President Biden has made clear his belief that everyone has a moral obligation to receive the Covid vaccine. The refusal of many citizens to act accordingly has, in his view, put the health of many Americans at risk. He therefore signed an executive order mandating that businesses with more than 100 employees ensure that all employees be either vaccinated or tested weekly for Covid. Any business that fails to comply could be penalized up to $14,000 per violation.
Biden’s mandate has prompted a response from elected officials, the business community, and the media, but also from church leaders. The response of the Catholic hierarchy, including Pope Francis, was especially interesting.
One disagreement concerned whether Catholics should be exempted from the vaccine requirement because vaccines might include tissue from aborted fetuses. Bishops in Colorado and South Dakota supported “individuals who wished to exercise their conscience in refusing the vaccine if they believed it to be morally tainted.” In sharp contrast, the Archdiocese of New York City ruled that such exemptions should not be granted.
But many bishops expressed a broader concern than the use of fetal tissue in the vaccine. Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith strongly supported everyone getting the vaccine as an expression of “Christian charity,” a view very much in keeping with Biden’s moral obligation theme. These views deserve closer examination.
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington KY shared the President’s and the Pope’s moral perspective. He mandated that Catholic school faculty and staff and other diocesan employees be vaccinated and fired some who refused to comply. He also used “moral persuasion” (aka pressure) on diocesan priests to get the vaccine.
Bishop Stowe concluded that “people who continuously appeal to their right to privacy and the right to their individual conscience are losing sight of the common good.” He added that those who refuse to be vaccinated are irrational and “want to believe every conspiracy theory and everything they read on their preferred websites rather than the facts.” Such people, he said, “are ignoring a basic tenet of Catholic social teaching: the impetus to serve the common good.” Instead, “it’s all about their own personal preferences and beliefs.”
I mentioned that Pope Francis sees getting the vaccine as an expression of “Christian charity.” He also considers those who choose not get it as “negationists,” and regards their refusal as “strange” because “humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” adding that “no one said anything [negative]” about the vaccines for measles, mumps and polio. He went on to speculate that refusers are afflicted with “the virulence of uncertainty.”
Bishop Stowes’ and Pope Francis’ views are both revealing and disturbing. Here is why:
1) Both are treating the scientific issue of the safety and efficacy of the Covid vaccine as a moral issue. Though they do not bluntly call refusal of the vaccine a sin, they imply as much by considering it a violation of Christian charity and the common good. And that is intellectually and historically careless. (Granted the Galileo affair occurred a very long time ago, but the embarrassment it caused the Church should not be so easily forgotten.)
2) Both Bishop Stowe and Pope Francis malign legions of laypeople. Stowe says they put their “right to privacy,” “individual conscience,” “conspiracy theor[ies],” and “personal preferences and beliefs” above “the common good.” Francis calls them “negationists” infected with “the virulence of uncertainty” and lacking “Christian charity.” Speaking of lacking charity, neither shepherd offered a shred of evidence for these assessments or the slightest indication that they have extended to the maligned the simple courtesy of listening to their views. Indeed, both seem oblivious of the fact that there are—or can conceivably be—actual reasons for refusing the vaccine. I recently explained five of those reasons, as well as reasons for questioning the Biden administration’s veracity on other matters. (See those reasons here.)
3) The dependence of both Stowe and Francis on “progressive” news sources is obvious from their lack of acquaintance with the facts noted in point 2 above. They clearly have wrongly assumed that their news sources are necessarily unbiased and both fair and thorough in their presentation of the news. They make this false assumption despite the fact that for decades, innumerable researchers have documented that most mainstream news sources have largely abandoned the journalistic code established in the early twentieth century. For such highly educated, anointed individuals as Catholic bishops to remain ignorant of the well-publicized decline of modern journalism—even after that very ignorance caused many of them to malign former president Trump—is scandalous and, it could be argued, culpably so.
Is my last assertion about culpable scandal an overstatement? No, and here is why. The fundamental rule of intellectual responsibility is that before speaking publicly on an issue, we make the effort to understand it thoroughly, and that effort includes testing our information sources before trusting them. This responsibility is greatest for those whose views are likely to influence many people. The words of Catholic bishops influence millions of people. There is therefore no conceivable excuse for their continually relying on sources known to be unreliable. Every time they do so, as in the case of the Covid vaccine, they violate their obligation to God and their congregations.
Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved