Monday, July 19, 2021

Vaccine Politics

I am not a bishop. So I do not experience either the ordinary day-to-day difficulties of governing a 21st-century diocese, nor the cross-cutting and conflicting pressures that burden bishops in this era of post-Christendom ecclesial free-fall. That said, I have occasionally wondered what, were I in a position to address the People of God authoritatively, would I say? How might I responsibly respond to the multiple crises which increasingly envelope us (and which, with our characteristic complacency and inertia, we may all be inclined to ignore.) 

Obviously, the preeminent political and moral challenge that faces the world today is climate change, the catastrophic consequences of which we are all beginning to experience - no longer as predictions but in the present. In the immediate term, however, there is the very present-tense catastrophic calamity of covid-19. Worldwide this terrible disease has already claimed the lives of over four million, and in the United States over 600 thousand of our fellow-citizens. 

In the United States, however, covid-19 has become, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine and the science of vaccination, a totally preventable disease. What science accomplished with the effective eradication of smallpox and (in my own lifetime) the virtual elimination of polio, science has come to society's rescue again with the highly effective covid vaccines. When I was a child everyone int his country was automatically vaccinated against smallpox, and the first time I travelled abroad in 1970 I was required to carry along with my passport a document certifying that fact. I was already in school when first the Salk polio vaccines were introduced, followed later by the Sabin vaccines. Since then in most school systems today vaccinations against polio and numerous other ailments are routinely required  of all students. The same, obviously, ought to become the case with the covid vaccination. And I believe it would be an act of extreme moral irresponsibility to take any other course.

Yet, especially in certain sections of this country, typically those with the poorest political leadership, many remain unnecessarily unvaccinated, with the inevitable resulting increase in infections, hospitalizations and utterly unnecessary, preventable deaths - what has aptly been called a self-inflicted "pandemic of the unvaccinated." Allowing for invincible ignorance in those whose only source of information may be the falsehoods found on social media and on a certain supposed "news" network, the obvious response must be to counter that - both with actual facts and with responsible moral guidance in regard to those facts. After all, in the familiar words of the great 20th-century Thomist scholar Josef Pieper: "not only the end of human action but also the means for its realization shall be in keeping with the truth of real things" (The Four Cardinal Virtues, U. of Notre Dame Pr., 1966, p. 20).

For far too much of human history, the human race's ability to prevent or treat deadly diseases and epidemics was minimal at best. That is obviously no longer true. So our moral obligations to ourselves and to one another must reflect "the truth of real things" that is this change in our human circumstances.

So, if I were in a position authorizing me to do so, I would be addressing the People of God in a pastoral letter, recalling both the great blessings bestowed upon the human race by the responsible use of modern medicine and science, which now make practically possible what was once only utopian aspiration, and the perennial moral responsibility incumbent upon all to promote the common good.

According to the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (24):

"God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who "from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.

"For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: "If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.... Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to a world becoming more unified every day, this truth proves to be of paramount importance."

There is no morally responsible escape from our obligations to one another in human society in our common home - including this current contemporary obligation: Everyone who is able to do so has a duty to be vaccinated as promptly as possible.

(Photo1955 newspaper headlines on the development of an effective polio vaccine.)

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