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The Current COVID Vaccine Debate Points to a Pandora’s Box

The post you are about to read started as a Twitter thread, but the more I think about it, the more I think it should go here too. It’s going to be largely the same as what I posted there, with some modifications as I go. I am not going to take the time to highlight them, because that would be tedious, and nobody but me would care anyway.

I’m sticking this under the “blog” category because it’s where I put my less-well-developed thoughts. It doesn’t rise to the level of an actual article. This more rough-hewn; it’s me, fumbling about in the dark, knowing there’s more here to work through, but wanting to get a conversation started.

If someone more qualified than I am (which likely describes many of you) happens to see this and is moved to tackle it for the purposes of offering greater clarity to the faithful, please send it to me via our submissions page and if it’s good, I’ll publish it.

On to the meat and potatoes…

There is, as most of you know, a debate happening over vaccines and their relation to fetal cell lines taken from aborted children. Discussions like these can get overly technical and feel like crazy inside baseball at times, but the ramifications are huge, and they affect all of us.

I didn’t study philosophy much (hard to believe, considering I got a theology degree, but that’s modern Catholic education for you) and I’m not well-equipped with the technical language to describe moral actions, chains of causality, etc. This means I’m going to make some rookie mistakes in my argumentation. I apologize in advance.

All of that being said, chances are that many of you reading this are also not experts in this stuff, but again, you want to know how to think about it. I’m not sure I can offer that. Except to say that I think we really need this sorted enough that we have a sensible rule to live by.

So here goes my attempt at a summary of the issue: certain vaccines (I don’t have the list handy) were not developed using fetal cells, but were tested on the HEK 293 line — an “immortalized” line of kidney cells taken from the tissue of an aborted baby in the 1970s and tricked into infinite replication. Most cells can only divide a finite number of times, and then stop. But HEK was modified until it kept going. Imagine a human cell that has been turned into a copy machine that makes copies of itself, indefinitely. It’s not a case of needing new fetal tissue; the same cells (as I understand it) are, given whatever nourishing substrate cells live on, constantly dividing and thereby replicating themselves for as long as the culture is maintained. (If I’m wrong and any biologists care to weigh in, feel free.)

The use of this particular cell line, I’m given to understand, is rather ubiquitous. Many medications and chemicals, including those used in some processed foods and a number of cosmetic products, are tested against the cells cultured from this line. I’ve seen it argued that to follow the “no concatenation” standard — essentially, that no circumstances could merit the use of such a vaccine — would mean that people would have to give up acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, common antihistamines, insulin, and so on. The list is long, and it quickly becomes unworkable for a vast portion of the populace who are often dependent on the use of these medications.

In the case of the COVID vaccines, as I understand it, the COVID virus itself was cultured using these human-derived cells as the host, and then the vaccine was implemented against it to see if it worked. (Again, open to correction here, but this is going to be a theme of this post – the average Catholic is likely in way over his head with some of these topics, but still needs to make a correct moral decision about it. Our ignorance of certain technical matters relating to ethics or science is baked into the conundrum we face.) To my mind, using these cells to test the vaccine makes the testing ancillary to, not essential to, the nature of the vaccine itself. The vaccine does not, in other words, become intrinsically evil because it is tested using means that are morally questionable or even wrong.

The Church’s teaching on the liceity of remote material cooperation (RMC) in an evil for a proportionate reason is the ONLY sane way I can see to navigate this. As an example of RMC, the Church says I can use a vaccine derived from fetal cell lines, let’s say, if the threat is grave, there are no alternatives, and by its use I do not intend to support abortion, and if I continue to object to the lack of alternatives. (See Vatican statements on this here, here, and here for more on this.)

Seeing certain moral arguments coming from people I ordinarily look to as luminaries of orthodoxy, sanity, and sanctity that nevertheless create an impossible moral burden is…well, it’s demoralizing.

Because the implications are staggering. It’s a Pandora’s Box. This isn’t just about COVID vaccines.

We live in a world where we are faced with RMC situations all the time. Aside from the fetal cell testing question, we have Nazi concentration camp experiments to thank for things like medical data on hypothermia and the development of drugs like chloroquine. There’s a problem in the medical research world with cadavers designated for such purposes not having come from those who have given consent, but merely being classified as “unclaimed.” There are other big ethical problems with the largely-unregulated world of cadaver donation.

And then there’s China, where they torture and rape people who won’t fall in line, steal the organs of inmates, and do God only knows what kind of medical research on people with no say in the matter. Do you think “Made in China” only applies to cheap clothes and toys? China is becoming a major player in the global field of medical research, second only to the United States.

This is all just in the field of bioethics. Of course, I have people telling me all the time that I have to boycott this or that company because of some ideological affiliation they have. But if I really applied the philosophy of the “no concatenation” crowd, I’d be paralyzed.

You’d never be able to shop anywhere, eat anything, use any medicine, buy a car, use a utility, sign up for internet, etc. You can’t buy a cup of coffee anymore without wondering if you’re supporting, at least indirectly, abortion, BLM, LGBTQWTFBBQ, and a list of other issues antithetical to Catholic belief. Chances are, the internet provider you’re using to read this website comes from a cable provider that also supplies pornography to those who wish to purchase the channels. Almost everything is a mixed bag these days, with very few exceptions.

