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
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
of my two earlier posts on this subject have reacted in a predictably unhinged
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
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.
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