Thomistic natural law theory and Catholic moral theology are not libertarian, but neither are they statist. They acknowledge that we can have enforceable obligations to which we do not consent, but also insist that there are limits to what government can require of us, and qualifications even where it can require something of us. In the case of vaccine mandates (whether we are talking about Covid-19 vaccines, polio vaccines, or whatever), they neither imply a blanket condemnation of such mandates nor a blanket approval of them. There is nuance here that too many hotheads on both sides of the Catholic debate on this issue ignore.
In order to understand the ethics of vaccine mandates, it is useful to draw a comparison with the ethics of military conscription. Both mandatory vaccination and military conscription involve a grave interference with individual liberty. Both are nevertheless in principle allowable. But the grave interference with liberty also entails serious qualifications.
What does the Church teach about military conscription? On the one hand, there is a recognition of its legitimacy in principle, given the obligations we have as social animals who have a duty to defend our country. Pope Pius XII taught:
If, therefore, a body representative of the people and a government – both having been chosen by free elections – in a moment of extreme danger decides, by legitimate instruments of internal and external policy, on defensive precautions, and carries out the plans which they consider necessary, it does not act immorally. Therefore a Catholic citizen cannot invoke his own conscience in order to refuse to serve and fulfill those duties the law imposes. (Christmas message of December 23, 1956)
Note that the principle here is that it can be legitimate in this case for the state to require something of the citizen even though it involves putting him at grave risk, and despite the fact that he might think his conscience justifies refusal.
But does that entail that every citizen is obligated unquestioningly to take up arms in just any old war that a government claims is justified, and ought to be forced to do so? Absolutely not. For there are two further considerations which need to be taken account of.
First, the obligation to take up arms applies only in the case of a just war, and natural law theory and Catholic moral theology set out several criteria for a war’s being just: the war must be authorized by a legitimate authority; the cause must be just (for example, the aggression being responded to must be grave enough to be worth going to war over); the motivation must be just (for example, the publicly stated justification, even if reasonable considered by itself, must not be a cover for some hidden sinister motivation); the means of fighting must be just (for example, they must not bring about harms that are even worse than those that we hope to remedy through war); and there must be a reasonable hope of success.
Now, a private citizen does not have all the information required in order thoroughly to evaluate any particular war in light of all of these criteria. In a reasonably just society, he therefore has to give some benefit of the doubt to the governing authorities. All the same, he also does have a duty to make at least some investigation to determine whether a war really is just before going along with it. And naturally, the more corrupt a given government is, the stronger are going to be the reasons for doubting the justice of a war that it undertakes. There is, as Pius XII’s teaching makes clear, a presumption in favor of complying with the government’s requirements, but that presumption can be overridden.
That brings us to the second, related point, which is that although appeals to conscience do not by themselves suffice to excuse a citizen from military service, they nevertheless ought to be taken very seriously by the state. As Vatican II teaches:
It seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way. (Gaudium et Spes 79)
This basic principle here is this. Though a person’s conscience can certainly be in error, at the same time one ought not to act in a way that is positively contrary to one’s conscience. For one would in that case be doing something that one sincerely (even if wrongly) thought to be immoral, which would itself be immoral. Suppose I sincerely thought that it would be gravely immoral to eat meat. In fact it isn’t immoral, and so if I do eat meat, the eating of it is not itself wrong. But violating my (mistaken) conscience would be wrong. So, for that reason, I shouldn’t eat meat until I come to see the error of my opinion on this matter.
Of course, people abuse this principle all the time. Catholics who want to get abortions like to pretend that they can justify themselves by appealing to conscience – as if the trip to the Planned Parenthood clinic was analogous to Thomas More’s refusing to swear allegiance to the king as supreme authority over the Church. This is, of course, absurd, and not only because the arguments for the legitimacy of abortion are worthless. To swear to recognize the king as supreme authority over the Church is to do something that is intrinsically evil. Merely to refrain from getting an abortion is not to do something intrinsically evil, because it is not to do anything at all. It is not a kind of action, but rather, again, a refraining from action. Hence no one who is prevented from getting an abortion is being made to act against conscience in the relevant sense.
But suppose someone is forced to take up arms in a war he sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) to be immoral. Then he would in that case be made to act against his conscience, and in that sense be made to do something immoral (even if the war is not in fact wrong). It is out of sensitivity to this problem that the Church allows for conscientious objection.
Naturally, this raises problems of its own. What if a very large number of people decided to opt out of fighting in a war that really was just and necessary? That’s a good question, but one we can put to one side for present purposes. Suffice it to say that even if there is a presumption in favor of the state’s having the authority to coerce citizens to take up arms in a just war, the state should nevertheless allow for exemptions, as far as it reasonably can, for citizens who demonstrate sincere and deep-seated moral reservations about the war, especially if they agree to some reasonable alternative public service.
