. . . and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)
I’ll bet you’re tired of talking about COVID. I certainly am. The curious little virus (SARS-CoV-2) from Wuhan (or, more accurately, our reactions to it) has tyrannized not just conversation but public life for almost two years now, in a way that no other illness (or illness causing agent) has since the Spanish Flu a century ago. The HIV virus never achieved anything like the universal impact of COVID, not even back in the eighties when AIDS first burst on the scene and a young doctor named Anthony Fauci came to public prominence predicting that we were all at risk, and that we could look forward to millions of people dying of AIDS by the 1990s (forty years later, the official count stands at approximately 700,000).
I’ve addressed COVID a few times on this blog, but I’ve avoided getting into it too deeply. I try to avoid partisan politics here, and COVID is very, very (very) political. We live in a time, however, in which politics intrudes very deeply into our personal and spiritual life, so just as politics is unavoidable, so is COVID . . . or, more accurately, the public policies and practices predicated on COVID. Having said that, take heart, this discussion is not really about COVID, or about the vaccine mandate, they just provide the raw material. Today’s topic is truth.
The precipitating event for today’s discussion was Thursday’s U. S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Biden administration’s COVID vaccine mandate in the guise of an OSHA regulation. I tend to think the Supreme Court did the right thing. But again, that’s not my argument here. Instead, I’d like to start with a remark I heard on Catholic radio this morning. A commenter observed that Catholics who base their criticisms of the vaccine mandate (or other public policies) on the concept of individual rights are taking the wrong approach: “rights” is a secular concept, Catholics ought instead to make “solidarity” their primary thrust.
There’s a lot that is true in that observation, but there’s enough that’s not quite right that I must, respectfully, disagree. The speaker is correct that the concept of individual rights in and for themselves has never been part of Catholic teaching. I could point out that the term “solidarity” doesn’t have much of a Catholic pedigree, either: it’s my impression that it doesn’t appear in Catholic teaching before the pontificate of St. John Paul II (I’m happy to accept correction if I’m wrong about that). Nonetheless, it is true that the idea behind the term has been a core concept in Catholic teaching since the beginning of the Church. It’s omnipresent in the Gospel: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). So what’s is my objection to the comment?
Let’s start with rights. First of all, we need to make a distinction between arguments we use among other Catholics, other Christians, and non-believers out in the world. We invoke teaching documents and the established tradition of the Church along with the testimony of the Bible when we want to convince a fellow Catholic. Protestant Christians won’t be impressed by Catholic magisterial teaching, but they’ll listen to those arguments based on Scripture. Depending on their flavor of Protestantism, they may also be willing to look at the practice of the early Church, and maybe the first few ecumenical councils. Non-Christians or those whose orientation is largely secular won’t be swayed by any sort of religious arguments. That’s why the public arguments of the pro-life movement are generally based on natural law and concepts of right and wrong that are accessible to everyone regardless of belief, including atheists. Catholics who invoke the secular concept of rights in the case of COVID vaccine mandates are not arguing from Catholic theology, but are appealing to a concept shared by believers and non-believers alike in order to convince the largest number of people.
Beyond that, it’s not quite true to say that Catholic teaching has no concept of rights, even if it doesn’t envision them in the same way the secular world does. Consider this passage from The Catechism of the Catholic Church (my bold):
Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” (CCC 1782)
The Church, then, is very much in favor of our right to follow our conscience. Conscience, in fact, provides a good illustration of how the Catholic idea of rights and freedom differs from a more worldly view. God gives us good things so that we can use them for good ends: a free conscience, for instance, enables us “personally to make moral decisions.” We are certainly capable of making immoral decisions (and we all often do so, unfortunately), but such decisions are an abuse of our freedom, and inevitably bring bad consequences for ourselves and others. Rights, in the Catholic view, don’t exist just for ourselves alone, but to enable us to achieve higher ends.
So, where does the COVID vaccine mandate come into this discussion? Before I go any further, let me stipulate that I’m not judging (after all, who am I to judge?) anybody’s personal decision to take or not to take the available vaccines. The official statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (based on the 2008 CDC instruction Dignitatis Personae, among other sources) assures us that, despite the use of cells from aborted embryonic humans in the production of the vaccines:
when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available . . . it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process. (Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, 2)
To put the above quote in context, it’s important to take into account that the acceptability of a tainted vaccine is not just dependent on the availability (or not) of other vaccines. We need to consider the gravity of the illness we are seeking to avoid, and whether there are other means of avoidance or treatment. We need to weigh whether possible side effects of the vaccine outweigh potential benefits. If we decide to receive the tainted vaccine, we have “a duty to make known [our ]disagreement and to ask that [our] healthcare system make other types of vaccines available” (Dignitatis Personae 35). There are no hard and fast answers to these questions: everyone needs to evaluate them in the light of his or her own properly informed conscience. That’s why the CDC note goes on to say:
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. (Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, 5)
The idea of the common good brings us to St. John Paul’s concept of solidarity, to which it is closely connected. John Paul explains the concept as follows:
The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39)
There can be little doubt that any Christian response to the COVID situation, including the question of vaccination, should be informed by a sense of solidarity. The difficulty is, what specific actions should we take, or not take, “for the good of all”? In what way does taking a given vaccine benefit my neighbor? Does it really provide the promised protection? Do any benefits outweigh potential harms? Does the gravity of the threat require making the choice at all? Must my idea of appropriate solidarity in this situation necessarily be the same as someone else’s?
As is the case with conscience, we need to apply prudential judgment to determine what solidarity demands in a given circumstance, and my answer may not be the same as yours. As is the case with conscience, our prudential judgment needs to be informed, both by the moral teaching of the Church and by the actual facts on the ground. COVID and the newly developed vaccines have been so thoroughly politicized that it’s difficult to trust the information provided by public authorities, prominent medical spokespersons, and major media outlets. What are we to make of the fact, for instance, that even the head of CDC admits that the vaccines can’t prevent transmission of the virus, while the administration demands we all get vaccinated in order to prevent, yes, transmission of the virus? This is just one example of public pronouncements and policies in conflict with what appear to be objective facts.
So, yes, solidarity is an essential part of our response to questions of public policy, but true solidarity needs to be rooted in the truth. Pointless gestures that make us feel good about ourselves but do nothing to help our neighbor aren’t true solidarity. Giving public affirmation to a political narrative based on distortions, or even falsehoods, does not promote the common good. Feelings of solidarity not rooted in reality are mere sentiment, which can (and and so often has been) used by demagogues to manipulate the masses.
We can’t act in meaningful solidarity if we don’t know what solidarity really requires. We can’t properly exercise our consciences if we don’t know the actual facts. We can’t have any sort of healthy civil society, to say nothing of a properly functioning republic, without a healthy respect for reality. A society that builds on lies will sooner or later come under the sway of the Prince of Lies. Our starting point as Catholics in approaching questions of public policy must be to insist on a commitment to the truth.
Feature image top of page: St. Augustine Disputing With Fortunatus, by unknown Umbrian Master, c. 1510