Though I’ve commented on this subject before, I want to address each of the main issues one more time in light of the points made by Hochschild, Sullivan, and Pereira and other recent developments. Governmental authorities and mainstream opinion-makers have massively overreacted to Covid-19, first with gravely unjust and destructive lockdowns and now with demonization and persecution of the unvaccinated. But it is possible to overreact to the overreaction, and people do that when they shrilly denounce the vaccines as intrinsically evil or more dangerous than the virus itself. The primary fault here clearly lies with the governmental authorities and media opinion-makers. But it is absolutely imperative that critics of the mandates keep their heads and not fall into excesses of their own.
In what follow I will first address the excesses of the mandate critics and then turn to those of the authorities and opinion-makers. Let me warn in advance that I will not approve comments on this post that simply insult those one disagrees with, question people’s motives, or the like. You can take any position you want to, from condemning the vaccines as intrinsically evil to calling for mandatory vaccination for everyone, but I ask you to do so in a calm, charitable, and civil manner. If you just want to rant and rave, there are plenty of other places online where you can do that. The point of this post is to encourage sober thinking about the matter.
Part I: Covid-19 vaccines can be taken in good conscience
Let’s consider the main arguments of those who claim that Catholics are morally obligated to refuse vaccination:
1. Doesn’t the use of fetal cell lines in the development of the vaccines make it immoral to use them?
Some Catholics, including some prominent churchmen and Catholic commentators, have alleged that it is intrinsically wrong for anyone to take the vaccines, on the grounds that they were developed using cell lines derived from fetuses aborted decades ago. This has led some other Catholics into a crisis of conscience. They would like to take one of the vaccines – whether because they are concerned about getting Covid-19, or because refusing vaccination might cost them their jobs, their ability to go to school, or the like – but they have been told that they would be sinning gravely if they were to do so. The churchmen and commentators referred to have insisted that the Catholic faith requires Catholics to “die on the hill” of vaccine resistance, like the early Christian martyrs who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that this claim is false and the Church has officially rejected it, so that no Catholic has the right to accuse others of sin for taking the vaccine. The relevant moral principles are clear, of undeniable orthodoxy, and longstanding in Catholic moral theology. As St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and the tradition and magisterium of the Church have consistently taught, it is not intrinsically wrong to benefit from a good that has resulted from some past evil action.
For example, St. Paul famously taught that it is not immoral for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. St. Augustine taught that it is not wrong to benefit from an oath that a pagan swears to false gods. St. Thomas taught that it is not wrong to borrow from a lender who makes his money through usury. Something can be good in itself and licit to benefit from even if evil actions were involved in bringing it about. That a certain piece of meat was involved in the grave sin of idolatry does not somehow make the meat itself, or the eating of it, evil. That certain money was made by way of usury and is being lent to you in a usurious way does not make the money itself, or the borrowing of it, evil. Examples can easily be multiplied, such as medical knowledge that was acquired through gravely immoral experiments by Nazi scientists. That the knowledge was acquired through evil means does not make the knowledge itself, or the use of it, evil.
Something similar could be said of the Covid-19 vaccines and the way they were developed. For example, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were tested using cells that are very distantly descended from cells that were taken decades ago from a fetus that appears to have been aborted. But that does not make the vaccines themselves, and the taking of them, evil. (I developed this point at greater length in .) What St. Thomas teaches applies to the vaccines no less than to the other examples:
It is one thing to consent with someone in wickedness; it is another thing to use the wickedness of someone for good. For one who approves that another practice wickedness, and who perhaps induces the other to do so, consents with the other in wickedness, and this is always a mortal sin. But one who turns the evil that another does to some good uses the wickedness of the other for good, and even God in this way uses the sins of human beings and brings some good out of the sins. And so also it is licit for human beings to use the sin of another for good. (On Evil, q. XIII, a. 4, ad 17, )
Those who are interested in the details of the moral reasoning involved here (such as the relevance of principles concerning double effect, remote material cooperation in wrongdoing, etc.) are urged to consult the article by Frs. Sullivan and Pereira, and also Prof. Roberto De Mattei’s booklet (De Mattei’s booklet was for some time available for free download from the publisher, though unfortunately I am not able to find a workable link to that anymore.) But the relevant moral principles are, again, ancient, and their application to the justification of using vaccines with a very remote connection to past abortions has been endorsed by orthodox Catholic moral theologians for decades.
