Influential reactionary Catholics, including a former US papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, have told their followers to reject the COVID-19 vaccines because of their supposed connection to abortion.
Such advice has already been criticized on many different levels. Most obviously, such advice puts their followers at greater risk for severe illness and hampers efforts to protect the general public. As others have covered in great detail, this advice is also morally incoherent, since the vaccines under consideration have only a very tenuous connection to the evil of abortion. The spurious theological reasons for rejecting the vaccine act as a thin veneer over the underlying politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most troubling aspects of this “pro-life” vaccine rejection is that it stems from what Pope Francis calls an “isolated conscience.” Long before the pandemic, the Church had already ruled on such situations. In 2008, the CDF published the instruction Dignitas Personae, which contains the following quote:
Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material.” Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.
The CDF reiterated this teaching in this earlier document when they released a “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines.” In part, this document reads:
It must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive. It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.
Some reactionary figures simply ignore this teaching from the Church. Others try to get around it by focusing on the words “grave reasons” and arguing that the risk from COVID-19 is not sufficiently a grave reason. This argument is clearly dishonest. The Vatican’s position has been understood to cover the reception of rubella vaccines, which are more directly connected to abortion than the COVID-19 vaccines. While rubella can cause deformities in unborn infants, it is overall milder than COVID-19, which has caused more than 5 million deaths and has left millions of people with long-term effects.
Other Catholics who oppose the Covid-19 vaccine state that while receiving such a vaccine might be “hypothetically” justified, it is the “higher way” to refuse them. This sets up a dangerous contrast between a supposedly “lax” Church under Pope Francis and a “superior” subgroup under the leadership of reactionary media figures. Such an approach exacerbates the ongoing division in the Church. It also highlights a less-noticed aspect of Catholic vaccine rejection, which will be the subject of this article: the burden it puts on the faithful.
The Burden of Vaccine Rejection
Quite apart from the greater risk of serious illness borne by the unvaccinated, rejection of the vaccines can create intolerable burdens for individual Catholics. As governments and private entities increasingly mandate vaccines, many families are facing a choice between taking the vaccine or losing jobs. Such people also face the loss of access to certain venues and being barred from social events. Due to the group pressure mentioned above, however, getting vaccinated also carries the risk of becoming ostracized by one’s Catholic circle. These members of the faithful are carrying a heavy and unnecessary burden. Since the Church has spoken, they should be free to receive a vaccine, if only to keep their jobs. In my opinion, this could be considered a “grave reason,” particularly when a job is necessary to support the family.
In this article, I’m making no judgment on whether or not such mandates by governments or employers are justified. I am not a scientist or public health expert, and therefore, I lack the expertise to evaluate the prudence and justice of such policies. Furthermore, each case would vary depending on the circumstances. Instead, I’m focusing on the choices facing individual Catholics. Such mandates, where they exist, are a factor in the decisions they must make.
Mandated precautions and vaccines can prevent the burden of COVID from falling disproportionately on the weak and infirm. Such mandates, however, can end up creating disproportionate burdens of their own under certain circumstances. To avoid this, governments and religious entities should be careful to allow for legitimate exemptions where possible.
Certainly, the Church should not make vaccination a condition for receiving the sacraments. This would constitute an undue burden of the kind we are discussing, since an individual might avoid vaccination for many legitimate reasons. In some areas, civil governments have prohibited unvaccinated individuals from attending Mass; in such cases, the Church should work to find ways for the unvaccinated to receive the sacraments. At the same time, it seems reasonable for a parish or diocese to offer a few Masses where proof of vaccination is required. This could make it easier for the vulnerable to attend.
This is not an isolated instance. Catholics can end up carrying many such burdens. In particular, parents often carry many burdens in reactionary subcultures. In these groups, big families are often seen as a mark of virtue. Large families are a blessing, and I’m grateful to have been part of one. Having a lot of children, however, is not a sign of virtue. Seeing a big family as inherently virtuous is not a Catholic mentality. In fact, such a mentality can become very ugly when women are judged by the number of children they have. This mentality can also lead some Catholics to condemn the use of NFP, despite the teaching of Pope Paul VI on this point in Humanae Vitae.
Parents can also be burdened by a variety of expectations around the manner in which they raise their children. For instance, in some Catholic subcultures it is expected that parents will homeschool their children as a matter of course. Such expectations can ignore the differing aptitudes and abilities of parents. They also fail to take into account differences in resource availability and support networks. My homeschool experience was largely positive, because my mother loved teaching and my father was able to work from home. Many families, however, struggle to carry this additional burden.
Liturgy is another area in which Catholics may end up carrying heavy burdens. For instance, many parents drive for hours every Sunday to attend a Tridentine liturgy, simply because they’ve been convinced that this particular liturgical form is necessary for their childrens’ spiritual lives. Some traditionalists even feel constrained to refuse Communion if they can’t receive it on the tongue, for instance during the pandemic, since they’ve been taught that to receive on the hand is desecration. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Catholics with celiac disease may find themselves unable to receive Communion at traditionalist parishes due to the traditionalist prohibition on touching the sacred vessels. A less serious, but still significant example of a liturgical burden is an overemphasis on being well dressed in church. Dressing well for Mass is a good thing, but too much focus on this can foster an ugly mentality. For instance, at a certain point in my life I felt uncomfortable visiting Christ in the Blessed Sacrament if I wasn’t wearing dress shoes.
A particularly egregious religious burden was brought to my attention by friends who worked as missionaries in Costa Rica. They found that undocumented Nicaraguan refugees were being denied marriage in the Church because they lacked Baptismal certificates. Due to the precarious political situation and the poverty of the individuals involved, there was no way for them to obtain such documentation. The local Church also refused to record a new baptismal certificate because such an action would have made the refugees citizens of the host country. As a result, Catholics were being denied access to the sacraments merely because they’d been forced to flee their country.
Perhaps the most wide-spread contemporary example of a “burden” is another result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every diocese across the country dispensed the faithful from their Sunday Mass obligation. Even when these dispensations were lifted, the bishops emphasized that vulnerable individuals and those who care from them are still dispensed. In fact, those who are in poor health have always been automatically dispensed from the Sunday obligation. Nevertheless, vulnerable individuals are being pressured into attending Sunday Mass. Sometimes this pressure comes from well-meaning but insensitive family and friends, who talk about “trusting God” and confidently assert that God will protect those who serve him by attending Mass. At other times, the pressure comes from priests and bishops who are worried about a lack of attendance.
In many cases, vulnerable Catholics desire to return to Mass and receive the sacraments, yet their parishes are not taking the precautions which would make it safe for them to do so. Many Catholic communities have refused to carry their share of the burden by providing special Masses or by enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. And so the vulnerable are left to carry this burden alone. They face a choice between risking their health or being ostracized by their Catholic community. They are ignored by their fellow parishioners and may drift away from the Church altogether.
The Difficulty of Virtue
The imposition of insupportable burdens indicates a failure of pastoral sensitivity and Christian solidarity. Another problem, however, is that many Christian individuals seem quite willing to accept harmful religious burdens. Quite often, such burdens are self-imposed by the individuals who carry them. This can be the result of a flawed spirituality: the idea that difficulty indicates virtue. Christians can be tempted to think that difficulty indicates that they are on the right path and behaving in a virtuous manner. A particularly absurd instance of this belief is the idea that “opposition” from “the world” is a sign of being on the “right side.” By that metric, everyone in prison must be a perfect saint!
Assumed burdens are particularly harmful when they are used as a way of identifying “true” Christians. This flawed mentality can lead to a particular kind of “muscular Christianity,” a modern version of the ancient Pelagian heresy. The Faith can come to be seen as something only accessible to the strong, whereas the Gospel focuses on the mercy Christ offers to the weak.
Difficulty and the amount of effort expended actually have nothing to do with following Christ, particularly if such difficulties are self-imposed. Matthew 16:24 tells us that we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, but this does not mean that we should carry crosses of our own making. Rather, as we read in Matthew 11:29-30, we are to take upon ourselves the yoke of Christ, which is easy to bear because we carry it with him. And as St. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:24-29, our sufferings should be a participation in the labor of Christ. His power works through us in this participation. By contrast, Christ will not help us to carry crosses that we take upon ourselves out of pride, vanity, or self-will. As St. Elizabeth Ann Seton put it while addressing her religious congregation:
One cuts herself out a cross of pride; another, one of causeless discontent; another, one of restless impatience or peevish fretfulness. But is the whole any better than children’s play if looked at with the common eye of faith?
The reference to “child’s play” may explain why so many people seem eager for self-imposed burdens. Carrying a burden can make us feel important. We are suspicious of things that are too easy. We’d prefer something more complicated that keeps us busy and justifies our efforts.
So far, I’ve been discussing situations that have nothing to do with the moral law as such. Even in cases pertaining to the moral law, however, we need to take care not to impose insupportable burdens on others. A good example of this principle is found in Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis taught that under some circumstances, divorced and remarried Catholics can be admitted to Communion. This led many prominent Catholics to accuse the Pope of promoting moral laxity and of denigrating the Eucharist. It is notable that similar accusations were made against Jesus when he showed mercy to sinners. In the case of Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s critics don’t seem to have taken into account the complicated situations that can occur in real life.
Much ink has been spilled over who, exactly, Pope Francis said could be permitted to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist in the exhortation. In a 2018 article for WPI, Pedro Gabriel discussed this issue and emphasized that the pope was not saying that those in the state of mortal sin could receive Communion. Rather, the Pope is reiterating a traditional aspect of Church teaching: grave matter (in this case, an irregular marital situation) is not sufficient to make an action mortally sinful.
In Catholic teaching, grave matter only becomes a mortal sin when combined with full knowledge and full consent of the will. Various factors may impede the individuals involved from possessing such full knowledge or exercising such full consent. Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to determine the gravity of the matter itself. Among other factors, it may be difficult to determine if the original marriage was valid or not. In some cases, Catholic marriage tribunals may not be able to provide much help.
Pope Francis upholds the general rule prohibiting divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving Communion. An irregular situation, however, does not automatically mean that an individual is not in a state of grace. For any of the reasons discussed above, a couple may be in a complicated situation where the general rule does not apply. The goal of the Pope’s approach is to avoid placing an unnecessary burden on such individuals.
We are all called to imitate the mercy and generosity of God, without counting the costs. As Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia:
It is providential that these reflections take place in the context of a Holy Year devoted to mercy, because … “The Bride of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who goes out to everyone without exception.” She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst.”
We cannot forget that “mercy is not only the working of the Father; it becomes a criterion for knowing who his true children are. In a word, we are called to show mercy because mercy was first shown to us.” This is not sheer romanticism or a lukewarm response to God’s love, which always seeks what is best for us, for “mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers; nothing in her preaching and her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy.”
The teaching of moral theology should not fail to incorporate these considerations, for although it is quite true that concern must be shown for the integrity of the Church’s moral teaching, special care should always be shown to emphasize and encourage the highest and most central values of the Gospel, particularly the primacy of charity as a response to the completely gratuitous offer of God’s love. At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy” (309-311).
Critics of Amoris Laetitia argue that such leniency will merely be abused. This is always the risk with acts of mercy and generosity. When God created us, he knew of all the evil we would each commit. When Jesus became incarnate to save us, he knew we would crucify him. When he called the apostles to follow him, he knew one of them would betray him. When Jesus left us his presence in the Eucharist, he knew how it would be abused. Jesus was willing to take such “risks,” and Pope Francis is merely following this Divine example.