THE great Edward Feser has posted an excellent summary of where the Catholic Church stands in the Vaccines War and I commend it to anyone interested in the theological issues involved. Solidly orthodox in every respect, the essay has two parts. The Pasadena Persuader explains the Church’s thinking as a via media in a battlefield of extremes; the “Catholic middle ground,” he calls it. The classification is amiss to the extent that it may give some readers to believe the Church has sought to finesse an irenic compromise, whereas the fundamental principles relied upon are centuries old and customary. This isn’t pop-up Tractarianism. Feser first describes and rebuts opposition to the covid vaccines deriving from a concern they are irredeemably tainted by abortion. There follows a description and rebuttal of the ‘other’ extreme – the lockdown violence and mandates perpetrated by states, medical officials and media urgers. My criticisms of Feser’s piece belong more to culture and communication than they do to theology but it turns out these realms are not quite as discrete during a disaster as they are in theory.
The anti-vaccination Catholic whose heart is closed to the Magisterium – including, by definition, to saints who taught authoritatively on culpability for past sins – might exist but mostly as a straw man symbolising one ‘side’ in the dispute Feser is discussing. There has been little opposition from Catholics to vaccines whose origins – all agree – are blackened by an atrocity. Calling down a pox on both their houses is disproportionate when one of the houses is no more than a lean-to. This is polemical expediency rather than a logical error. Suffice to say that being wrong in a minority is no less justiciable at the bar of philosophy than being wrong in a majority. But do Catholics who have decided not to be vaccinated for a moral reason risk becoming like Montanists – heretics inclined “fanatically to seek out martyrdom,” as Feser writes – or have they rationally judged the danger of covid as being insufficiently acute to warrant capitulation of their scruples?
To prove that “it is not intrinsically wrong to benefit from a good that has resulted from some past evil action,” Feser cites three examples: St Paul’s teaching that it is permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols, St Augustine’s that advantages received by an oath sworn to a false god are licit and St Thomas’s on the acceptability of borrowing from a userer. As precedents for the (non-existent) trial of vaccination vis-a-vis abortion, these cases are theologically compelling but pastorally and catechetically limited. The less than normative passivity of “not intrinsically wrong” – a fraternal twin perhaps to ‘intrinsically right’ but a cousin twice removed from mandatory – is the most obvious instructional weakness.
One needn’t make a baseless accusation of casuistry to argue that these three examples are remote from the lived experience of Christians in the last, still covid-crazed days of 2021. Feser rejects the admissibility of scandal as an objection to accepting abortion-linked vaccines precisely because the doctrine he rightly defends is infallible. What springs from the sensus fidelium – remembering the latter isn’t a plebiscite – cannot, by definition, give scandal to believers. However, to convince the honourably perplexed, does a lamb sacrificed to Jupiter, an oath made to Zeus or a vig demanded by a loan-shark come close to equalling an aborted human life for enlightenment’s sake? I doubt it. While I accept that orthodoxy is like instruments-only flying – reason guides the journey, however dark the heavens – others might believe abortion is a crime from which no proportionate good can come. I cannot fault them for thinking so.
On fault, let us turn our attention to the second part of Feser’s treatise wherein those whose share of it is certainly preponderant – states, health officials and vaxx maximalists – are arraigned by the same logic. Feser concedes mandates and lockdowns are contrary to the moral law. I say concedes because another mismatch is staged here – this time between everyman uncritically accepting, and straw man uncritically rejecting, expertise. The latter may be equally mistaken but affording him a status matching the mob’s reads like the “middle ground” is being bulldozed rather than discerned. I also disagree with Feser that mandates are “not as problematic as lockdowns.” The one has come to presuppose the other. A plantation furlough did not cease to be a furlough just because the slave carrying it was ‘free’ to run errands. Moreover, disguising piratical compulsion under the friendlier flag of ‘workplace safety’ does not purify the felony.
That is a fitting juncture to underscore the nexus adumbrated above between truth disinterestedly elucidated and truth pastorally received. For now the Church itself – Australian dioceses and even Vatican City itself – have imposed mandates on their own workers. They are doing what they know to be wrong because they think good – epidemiological or politico-legal – may come of it. So when the bishops responsible for that hypocritical rebellion tell the faithful that a baby aborted decades ago may be licitly forgotten, they may not be wrong but nor are they righteous.