The people who are out there attempting to raise the bar so high that we can’t even deploy RMC as a guide on whether or not we get to function in the world we live in are, I think, doing an injustice.

First of all, because the Church herself doesn’t demand this from us.

I know the Vatican lately isn’t a place we can trust, but if Catholics can’t look to the moral teaching/standards set up by the Church and use that as a guide, we’re in big trouble. If we have to listen to a priest, blogger, Youtuber, or random Twitter guy over the official guidance offered by the CDF, we’re done. Think about it: the Church’s bailiwick is faith and morals. Even where it does not teach infallibly, it has the authority to form and even bind consciences. If we can’t trust the Church to do that, what does that mean for us, ecclesiastically speaking?

When I’m confronted with the moral paralysis the absolutist interpretations of ethical principles create (and the assertion that traditional Catholic thought demands assent to them) I am tempted to throw my hands up and say, “Well then to hell with all of it, because I am not going to agonize over every minute decision from here on out.”

And if I feel that way, sitting here poring over churchy stuff every day, I can only imagine the reaction of the average believer who has a normal job and who coaches little league in the evenings and doesn’t live remotely in Catholic nerd-world. He’s likely not going to do what I just did and buy Fr. Ripperger’s book, The Principle of the Integral Good, so he can spend his time trying to figure out what is even being argued about, and why. This all risks becoming very obscure, very quickly, and when the burden on the believer is too high, he’s going to look to Rome and say, “You know what? We’ve got two living popes, they both got the vaccine, and the Vatican has said it’s morally licit. I’m going with that.” Even if he never gets vaccinated himself — there are certainly good reasons not to — he’s not going to trouble his conscience if someone in his family who is at risk decides to do so.

Catholicism has never sought to impose impossible burdens on believers. And yet this is what I feel I am seeing advocated.

Our beliefs are propositional — so they should be able to be explained simply in “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” — and they are concordant with natural reason. Nothing about the absolutist position on this stuff — even though the evil of abortion is undeniably horrific — strikes me as reasonable or prudent, given our circumstances.

If I’m wrong, I hope I figure that out — and soon — and that my wrongness can yield to true understanding. But I don’t think I am. I’ve got a better nose for truth than an ability to express it in perfect terms, and this one isn’t passing my smell test.

I fully expect the comments here to devolve into a bunch of people arguing over the common things people argue about whenever this comes up, so I’m going to ask right now that we NOT do that. I urge you to avoid moral grandstanding and beating dead horses, because a thoughtful, careful discussion on this would likely prove fruitful. Let’s take for granted, for the purposes of discussion, that we already know and believe that abortion is awful; that it would be ideal for cell lines to be derived in other ways; that we can and should advocate for alternatives (although the specifics of how to do so effectively seems somewhat vague); and that there are arguments for and against the idea that the threat of COVID is sufficiently grave that it would invoke the sort of proportionate cause that RMC demands. If comments start getting into the weeds about this stuff, I’m going to axe them without warning.

What I would like to see is a discussion, in the abstract, of the ethical and moral principles involved. For the purposes of evaluating what is possible, assume COVID (or some other hypothetical pathogen) **is** the most deadly disease we’ve faced in a century. IF that were the case, how do we evaluate the moral arguments, based on the fact that no perfectly untainted vaccine exists? We need to get to that point so we can understand that nature of what we’re dealing with here, and figure out how to apply it in situations that are less grave.

This is especially important to sort through because of the multiplicity of strong opinions: some imply that taking such a vaccine is intrinsically evil and must never be done, others argue that it can be done, but only in the gravest of circumstances, and still others (see this very interesting statement from the Ethics and Public Policy Center on this topic, signed off on by a number of Catholic scholars) that the connection to evil is so remote that it should not trouble our consciences at all.

The confusion on this issue comes from the wildly different interpretation of the facts in each of these different camps — an increasingly common feature of our weirdly fragmented, information-overloaded modern existence. We’re getting to a point where it’s exceedingly difficult to know what’s true, what we should extrapolate from that, and how to apply it, in any number of circumstances. As the volume of such disputes pile up, none of them with clear answers, we become overwhelmed, feeling a kind of moral exhaustion from trying to keep our heads above water, especially because we feel that there is no longer any sure guide to look to, not even Rome. I write this knowing that any number of you are feeling the same stress I do in trying to understand and act on these matters correctly.

That frustration, I think, is dangerous. It can lead us to either a “to hell with it, I don’t care anymore” reaction or, conversely, to fall into an absolutist position, which, applied equally across the board, would require us to go back to living in caves, wearing the skins and pelts of only the animals we’ve killed with weapons hewn from the stones and the rocks. (I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, but not by that much.)

So, please, a productive, civil, respectful discussion here is requested. This is not, I repeat, NOT an opportunity to argue over whether COVID is real, whether the death numbers are accurately reported, etc. It is my hope that we can in some small way contribute to an understanding of what the mind of the Church really is on matters of remote material cooperation with evil, so that with a better grasp of these principles, we can apply them to specific situations using a more well-formed prudential judgment.

And I repeat as well my invitation for those who both understand and can articulate this better than I can to send along articles to that effect if you think they’d help clarify things.

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