The Church herself has officially endorsed this reasoning in at least three documents. She did so in prepared during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, and in issued during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. The simply applies to the Covid-19 vaccines the principles already applied in the earlier documents to other vaccines remotely connected to past abortions. As far as I know, most of the people expressing skepticism about the most recent document raised no objections to the earlier ones at the time they appeared, even though the principles are the same.
The liceity of the Covid-19 vaccines has been affirmed by many prominent orthodox Catholic moral theologians in statements issued by the It has been affirmed by prominent traditionalist Catholics like De Mattei, , , and , secretary general of the SSPX. It has been affirmed by and by , well-known for his defense of Catholic integralism. It has been affirmed by . Of course, none of these individuals is infallible, but that is not the point. The point is that it would be absurd to suppose that churchmen and thinkers like these – all of whom have longstanding reputations for orthodoxy, for staunch opposition to abortion, and for willingness to take unpopular stands against conventional wisdom – are all somehow selling out to the abortion industry, or to liberalism, or to whatever else Catholic defenders of the liceity of the vaccines are accused of selling out to. They take the position they do on the Covid-19 vaccines because it simply follows straightforwardly from longstanding principles of orthodox Catholic moral theology. There’s nothing more to it than that. and the .
Some insist that the sin of abortion is so grave that even the very remote connection the vaccines have with an abortion that occurred decades ago suffices to make use of them illicit. But the gravity of a sin does not by itself affect the moral reasoning in question. For example, as the Catholic Encyclopedia , “considered in itself, idolatry is the greatest of mortal sins.” And yet St. Paul was nevertheless correct to teach that it is not wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, despite its very close connection with the grave sin of idolatry, and despite writing at a time when the sin of sacrificing meat to idols was (unlike now) still very common. Of course, St. Paul qualified his teaching by also insisting that Christians avoid causing scandal. I’ll come back to that issue presently. The point for the moment is that the gravity of a sin, whether idolatry, abortion, or anything else, does not by itself entail that it is immoral to benefit from something remotely connected to the sin.
2. May a Catholic not disregard the statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on this issue, since those statements are not infallible?
Some Catholics who claim that the vaccines are intrinsically evil suppose that they are not obligated to agree with the CDF statements on this issue, on the grounds that those statements are not infallible pronouncements. Yet these same Catholics rightly reject this rationalization of dissent when modernists deploy it. As they well know, the Church teaches that Catholics are ordinarily obligated to give “religious assent” even to non-infallible authoritative pronouncements of the magisterium.
It is true that there can be rare cases where the very strong presumption in favor of assent can be overridden, as the CDF instruction But those conditions do not hold in this case. Some Catholics seem to think that because Pope Francis has made doctrinally problematic statements on other matters (such as capital punishment, and admitting Catholics in adulterous relationships to Holy Communion), they are at liberty to reject the CDF teaching on Covid-19 vaccines. But this is a fallacious inference, and the cases are in no way parallel. acknowledges and .
The trouble with the problematic doctrinal statements in question is that they are ambiguous, that they seem on one reading to conflict with traditional Church teaching, and that the pope has refused to clarify his meaning. For example, though the pope has never said that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, he has said things that on one reading appear to imply that, and he has not replied to requests explicitly to reaffirm the traditional teaching that capital punishment can at least in principle be licit. The pope has never explicitly taught that Catholics living in adulterous relationships may receive absolution without firm purpose of amendment and go to Communion, but Amoris Laetitia appears to allow that on one interpretation, and the pope has refused to answer requests for clarification (such as the famous dubia).
The CDF statements on vaccines are not like this at all. They are perfectly straightforward and unambiguous, were issued precisely in response to requests for clarification, and are consistent with traditional principles of Catholic moral theology and past magisterial teaching.