Application to vaccine mandates
The application of these principles to the case of vaccine mandates is pretty clear. A society might be threatened by a serious disease, just as it might be threatened by an armed aggressor. We can have duties to help do what is necessary to repel the threat in the former case just as in the latter, even if this entails some risk to ourselves. Hence, just as it is in principle legitimate for the state to require military conscription (despite the fact that this entails putting people’s lives at risk in defense of the country), so too can it be legitimate in principle for the state to require vaccination (even if this too involves some risk, insofar as vaccines – many vaccines, not just Covid-19 vaccines – can have occasional bad side effects for some people). Hence, it will not do merely to appeal to a concern for individual liberty as an objection to vaccine mandates, as if that by itself settled the issue.
However, that is by no means the end of the story. For there are, with vaccines as with war, two further considerations. First, with vaccines as with war, the state has no right to impose on the citizens just any old obligation that it wants to. A vaccine mandate, like a war, can be just or unjust. As with a war, the state must determine that there is no realistic alternative way to deal with the threat it is trying to counter. It must have the right motivation, rather than using the health considerations as a cover for some more sinister motivation. There must be a reasonable chance that the mandate will successfully deal with the threat to public health. There must be good grounds for thinking that the mandate won’t cause more harm than good. And so on. And as with war, if a citizen has well-founded reasons for thinking that the conditions on a just vaccination mandate are not met, he thereby has grounds for resisting it.
That brings us to the other point, which is that as with war, so too with vaccination mandates (and for the same reasons), the state ought to be generous with those whose consciences lead them to have serious reservations about vaccination, even if their consciences happen to be mistaken. The state should as far as possible allow those having these reservations to contribute to dealing with the threat to public health in some other way (just as, as Vatican II teaches, those who refuse to take up arms should “agree to serve the human community in some other way”). This is why, in its affirmation that the Covid-19 vaccines can be taken in good conscience, the Vatican also stated:
At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one's own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed. Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.
End quote. The applicability of the principles I’ve been setting out to the specific case of Covid-19 vaccines is, I think, also obvious. As I said in my initial post, while I think some case could be made for a mandate, I don’t think it is a compelling case. I don’t think state or federal governments have met the burden of proof. I also said that there are reasonable grounds for preferring not to take the vaccines, and that it is also perfectly understandable that many citizens do not trust the judgment of public authorities. Many such authorities today are committed to manifestly lunatic beliefs on other topics – that the police should be defunded, that the distinction between men and women is merely a social construct, and so on. Many governments have earned the public’s distrust, and a wise statesman, knowing this, would strongly urge against heavy-handed actions that are guaranteed only to increase this distrust.
For such reasons, and also because of the general principle that the state ought as far as possible to avoid forcing people to act against their consciences, there should be no Covid-19 vaccine mandates, and where they do exist there should be generous exemptions for those who object to them in conscience.
In all things charity
Some readers of my two earlier posts on this subject have reacted in a predictably unhinged way. One blogger insists that “one’s position on the vaxx is a litmus test,” and avers that I have now revealed “on which side [my] loyalties lie” and joined “the enemy” (!) Another declares that I have “switched sides from that of God to anti-God” (!!) They thereby illustrate my point that too many right-wingers have been led by the very real crisis we are facing to fly off the rails and land in the same paranoid fantasyland mentality that has overtaken the Left. Or perhaps they simply demonstrate that they don’t know how to read. For in my initial post, I explicitly criticized the mandates, explicitly acknowledged that there are reasonable concerns about the vaccines, explicitly said that public authorities have damaged their own credibility, and explicitly affirmed that those who put themselves at risk in resisting the mandates deserve our respect.
But one can say all that and, with perfect consistency, also hold that the Covid-19 vaccines are not connected with abortion in a way that would make it wrong to use them, and that those Catholics who decide to take the vaccine do not sin in doing so. And that was the point I was making in those earlier posts. Contrary to what some Catholic churchmen and writers have been saying over the last few months, opposition to abortion and fidelity to the Catholic faith do not oblige Catholics to “die on the hill” of Covid-19 vaccination. These churchmen and writers have no business usurping the Church’s teaching authority and claiming otherwise. But that by no means entails that there aren’t other reasons to object to vaccination mandates.
The bottom line is that whether to get a Covid-19 vaccine is, in the nature of the case, a prudential matter. But fanatics on both sides want to turn it into something more than that. One side says that as a Catholic, you must not get the vaccine – never mind what the Church says, what three popes have said, and what decades of orthodox Catholic moral theology has said. The other side says that you must get the vaccine, even if this violates your conscience. Both sides gravely offend against justice and charity. Both sides muddy the waters and stir up passions when what the Church and the world need more than ever are clarity and sobriety.