 1 percent of the business.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/05/27/critics-say-theyre-selling-baby-body-parts-they-say-theyre-saving-lives/
So is it proximate cooperation with evil if the abortion was performed, not in the 1970s, but in 2013? My grasp of moral theology tells me that technically, yes, the cooperation is still distant on my part, and yet my conscience recoils a little more readily when I ponder profiting from the harvesting of tissue from a baby who was killed the same year that I gave birth to my now 7-year-old daughter.
And, by the by, while this is another column for another day, if you think vaccines are the only place aborted children are used in medical research, well, I’m sorrowful to say you are mistaken. If anything, vaccines represent a very modest portion of where this tissue is used.
If you’re still with me, since I know vaccines are like, Top 3 in terms of things that make you go BLOCK, I’d just ask for the courtesy of recognizing that for many people of goodwill, this is simply not a clear cut issue.
So all that to say, it is not a “no brainer” for me to accept a Covid vaccine. Nor do I believe it should be, for anyone.
Decisions about whether we inject things into our bodies, and what, are deeply serious and are sacredly personal.
And when those decisions involve other persons’ bodies, as do these decisions involving medicine created with the use of and/or tested against illicitly and immorally obtained fetal tissue? Even more profoundly serious.
Is there a compelling case to be made that for the immunocompromised, the elderly, and otherwise comorbid persons, the risks of a disease that would be likely be exceedingly low for me might justify the use of such a vaccine*? I think it’s possible. This priest makes a well reasoned and exceedingly balanced case for just that.
In any case, we should all of us, every single Christian and all people of goodwill, stand and use our voices to demand ethically made vaccines. Supply and demand works in the scientific realm just like it does in the marketplace. And besides, those same two Church documents mandate that we do so. But if we don’t demand it? Never gonna happen. Why would it? Where’s the impetus to change?
Christians, find your voice.
(*Sadly, while 2 of the now-available mRNA vaccine options were “only” tested on aborted fetal cells for efficacy and are therefore even more distantly cooperative in the grave evil of the destruction of those children’s lives, the third mRNA option which is still forthcoming in the US, along with the forthcoming “traditional” vaccines, all contain aborted fetal cell lines.)
tl;dr: I don’t think you’re a monster for wanting the vaccine. And if the vaccines were a total no brainer from a moral perspective, and there was no question whatsoever surrounding the ethics of it all? RAH RAH SIS BOOM BAH I’ll drive you there myself. But things are a little more complicated that that.
So, if you’re still reading, hopefully you are now realizing that I’m not a shrill anti-vaxxer who believes everything she reads on Instagram, and what I’m asking is this: as we move through these exceedingly murky waters as a culture, as communities of individuals and families of good faith, please realize that we are going to come to different conclusions on this major, major issue … and that our differences will likely be distressing.
Because hopefully we’re all doing the hard, honest work of forming and developing our consciences.
And so long as the Church does not definitively mandate that Catholics in good standing must receive the vaccine and cannot question their pastor, their local ordinary, the national bishop’s conference, or Rome herself, there is room in the big, rolling, sometimes sea-sickeningly unsteady Barque of Peter for disparate opinions on incredible serious issues.
These things tend to work themselves out, not over weeks or months, but often over decades or centuries or…you get the idea. But to say that “a good Catholic does this” or “he must not be a very solid Catholic, deep down” because we come to different conclusions on a painfully convoluted and not at all settled issue of massive importance?
That, my friends, is crazy. Even by 2020 standards. Or 2021, as it were.
And hey, thanks for reading. I’m sure it was very distressing for some of you to read that a fellow Catholic comes down on the opposite side of an issue that you hold to passionately and profoundly. I feel the same way. But there is still room for mutual respect, productive discourse (what a time to be alive, would that be true!) and an uneasy equilibrium as we work through this thing together.
Because we are not each other’s enemy. You are not my enemy.
The only mutual enemy we face is the very one whose entire existence is spent pouring out wrath and chaos and hatred, sowing division and crisis in the body of Christ.