Moreover, when Donum Veritatis acknowledges that there can be cases in which magisterial statements are open to criticism, it makes it very clear that these cases are rare, that they have to do only with deficiencies specific to this or that particular statement rather than with a general failure of the magisterium, that any objections must be raised respectfully and with great caution, and that objections cannot be grounded merely in the belief that the truth of the magisterial statement is not certain or that it is not as probable as some contrary view. Donum Veritatis does not give anyone license simply to dismiss statements from the CDF that one does not agree with, and it does not license churchmen or Catholic commentators to set themselves up as alternative and more reliable sources of moral and doctrinal guidance than the CDF itself is.
Here’s another way to see the point. If someone says “No Catholic living in an adulterous relationship should go to Holy Communion” or “Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil,” he is not dissenting from anything the pope or the CDF have actually taught (even if, regrettably, the current pope has not clearly reaffirmed these things either). Indeed, such a person is simply reiterating things that popes and the magisterium have always taught. By contrast, if someone says “It is intrinsically wrong to take any vaccine having even a remote connection to some past abortion, such as the Covid-19 vaccines,” then he is dissenting from what the magisterium has taught.
It is understandable that Pope Francis’s failure to do his duty clearly to reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on various matters has tempted some Catholics to deny the general reliability of the magisterium. But the temptation must be resisted. The pope will have to answer to Christ for causing this temptation, but we will have to answer to Christ if we give in to it.
3. Don’t we give scandal by using the vaccines, even if the link to abortion is remote?
As I’ve noted, though St. Paul taught that it was not wrong to eat meat offered to idols, he also taught the Christians of his day to avoid doing so where it might scandalize their brethren. So, by the same token, shouldn’t we avoid taking Covid-19 vaccines even though it is not intrinsically wrong to do so, since taking them could give scandal?
That doesn’t follow, because there is no relevant parallel with the sort of case St. Paul was talking about. What he had in mind were Christians who did not know that it is not wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and who, if they were encouraged to eat it, might therefore do something they (mistakenly) believed to be wrong. And we should never do something we sincerely believe to be wrong, even if we are mistaken in believing this. In the case of taking Covid-19 vaccines, though, Catholics can be sure that it is not wrong to take them, because the Church herself has authoritatively said so precisely so that the consciences of the faithful can be at peace on the matter.
But it might still seem that there is another sort of scandal we need to worry about. For might some people not be led to conclude that Catholics must not be that strongly opposed to abortion after all, if they are willing to use such vaccines? If they did draw this conclusion, they would be reasoning fallaciously, because the conclusion does not follow. You might as well say that St. Paul was not really that strongly opposed to idolatry, since he allowed Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols; or that St. Thomas was not really that strongly opposed to usury, since he taught that Christians may borrow money from usurers.
The Church has also made it clear that Catholics ought to protest the fact that there are any products, whether vaccines or anything else, that have even a remote link to abortion – not because using those products is wrong, but because abortion is wrong. And thus the Church also teaches that, as a means of protesting, Catholics should use alternative vaccines whenever they are available.
It is important to note, however, that there is nothing special about Covid-19 vaccines in this connection. Some Catholics have insisted that everyone ought to refuse to use the Covid-19 vaccines, as a means of protesting abortion. Yet before the pandemic, there was no similarly widespread and passionate outcry against vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and hepatitis – despite the fact that many such vaccines were also developed using cell lines originating with aborted babies, and despite the fact that such vaccines are also widely mandated. So why the fixation on Covid-19 vaccines, specifically, as if they are somehow uniquely suspect?
This double standard itself threatens to cause scandal. It gives the impression that the people refusing to take the Covid-19 vaccines in the name of the pro-life cause are arguing in bad faith – that they are less interested in protesting abortion than in finding a useful rhetorical weapon to deploy against the vaccines, which they dislike for other reasons (which might be good reasons, but that’s irrelevant to the present point).
There is also another potential source of scandal in this fixation on the purportedly evil nature of Covid-19 vaccines. As De Mattei :
Over the centuries the Catholic Church has always fought the deformations of its moral doctrine on both extremes. On the one hand laxism, meaning the negation of moral absolutes in the name of the primacy of conscience, and on the other rigorism, meaning the tendency to create laws and precepts that Catholic morality does not provide.
As examples of rigorism, he cites the Montanist tendency fanatically to seek out martyrdom even when it was not necessary, and the Donatist attitude of denying the authority of sinful prelates. The excessive pessimism and austerity of the Jansenists would be another well-known example. Rigorism is operative whenever a Catholic presents some demanding but optional theological teaching, spiritual practice, or moral principle that he is personally convinced of as if it were binding on all Catholics. Rigorism is an especially tempting overreaction when the Church and the world have fallen into severe laxism, as is the case today. But it must be resisted. As de Mattei says:
Only the Church has the right to define a moral law and its obligatory nature. Anyone who claims to take the place of the Church’s authorities by imposing non-existent moral norms risks falling into schism and heresy, as has unfortunately already happened in history.
Churchmen and Catholic commentators who insist that all Catholics must refuse vaccination on pain of sin, who maintain that the official judgment of the Church on this matter should be ignored, and who accuse fellow Catholics who disagree with them of traitorous compromise with the enemies of the Faith, are clearly guilty of rigorism in this sense. Indeed, they are guilty of grave scandal, because such extreme views encourage schism (whether they intend this or not). Their disgust and dismay at the cowardice, corruption, and heterodoxy of many of the Church’s prelates is perfectly understandable. But it does not justify setting themselves up as an alternative magisterium.
4. Aren’t we obligated to refuse vaccination in protest against vaccine mandates, which are a violation of basic rights and therefore intrinsically immoral?
As I say, I am (for reasons I will come to presently) strongly opposed to forcing anyone to take any of the Covid-19 vaccines. The mandates should end, or where they continue to exist they ought to allow for generous exemptions. But it is simply not true to say that vaccine mandates are per se a violation of basic rights or otherwise intrinsically immoral. They are not intrinsically immoral, but lie within the legitimate powers of governing authorities.
First, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different kinds of vaccine mandates. Schools have long required vaccination of various kinds (against measles, mumps, and rubella, chickenpox, etc.) as a condition of enrollment. Military personnel are required to get a variety of vaccinations. Employers sometimes require certain vaccinations. And governments too sometimes require them. Most of the people who are now (rightly) outraged by the Covid-19 vaccination mandates were not similarly outraged by these other longstanding mandatory vaccinations. Hence the sudden adoption by some of them of the slogan “My body, my choice” is (even apart from this slogan’s association with pro-abortion activism) a bit odd.
As de Mattei has emphasized, these sorts of arguments amount, in any event, to liberal individualist rhetoric, and do not sit well with the emphasis in natural law theory and Catholic social teaching on balancing the rights of the individual and the common good of society. Governments can, in an emergency, require even military service. A fortiori, they can in principle impose the far less dangerous requirement of vaccination. And as de Mattei has also noted, vaccine mandates are not some modern totalitarian novelty but go back a couple of centuries. Indeed, in the early 19th century the Papal States “instituted a Central Vaccination Committee for inoculation throughout that territory” (On the Moral Liceity of the Vaccination, p. 55).
This emphatically does not mean that just any old policy of mandatory vaccination is defensible, any more than just any old policy of military conscription is defensible. The current mandates are, in my view, not defensible. The point is that it simply isn’t correct to condemn the mandates on the grounds that vaccine mandates as such are always wrong. We should not give bad arguments in defense of a good cause.
But even if it is just this particular mandate that is bad (rather than mandates as such), doesn’t that mean that everyone must refuse to comply? No, that does not follow. Suppose you were about to eat a candy bar anyway, and then someone sticks a gun in your face and threatens: “Eat the candy bar, or else!” You are not now suddenly obligated to refrain from eating it (and thereby to put your life in danger) simply as a protest against this person’s unjust threat. Or, to take a more realistic example, suppose you tend to get very sick from the flu, or that your employer or school requires a flu shot, and for one or both of these reasons you are inclined to get the shot. Now suppose that the federal government also decides to require you to get one – not because of any national emergency, but simply because it is playing “nanny state” and thinks it would be a good idea for people to get one. Are you suddenly morally obligated not to get the shot you otherwise would have taken voluntarily, just because the federal government is overstepping the bounds of its authority? No. You may refuse to get it as a way of protesting this, but you are not obligated to do so.
Similarly, if some people want to refrain from taking a Covid-19 vaccine as a way of protesting the mandate, then more power to them. But there is no general obligation for Catholics or anyone else to do so.
Nor does the fact that there are risks associated with vaccines by itself entail that any vaccine mandate is per se unjust. As orthodox Catholic moral theologians Janet Smith and Chris Kaczor wrote in the 2016 edition of their book :
It is true that all vaccines carry some risk. However, under current medical regulations, vaccines are utilized in the United States only when benefits to the common good outweigh the risk factors. Rather than risk the outbreak of a disease that could kill or seriously harm many, individuals are reasonably expected to undergo some personal risk. In order to reduce risks for the whole community – especially those who are particularly susceptible to harm, such as children too young to be vaccinated and those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons – it is reasonable and just for otherwise healthy members of the community to submit themselves to the small risks of vaccines. (p. 153)
Note that this passage is from four years before the current pandemic began, so that Smith and Kaczor can hardly be accused of “selling out” to Covid-19 panic peddlers. They are simply presenting standard, longstanding orthodox Catholic thinking about the subject.
5. But shouldn’t we disbelieve the experts who assure us that the vaccines are safe?
Throughout the pandemic, many medical experts have been guilty of overstatement, dogmatism, and politicization. The politicians and news media through whom expert advice is filtered to the average citizen have been even worse. And all of these people have also gotten some things just flat out wrong and made some extremely bad policy decisions. People are right to be skeptical of glib media reports about what “the science” purportedly says, especially when science is appealed to in support of dire predictions or drastic policy measures. The fact that there can be reasonable doubt about the claims of experts is one reason Covid-19 vaccination should be voluntary.
But too many people go far beyond reasonable doubt, to an unhinged hermeneutics of suspicion. Rather than approaching expert opinion tentatively, they will dismiss it altogether. They rightly reject simplistic pro-vaccine arguments, but then replace them with simplistic anti-vaccine arguments. They rightly dismiss the Covid-19 “panic porn” by which lockdowns and other foolish measures have been sold, but then peddle anti-vax panic porn. They forget that the problem with the “cult of expertise” is not the “expertise” part but the “cult” part. Hence, while they will rightly be skeptical about extreme and dogmatic statements on medical matters when an expert makes them, they will swallow such statements whole when made by a non-expert (such as a favorite political commentator, or some guy in their Facebook or Twitter feed). Or they rely on experts, but only those whose testimony confirms what they are inclined for political reasons to believe anyway – as if politicization of Covid-19 is bad only when left-wingers do it.
As students of logic know, a fallacy of appeal to authority is committed, not when one relies on expert opinion – it would be insane not to rely on expert opinion where medical matters are concerned – but rather when (a) the authority one relies on lacks genuine expertise in the relevant area, or (b) there is reason to doubt the objectivity of the expert one relies on.
Now, part of the problem with the way the Covid-19 situation has been handled is precisely that government officials and news media have been committing the fallacy of appeal to authority by dogmatically asserting that “the science” shows this or that when science shows no such thing. For example, whether lockdowns are a good idea is not merely a question of epidemiology, but also must take into account effects on mental health, effects on our ability to deal with other medical problems, economic impact, potential social unrest, the dangers in setting a precedent of putting such massive power into governments’ hands, and so on. Epidemiologists as such have no expertise about such things. Furthermore, even the epidemiological issues are far less clear-cut than many assume, since locking down vast populations of healthy people (as opposed to merely quarantining the sick) is a novel approach based on highly speculative models. Epidemiologists who support lockdowns are by no means appealing to settled scientific results. Hence, anyone who flatly asserts that “the science” supports lockdowns is simply talking out of his hat, and guilty of a fallacious appeal to authority.
Vaccine mandates are in my view not as problematic as lockdowns, but, as with lockdowns, the question of whether to impose such a mandate is not a purely medical matter. Thus, here too it would be fallacious to support a mandate merely on the basis of expert medical opinion. However, the question of vaccine safety is more or less a purely medical matter, so that expert opinion on that particular question must be taken very seriously. But experts disagree, so which ones should the non-expert trust?
