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Coronavirus, vaccines, and mutating strains of authority

As the coronavirus was the story of 2020, 2021 will be the year of the vaccine, the centerpiece of global efforts to return life to ‘normal’ after the annus horribilis that has now concluded.

In Catholic circles, the vaccine has become the center of considerable debate - a controversy that illustrates a growing shift in how many Catholics - especially in the United States - receive both news and moral teaching.

Credit: James GathanyContent Providers/ Public Health Image Library.

At the heart of the debate over coronavirus vaccines is the use, or non use, of genetic material derived from children aborted in the 1970s.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an explainer last month, restating the Church’s long-standing moral teaching on proximate and remote cooperation in the clear evil of abortion, to which the Church remains implacably opposed.

Catholics receiving a vaccine, the CDF emphasized, should do so with “the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion”. (italics original.)

Bishops, at the level of the USCCB, state conferences, and individual dioceses, issued similar guidance to help Catholics understand the moral implications of vaccines in a time of pandemic. Groups like the National Catholic Bioethics Center have similarly weighed in from positions of informed expertise.

At the same time, dissenting Catholic voices have arisen, challenging the development of three vaccines already in production and disputing the Church’s moral teachings about them. Those fringe voices have found a ready audience.

Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director, now a pro-life campaigner and convert to Catholicism, has publicly challenged the Church’s moral teaching on the subject - which predates both the vaccines and the pandemic.

While the Vatican and local bishops underscored the Church’s absolute opposition to abortion, and insisted on ethically coherent medical research, Johnson has told priests and bishops (to some applause on social media) that by concluding vaccines are morally permissible: “You are choosing to justify abortion. You can pretty it up however you want.”

There is, of course, a real link between the specific abortion from which, for example, the HEK-293 cell line is derived and the vaccines developed or tested using that genetic material. But it is logically false, and flatly contradictory to what the Church teaches, to suggest that the need for a coronavirus vaccine in 2020 either caused or justifies the abortion fifty years earlier.

Incidentally, there is a case to be made that the Church’s opposition to the use of abortion-derived cell lines in medical research has substantially contributed to the restriction on new materials from abortion being used in research. Not for nothing is there a reliance on fifty-year-old material, even in this case.

At the same time, there is room for Catholics to take the Church’s moral pronouncements on this matter and make prudent decisions for themselves. The CDF, for example, noted that “practical reason” - common sense, in Vatican speak - dictates that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation,” and some might want to refuse vaccines with any connection to abortion, however remote.

But Johnson, joined by other Catholic social media figures, has not been content to accept the legitimacy of diverse prudential judgments on covid vaccines, and has instead insisted that her position is right and the Church is teaching a moral error. Again, to some applause.

Asked if she had read the Church’s moral teaching on vaccine development in detail, she responded “I have studied it. I think it’s wrong.” Johnson later said directly that she was “rejecting” the Church’s moral teaching on the subject.

The substance of her public statements also includes a rejection of mask-wearing in public, and of social distancing and compliance with public health measures for the reopening of churches for public worship. This suggests that, in addition to exercising a legitimate choice of conscience to refuse vaccines, she also dissents from the CDF’s instruction that those who do refuse vaccines in good conscience “must do their utmost” to avoid becoming an agent of infection.

Johnson is not, of course, a moral theologian, a doctor, an epidemiologist, or a medical ethicist. Nevertheless she, and other online Catholic figures command an audience. Indeed, in terms of raw social media followers, she dwarfs most bishops. Her platform and following is based not on objective knowledge, institutional authority, or demonstrable expertise. Instead, her following derives from a personal narrative - former abortion worker turned anti-abortion evangelist - and an increasingly familiar brand of public persona, pitched as uncompromising and straight-shooting, and framed as foil to a cautious and compromising hierarchy.

Johnson’s self-described “rejection” of the Church’s moral teaching is of a kind, though not of the same degree, as other public Catholics who have, for years, placed their own consciences above the determinations of the Church on moral matters.

While the Catholicism of such people is crucial to their narrative and public persona, their reach is largely due to personal charisma and style, which substitutes for, or even trumps, true expertise or authority. In this way, they seem to resemble pop-up evangelical preachers more than Catholic intellectuals.

The increasing prominence of self-appointed experts speaking “as Catholics” but against the Church, across a range of subjects, presents an evolving challenge for the Church’s episcopal leaders, especially in the United States.

And whether the bishops recognize and react to this emerging challenge to the Church’s moral authority and ecclesiastical unity may prove to be one of the more important ecclesiastical stories of 2021.