To Vax or Not to Vax

“To be or not to be,” deliberated Hamlet, on the most fundamental choice of all. For anyone who hasn’t read or seen the play, I won’t spoil the answer, but suffice to say it’s worth trying to find out.

Our choices, and the very fact that we make choices, are fundamental to what we are as human persons. We use reason to deliberate about possibilities, and we use free will to choose.

Reason and freedom are the gifts from God of being created in His image. Moral virtues are the habits of freely choosing well.

So we’re at the wonderful moment, as Hamlet was and we always are, when the possibility of living our humanity – which borders on divinity – or refusing it, is very real.

As the COVID vaccines become more widely available, more people face the choice of whether or not to take them. My concern here is less the answer that we “should” reach, and more an appreciation of the greatness of the choice itself. I won’t spoil your decision with my own.

The Catholic Church allows us enormous freedom, as persons. That has to be because God gave us freedom.

The Church is often seen as rule-bound. It’s true that defined dogmas and canon law can be complicated, as are the truths and rules that govern any large institution.

But I’m always struck by how, at the fundamental level, Catholics are so free. The essential choice for us is always there, as it was for the Jews when Moses told them to choose between life and death. It’s as simple as Peter’s answer when Christ asked him: Who do people say I am? Others said John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. But Peter believed He was the Christ.

These are choices that anyone, Christian or not, has to make. I choose life or I do not – as was Hamlet’s problem. I accept or reject Christ.

Once those choices are made, we still retain tremendous freedom. Scripture teaches us a few things we have to do, particularly worship God above all and love one another as Christ did. And it tells us a few things we should never do, such as murder and adultery.

These things are always wrong, or intrinsically evil. Aristotle asserted that there was no “good amount” of them, no virtuous choice between too much and too little murder.

Beyond these few basic demands and prohibitions, we must make choices constantly, and every choice has within it some moral component, some aspect of right or wrong.

When the stakes of right or wrong become high, we arrive at our most intensely human and perplexing moments, and the COVID vaccine is one such moment.

*

I have no independent judgment on the scientific merits of the vaccine, which are relevant to our deliberation if not decisive in the end. The results as presented to the general public are encouraging as to the vaccine’s effectiveness, though the endurance of the effects is uncertain.

On this matter, I’m prepared turn to the experts for help, but then we have to choose our experts. One physician, a long-time friend with a distinguished record of both practice and research, took the vaccine and encouraged her husband to do the same. She was skeptical of the large-scale shutdowns of schools and businesses that we’ve seen in the last year. So she’s not a slave to any particular political agenda.

The preponderance of the medical evidence on benefit and risk – which is not infallible – guided her judgment. The evidence has to be evaluated with awareness of uncertainty, which is the case in all important decisions – otherwise, we would not need to deliberate, and our freedom wouldn’t mean much. The fact-checkers only get us so far; we still must choose.

The moral considerations are, more than the science, decisive, and again there is disagreement. The central concern is the use of stem-cell lines obtained indirectly from an aborted – murdered – child in some phases of the vaccine production. Would it be cooperating with intrinsic evil to take the vaccine?

In the cases of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, such stem-cell lines were used in testing the vaccine, but not in its production. So what goes into our arm does not come from an abortion, though the process as a whole did include abortion-derived means.

Distinguished Catholic scholars such as Roberto de Mattei and Melissa Moschella argue that the vaccine is licit. The Vatican, extending the reasoning of earlier popes, reached the same conclusion.

Other Catholic thinkers claim that the association of the vaccine’s development with abortion means that Catholics should not accept it.

For their part, the American bishops have suggested that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are licit. One of the authors of that conclusion is Archbishop Joseph Naumann, whose pro-life credentials are formidable enough to make me listen very carefully.

But the bishops have said it’s still my choice. The vaccine is licit – permissible – but not mandatory.

Catholic teaching is that the right answer in such cases demands that I evaluate my own circumstances to understand what is prudent, courageous, and just. The answer for someone who is 75 may be different than for someone who is 25. Our responsibilities and duties vary, and so the prudent answer will vary.

But there is an unchanging eternal law, an invisible moral order that is not found in what makes me “comfortable,” which must guide my choice in whatever circumstances I find myself.

It is no celebration of unbounded human autonomy to say that this choice is glorious. It is a celebration of the freedom of the human person to choose in the most important matters, ordered with humility and surrender to the love and will of God, as best we can discern how those universals apply in each particular case.

So, unlike Hamlet, we should decide whether or not to vax, not out of fear or nihilism, but with faith and prayer. This decision is another great opportunity to be fully human.

 

*Image: A Missouri 8-year-old receives a polio vaccination on April 21, 1955 [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Joseph R. Wood

Dr. Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C. and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.

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