To avoid a fallacy of appeal to authority here, the best people to look to are those who both possess expertise that is acknowledged by all sides, and also show clear evidence of objectivity. What would evidence of that be? It would include things like: not being political appointees or pharmaceutical company spokesmen; not being prone to making extreme or shrill statements or to political partisanship of any kind; exhibiting both the courage to challenge the majority opinion of their peers when they sincerely disagree with it, and the wisdom to do so in a calm and measured way that welcomes counter-argument; and so on.
In my estimation, experts like Now, these experts have famously been critical of lockdowns, and are also opposed to vaccine mandates. But they also hold that the Covid-19 vaccines have done much good in mitigating the pandemic and are safe for most people and recommended for those who wish to take them, especially the most vulnerable. So, who should the non-expert believe? These experts with a proven record of objectivity, and in particular a proven record of being willing to challenge the conventional wisdom on Covid-19? Or some anti-vax political commentator or Facebook jockey who thinks that he knows better because he spent an evening perusing the website? (On the latter subject, I recommend Catholic physician Paul Carson’s recent video ), , , and exhibit these virtues.
That is by no means to deny that there are (as with many other vaccines and medications) rare but significant potential side effects to Covid-19 vaccines, such as But that is an argument for making Covid-19 vaccination voluntary and letting people weigh the potential risks and benefits for themselves in light of their own circumstances. It does not justify churchmen, political commentators, and other non-experts in making shrill and over-the-top statements to the effect that Covid-19 vaccination as such is so dangerous that everyone must refuse it. , or (9 people out of 16 million).
It is especially scandalous when churchmen and other Catholic opinion-makers issue such extreme statements in the name of Catholicism – often in conjunction with half-baked political analyses spawned by what a paranoid and woolly-minded style of reasoning that is no more cogent or healthy when engaged in by right-wingers than it is when left-wingers do it.
Part II: Covid-19 vaccination must be voluntary
So much for the one extreme. Let’s turn now to the other, about which I can be more brief. That’s not because the other extreme represents a less serious offense than the first. On the contrary, in my opinion the pro-mandate fanatics are more at fault, and it is precisely their excesses that have driven some mandate critics to overreact. The reason I can be brief is that the main argument against the mandate is very straightforward. It has three steps:
1. There is a strong presumption against mandatory vaccination, which can be overridden only when such vaccination is known to be strictly necessary for the common good.
Catholic moral theology rejects the excesses of liberal individualism, but it also most definitely rejects the opposite extreme of totalitarianism. Human beings are not herd animals and they are not literally mere cells in a social organism. They are by nature rational animals, and thus governing authorities are obligated to appeal, as far as they reasonably can, to people’s reason rather than resorting to coercion. That entails that, as far as reasonably possible, they are obligated to keep compliance with just policies voluntary.
Sometimes that is not reasonably possible. For example, the Church teaches (as I discussed ) that military conscription can be justified when the very survival of a nation depends on it. But even in that extreme case (as I also there noted) the Church urges authorities to be generous in making exemptions for conscientious objectors, as far as that too is reasonably possible. A fortiori, that applies to vaccine mandates as well. Even when they are justified, governmental authorities ought to be as generous as they reasonably can be in allowing for exemptions.
The burden of proof, then, is not on those who oppose some vaccine mandate to show that it is not necessary. The burden is instead on authorities to show that it is necessary. Similarly, even when a mandate is justifiable, the burden of proof is not on its critics to defend this or that exemption for conscience or health reasons. Rather, the burden of proof is on authorities to prove that there should not be such exemptions.
2. In the case of Covid-19 vaccines, governing authorities have not met the burden of proof for overriding the presumption against a mandate.
The first thing to note in defense of this second step of the argument is that Covid-19 is not a grave danger to most people, and certainly not to the young and healthy. It poses a serious danger mainly to the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions. To be sure, and as Smith and Kaczor note in the passage quoted earlier, Catholic moral theology allows that mandatory vaccination of all can be justifiable even just to protect some segment of the community. But it is still justifiable only if it is strictly necessary in order to protect that segment of the community.
