The overlap between the anti-vaccination movement and reactionary resistance to the Church’s magisterium has been well-documented. In one recent example, Janet Smith, a professor renowned for her defense of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, argued for Crisis that “the Church does not, and cannot teach magisterially whether or not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is loving towards one’s neighbor and for the common good.”
The latest entry in this vein is John Clark’s article for the same outlet, “Without the Right of Conscience, There Is No Common Good,” in which he argues against Cardinal Blase Cupich’s vaccine mandate for employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago and for the right of individuals to freely reject the vaccine without repercussions. He worries that “employees—most notably health care workers—may not suffer imprisonment, but they will suffer shame, ridicule, and a loss of income for themselves and their families.”
While Smith’s theological argument was bogged down by the inclusion of vaccine misinformation from dubious sources, Clark’s article makes a number of claims that are worth engaging. These claims revolve around the interplay of conscience, the magisterium, the common good, and the Covid-19 vaccine.
Clark argues that one must be shielded from repercussions from rejecting vaccination. He justifies this claim with a misleading representation of the Church’s teaching on the common good as well as a libertarian interpretation of conscience rights. By misunderstanding authentic freedom and the primacy of conscience, Clark falls into the trap of believing that conscience is an authority unto itself, despite his own claims to the contrary.
Nathan Turowsky deftly handled some of the broader claims regarding the vaccine and conscience protections in a recent article for Where Peter Is. He concluded, “It is no excuse to reduce the conscience to something that only ever absolves one from responsibilities, and never imposes them.” Turowsky is exactly right: the judgments of conscience are hardly irreformable, and, moreover, they can never be isolated from concerns for our neighbor. Clark approaches this distinction but ultimately rejects it in favor of what amounts to a hyper-individualist approach to conscience.
For example, Clark argues that conscience is about pursuing the common good and that the common good is really about the ability to achieve one’s own flourishing. He writes, “The crucial point here is that if individual persons do not have ‘ready access to their own fulfillment,’ then the common good cannot be achieved.” This is indeed true, but, as if it really needed to be said, one cannot pursue one’s own fulfillment if one is dead or seriously ill with Covid-19. Clark also fails to balance individual fulfillment with the orientation of conscience to the fulfillment of others. This is precisely what “common good” means. Taking responsibility for the good of others is not a burden or a threat to conscience; it is the heart of conscience, or as the CDF wrote in its December 2020 instruction on the Covid-19 vaccine: “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.”
Moreover, in a world marred by sin, where both natural and moral evils abound, authorities may restrict or regulate the free range of conscientious choices to secure the good of all. Taxes are a prominent example. Perhaps more relevant is the reality that even prior to Covid, schools and businesses frequently had policies in place regarding when sick children or employees could be present. This sort of restriction is not an infringement upon conscience rights but rather an institution seeking to balance individual and social goods.
What is difficult to address succinctly are the legitimate and valid concerns of those who refuse to get vaccinated due to its moral connection to abortion. We must reject the claim of some that there is no good reason not to get vaccinated. This is simply false. Additionally, while the Church has taught that receiving the vaccine is morally permissible—indeed, a praiseworthy act of love—the CDF has also clearly defended the right of those who in good conscience choose to refrain from receiving the vaccine due to its moral connection, however remote, with abortion. It is important to be clear about what the Church has said.
What the Church has not said, however, is that people who refuse the vaccine must be shielded from any negative consequences of this decision. If anything, it has implied the opposite:
Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable. [emphasis added]
Institutions both private and public have a strong societal interest in securing the good of all by fostering an environment that is relatively safe from the spread of Covid-19 and where the poor and vulnerable, who are predominantly those working in person in low wage jobs, are kept safe from harm. (It is the privileged who are able to work from home or in an enclosed office setting in relative safety.) For the sake of the common good and the fulfillment of all, these institutions may regulate who has access to their services and places of business and under what conditions (e.g. masked and/or negative tests). Provided that the mandate is just, that the repercussions are fair and proportionate, and that proper accommodations have been made, representatives of these institutions would also be acting in good conscience in doing so.
Ensuring that these restrictions remain reasonable, fair, and truly aimed at the welfare of all will be an important touchpoint for future dialogue within and without the Church. As is common elsewhere, such as at the Vatican which recently “mandated” vaccines for employees, conscientious objectors are required to take weekly tests to ensure that they are not infectious. This would appear to be a reasonable compromise, per the CDF’s statement that the unvaccinated must still make efforts to protect others from the spread of the virus. While Clark is wrong on the fundamental teaching regarding conscience and the common good, there is room to disagree on specific implementations of so-called mandates, particularly if people risk losing their jobs when other less severe repercussions may be appropriate to achieve health goals.
The Church has affirmed the primacy of conscience and also the responsibility of individuals to form their consciences. As the Catechism says, in this formation, “we are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” Catholics can rely on the authoritative teaching of the CDF and the pleas of Pope Francis and his brother bishops themselves that getting vaccinated is a good thing to do to protect others and to advance the common good. This is also the dynamic that Catholic pastors and those with the obligation to teach face: to respect a free conscience, but also to admonish those who act in ways opposed to God’s mercy and love.