In the 11th century the use of the crossbow was becoming more common in Western European conflicts. A technical advancement on the traditional bow, the crossbow had a significant advantage in destructiveness that seems to have caused alarm among moral theologians. Pope Urban II prohibited its use in 1097; shortly thereafter the Second Lateran Council codified this ban (1139).
It sounds strange to modern ears. But dig a little deeper and you find that political and strategic considerations played a part in the ban. And, perhaps since this was widely known, the ban was largely ignored by European military commanders. This episode shows that the Church’s duty to judge new situations and technologies as they arise—to apply unchanging moral principles to new realities—can be rather untidy. It can also be influenced by the political climate of the day and the personal priorities of the Church hierarchy. And, as the response to the ban shows, the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, has some role to play in the process.
A young faithful Catholic contacted me recently struggling to reconcile Vatican documents on abortion-tainted vaccines, such as those of the Pontifical Academy of Life, with the bedrock moral teachings of Scripture and the Church. He noted these seeming contradictions:
What is meant by having a ‘proportional reason’ for a vaccination derived from the cells of an aborted baby? The PAL document says that if we do use such vaccines, we should protest fetal tissue research. So if one has this proportional reason and receives the vaccine but does not protest the unethical research of pharmaceutical companies, does that change the morality of taking the vaccine?
And, it sounds as if the moral duty to avoid even passive cooperation with evil is not obligatory when there is ‘grave inconvenience;’ if one is required to be vaccinated in order to attend one’s college, does that qualify?
The 2005 document indicates that the use of such vaccines is licit for one’s health ‘on a temporary basis’—what can this mean in terms of even a one-time vaccine let alone one with a perpetual string of boosters?
It seems that if COVID were a more dangerous disease and the vaccine were more effective in stopping its spread, it would be morally permissible even though it uses the aborted baby’s cells, as long as it greatly helped our life and we protested that there was no other option. So it’s okay to benefit from abortion if it’s a really serious reason?
Many of these questions don’t have straightforward answers. We’re used to being able to point to clear teaching from the Church when folks ask questions; we can’t do that here—at least not yet.
For one thing, the Vatican documents and pronouncements we’ve had so far on this topic don’t carry a lot of authoritative weight. To what extent does a document from the Pontifical Academy of Life bind the consciences of Catholics? One could argue it’s simply not binding at all; it could also be argued that it is one data point among many in forming our consciences.
I’m not saying this as an excuse for ignoring the Vatican, but as another way of seeing that we are in the midst of an elucidation of a teaching, because that awareness is important for making our own personal decisions. There is not an infallible statement or a Council document to look to on this specific matter, and that makes sense because the teaching is still being clarified.
Where does that leave us in terms of my correspondent’s questions? For one thing, it means that our actions and decisions are very significant to the future of the Church. If this is the time when the Church seeks to understand this matter, then this is the time that the sensus fidelium is critically important. As the faithful, we have an urgent responsibility to form our consciences well and come to a decision about these matters, so that our sense of the faith can contribute to the Church’s elucidation of the teaching.
Remember when Fr. Matthew Schneider erroneously told us that nearly all medications are tainted by abortion? He seemed to think this would make Catholics accept the COVID vaccines. Before word got out that his claim was faulty, I had people coming to me asking if they could still take their Tums or ibuprofen. They wanted to hear that their medications were not tainted by abortion. In other words their sensus fidei was that any taint of abortion is wrong. The Vatican needs to understand this (so do we).
When the Church has been clear on a matter, faithful Catholics manifest good instincts when they hesitate to differ, of course. And that’s why people like my correspondent and many others wonder if there’s a way to reconcile things like the Holy Father’s desire for everyone to be vaccinated against COVID with the bedrock truths of morality.
However, the Church has not yet been clear, and many Catholics’ instinctive resistance to such faulty pronouncements is what is needed to help right the ship. When a multitude of well-formed Catholic consciences seeks to reject any taint of abortion, each has a duty to act accordingly—a duty to ourselves and to the Church.
Here’s a thought experiment that can help us understand this issue better: Let’s say that during the Nazi holocaust a vaccine was developed that prevents influenza. The vaccine was developed from the cells of a Jewish woman executed by the Nazis in 1941. Taking the vaccine now seems to qualify as remote cooperation with that evil which can be allowed due to the proportional reason of protecting public health. After all, the execution took place a long time ago and not only that, but some people, especially the elderly, can die of the flu.
Now factor in this: Let’s say the holocaust was still happening. The war is behind us, but over in Germany they are still executing Jews on a regular basis and using their tissues for medical research. How does that change the “remoteness” of our cooperation with this evil?
If the Vatican told us that taking this flu vaccine was only remote cooperation with evil, and therefore we could take it to protect ourselves and others as long as we somehow protest the evil of the ongoing holocaust, how hollowly would that ring in our ears?
That is the very problem we face right now. The fetal tissue research industry is absolutely booming. The harvesting of the unborn is not an unfortunate episode in world history that ended in the interval between Johanna’s death and now. It has grown and expanded. In part thanks to the “success” of Johanna’s cell line.
We are directed, while remotely cooperating with evil, to “make life difficult” (PAL, 2005) for the pharmaceutical industry that perpetuates it. It seems from the document that we purchase our clean conscience by protesting the evil. Pay your protest dollars (write a letter or what?) and in return you can get the jab you need to go to the college of your choice or keep your job or visit Grandma. How does that sit with your sensus fidei?
If the Vatican says we can benefit from abortion—because let’s not mince words, that’s what it is really saying when it approves our taking this vaccine—then what moral authority do we even have to “protest” abortion and fetal tissue research, as it asks us to do?
Furthermore, as my inquirer noted elsewhere, in our walk with God we seek the highest means of love, not the least. We seek to do as much as we can, not the bare minimum. We see this in so many Scriptures, as in Psalm 63, “For your love is better than life” and the terrible saying of Our Lord, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). We see it in a multitude of teachings from the Saints. Thus, before COVIDtide it was clear that Catholic parents could choose to stand as a prophetic witness by refusing abortion-tainted vaccines for their children when such a decision did not put their children’s health in danger.
In the case of the COVID vaccine, I would say that this prophetic witness is urgently needed, not only because of our growing acknowledgement of the fetal tissue research industry, but also because of the extensive damage the COVID regime is committing in our society. In this sense the COVID vaccine is truly unique.
Many faithful Catholics like my correspondent are struggling to square a circle. This young man has been well-formed in the faith; his moral instincts are solid. So the friction with those instincts caused by recent statements from the Vatican is real. The evil of abortion and the COVID regime is so great and so far-reaching that it has even confounded the minds and perhaps consciences of some of those most responsible for elucidating these teachings for the Church. Hence, the Church has conceded ground to the culture by calling it licit to benefit from abortion.
Now it’s the responsibility of the Faithful to help her see this mistake by standing against it.
One day it will. Maybe in my lifetime, maybe in my children’s, or maybe later. The way we speed that day is by forming and living our consciences in light of all the truths we know for certain.