Hence it is not good enough for experts and authorities to defend the Covid-19 vaccine mandates merely by pointing out that there are certain benefits of having everyone vaccinated. What they need to show, specifically, is that a mandate is strictly necessary in order to protect those most vulnerable to the disease. They need to show that no less draconian policy would suffice. Furthermore, they also have to show that the costs of a mandate don’t outweigh this benefit (just as, according to Catholic just war doctrine, a war is not justifiable even in a case where the cause is just, if the war is likely to do more harm than good).
That is a pretty high bar. And I submit that the authorities have not met it. For example, as Ioannidis notes in the interview linked to above, the idea that mandatory vaccination of children might benefit the elderly is entirely speculative rather than grounded in solid evidence. Bhattacharya and Gupta note that while the vaccine is very good at mitigating the effects of Covid-19 and thereby making it much less deadly, it is not so good at preventing transmission of the virus. Kulldorff notes that those who have already had Covid-19 have much greater immunity to future infection than those who have been vaccinated, so that there is little point in vaccinating those who have had it. Meanwhile, there is, as already noted, some small risk, for some people, from taking the vaccines.
These points suffice to show that mandatory vaccination has not been shown to be necessary for the common good. And note that some of the stock replies miss the point. Some have argued that vaccination may give some benefit even to those who have already had the virus. Some argue that the cases of myocarditis in the young are rare and usually not serious, and that there is also a risk of myocarditis to these same people if they get Covid-19. And so on. All of that is well and good, but the problem is that it does nothing to show that it is strictly necessary to force everyone to get vaccinated in order to protect the most vulnerable. It shows only that there may be some reasons even for those who are not in a high risk group to consider getting vaccinated.
Then there is the massive downside that the mandates have had. While forcing children to get vaccinated has not been shown to provide much of a benefit to anyone, preventing unvaccinated children from attending school in person . Firing unvaccinated workers does massive harm to those workers and to their families, and also to society in general insofar as it is had a major ripple effect on the economy. Firing unvaccinated firemen, police officers, and health care workers does obvious major harm to public safety. The cruelty of these punishments for non-compliance also hardens people into hostility to vaccination, and thus makes it less likely that they will receive it, rather than more likely. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable among the unvaccinated – elderly retirees – are unaffected by the mass firings, since they are no longer employed anyway. Hence the mass firings will not lead them to get vaccinated either.
The mandates have also greatly deepened distrust, and it is dishonest to blame this mainly or even primarily on right-of-center politicians and commentators who have stirred people up against the mandates. The fault clearly lies with governmental authorities and experts themselves. First, distrust is inevitable when you force an invasive policy on people without showing that it is necessary. Second, authorities inflicted massive and lasting damage with the lockdowns, with no proven benefit that could not have been achieved in a less draconian way. They can hardly expect people to trust them to know what they are doing when they implement a second draconian policy. The authorities also show , fixating on Covid-19 policy without sensitivity to the costs of those policies or the need to weigh pandemic-related problems against other and no less serious issues. are the latest example, an overreaction to the pandemic so insane that it would be the stuff of satire if it was not so chilling.
Third, many governing authorities have in other contexts proven that They can hardly be surprised when people don’t believe what they say about vaccines. Many medical experts too have proven themselves to be rather than dispassionate scientific investigation. Fourth, when you oppose the free exchange of ideas on the subject of vaccines – like , or who mocks appeals for persuasion and dismisses any opposition to mandates as “anti-vax” – you are inevitably going to increase skepticism rather than lessen it. , as when they tolerate looting and rioting and call to defund the police.
Fifth, in some cases, pro-mandate fanaticism has now reached disturbingly extreme proportions. Some support to the unvaccinated. Austria has and will next . Other countries . The polarization and mutual hatred that already poison contemporary politics are only massively exacerbated by such measures.
Since Covid-19 vaccine mandates have not been shown to be necessary for the common good and have inflicted manifest grave harms, the second premise of my argument is clearly correct – governing authorities have not met the burden of proof for overriding the presumption against imposing a mandate. And together with the first premise, that gives us my conclusion:
3. Covid-19 vaccination should be voluntary, and existing mandates should end.
This is, of course, in line with the other half of the Church’s teaching about vaccination, which is (in the words of the recent CDF document) that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and… therefore, it must be voluntary.” Most Catholic bishops and commentators have firmly upheld the moral liceity of the vaccines, and they are right to do so. But they should also firmly uphold the Church’s judgment that in the case of the Covid-19 vaccines, vaccination should be kept voluntary. They should criticize both those who condemn the vaccination as intrinsically immoral, and those who want to force the vaccine on everyone and who demonize the unvaccinated. They should staunchly uphold both halves of the sober, middle ground Catholic position on the subject.
Part III: Rope-a-dope
Notwithstanding my condemnation of the mandates, I recently insisted that Some readers got very angry with me for saying that, but I stand by it. What I meant by it should have been clear to anyone who actually read the post itself (rather than just reading the title and instantly hyperventilating), but let me repeat it here..
As I have argued, it is not wrong the take the vaccine, and even the mandates are not intrinsically evil but rather amount to the lesser offense of being seriously unwise and unjust exercises in prudential judgment on the part of governing authorities. So, while the mandates should be opposed, the situation is not (contrary to the melodramatic rhetoric of some churchmen and Catholic commentators) comparable to being coerced into offering a pinch of incense to an idol. Too many well-meaning Catholics, rightly opposed to the mandates, have gotten into such a state over the vaccine issue that they seem to imagine themselves in a situation comparable to that of the martyrs of the early Church. Well, that is just silly. Things may get that bad, and maybe they will get that bad soon. But they are not that bad yet. Being strong-armed into taking an unnecessary jab, though extremely obnoxious and to be avoided if possible, is not comparable to being told to sacrifice to Caesar. It is more like being forced to pay excessive taxes or to submit to pointless and expensive business regulations.
Why does this matter? Because there are other, and far more grave, crises on the horizon. The family, the basic structure of society, and the freedom of the Church to carry out her mission, are all under attack from , and that have the potential to lead to similar tyranny. No one is going to go to hell for taking a Covid-19 vaccine, but lots of people are in danger of hell from the sexual depravity, racial hatred, and general hostility to traditional Christian teaching now being promoted in all the major institutions of society. Those are the places where there will likely be no shortage of hills to die on.
To resist these diabolical developments, we need, now more than ever, strong and stable families, and strong and stable intermediate institutions like orthodox Catholic schools and parishes. Now more than ever, we need police and military personnel willing to maintain the integrity of these institutions and not allow them to become enforcement arms for the ideologies in question. Now more than ever, we need the Church to maintain its unity rather than fracture in further schisms.
Yet what we see is people losing their livelihoods and their ability to provide for their families and to financially support good schools and parishes; police and military personnel leaving their jobs and abandoning these institutions to the “woke”; and churchmen and other Catholic leaders flirting with schism – all over a vaccine that it is simply not wrong to take in the first place. It’s as if the Enemy were drawing good people into a classic “rope-a-dope” trap – tricking them into using up their ammunition in a battle of secondary importance, so that they’ll be left defenseless when the real fight comes. Or to borrow Omar Bradley’s famous words, they are being led to jump gung-ho into “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
This is what I mean when I say that Covid-19 vaccination is not the hill for Catholics to die on. I don’t mean that they should accept the mandates – on the contrary, the mandates should be opposed. I don’t mean that they should get vaccinated if, after carefully considering the matter, they decide that vaccination is not for them. I mean that they should not make their decision under the delusion that they are somehow being called to martyrdom – that Covid-19 vaccination is evil, or that taking it would be disloyal to the Faith. I mean that they should not pretend that what is ultimately just a political controversy (albeit a very important one) is somehow a matter of Catholic orthodoxy. I mean that they should balance reasonable concerns about the vaccines against other considerations, such as the threat Covid-19 might pose to their health or the health of their loved ones, the financial stability of their families, and the need to be prepared for a time when they may indeed be commanded by government authorities to do something intrinsically evil. That is not what is going on now.
If you disagree, great, let’s hear your arguments – but I mean arguments, not ad hominem attacks or other ranting. For another thing we need, now more than ever, is calm, dispassionate thinking and charitable debate.