Jimmy Akin once quipped that he was going to write a piece on the Church’s OFFICIAL teaching about how to eat a Reese’s because he was constantly getting requests for the Church’s OFFICIAL teaching on a ton of stuff for which the Church has no official teaching.
Some Catholics (and non-Catholics) seem to have the idea that the job of the Magisterium is offer rigid rules and regulations on everything from how to squeeze a toothpaste tube to whether to buy whole kernel or creamed corn.
Conversely, there appears to be a crazy notion that “prudential judgment” means “Screw the Church’s guidance! I do what I want!”, as though Catholic life consists “Unless the Church issues a dogmatic command under pain of excommunication, you are free to spit on anything she says.”
In reality, the Church does not function on the principle “That which is not forbidden is compulsory” and is profoundly disinclined to define most of its teaching (which is why it has such a small body of dogmatic teaching to show for 2000 worth of doctrinal development). Indeed, even with things that are dogmatically defined (such as, for instance, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin) what is often striking is how much remains undefined and left to the faithful to make up their minds about–or leave a mystery. So the definition of the Assumption merely says that it occurred “at the end of her earthly existence”. That language is very carefully chosen because the Eastern tradition tends to hold the view that Mary died while the Western tradition tends to argue she didn’t. You can be a perfectly faithful Catholic and hold either view. You can also have no idea what the nature of Christ’s risen body is, no conception of transubstantiation beyond “This is my body”, no idea how predestination and free will work together, and a host of other views/non-views, practices/non-practices and still be a perfectly faithful Catholic. Whole swaths of the Church have never said a Rosary in their lives, because the Rosary is a popular devotion in the West, while Eastern rites have other ways of venerating Our Lady.
Indeed, the Catholic magisterial tradition, so far from running around calling people heretics for being different, is generally concerned with stopping 2000 years of self-appointed combox bishops from kicking everybody else out of the Church over quarrels far stupider than The Correct Way to Eat a Reeses. Most of the work of the Magisterium consists of telling Catholics with Very Definite Opinions to cut back on the caffeine, lighten up, dial it back, and learn to play well with others. So from Paul telling his Churches “Eat whatever you want and stop being a jerk to people who don’t share your views” to modern bishops telling super-Catholics “Communion in the hand is fine and it is not your job to be Liturgy Gestapo” the Magisterium is usually about the business of expanding, not restricting intellectual liberty.
That’s because the Faith is, in the end, the opposite of ideology. Ideology (another word for heresy) tends to fixate on a relatively small idea carved out of the bundle of ideas the Faith holds in tension and declare it to be the Only Thing That Matters. For the ideologue, everything is economics, or electricity, or evolution, or My Kind of Liturgy. Whatever can’t be crammed into the procrustean bed of the ideology will just have to have its feet cut off to accommodate the one monomaniac idea.
In contrast, the Faith says, “We don’t know much, but we do know that there is one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… etc.” Beyond the Creed and a couple of other elaborations on it like the Real Presence or the Assumption, the Church leaves it to the wits of human beings to figure out everything from how to write Hamlet to the physics of displacement in ship design to how to create a federal government to how to make a COVID vaccine.
Even most of the teaching she offers about stuff in her wheelhouse–namely, the application of the tradition to the moral life–is largely provisional and prudential. Yes, there are a few Iron Rules: the ends don’t justify the means, you shall not murder, you shall not steal and so forth. But even these require a lot of nuance, as a small amount of imagination or history instantly illustrates. Is war in self-defense murder? Is Jean Valjean guilty of theft? What do you do about a tubal pregnancy? And so forth.
One issue that is presenting itself right now is the “primacy of conscience” being asserted by selfish MAGA narcissists bent on spreading COVID to own the libs while wallowing in self-pity. And different bishops are coming up with different conclusions, not all of the same soundness. That’s because bishops, when trying to navigate such matters, are not Magic Oracles speaking Infallible Truth, but ordinary slobs with varying levels of intelligence trying to practically apply the Church’s teaching while struggling under the same burdens of sin, folly, stupidity, and ideological blindness the rest of us struggle under. Our task is to treat their guidance with the respect we owe anybody within their field of expertise–as we would treat a doctor talking about medicine or a mechanic talking about cars or a plumber talking about plumbing. In other words, we are to weigh their guidance as though they are likely to have some insights into the Catholic tradition that could prove handy, not as though they are prophets delivering instructions straight from God. Exactly what they are not–unless they are repeating word for word a defined dogma of the Church or repeating verbatim the words of Jesus Christ himself in context–is infallible when offering prudential guidance.
For the paradox of the Church’s infallibility–and the reason it is so rarely invoked–is that it is the gift given by the Holy Spirit precisely because the Church’s members are a bunch of fatheads, including the bishops and the Pope. It is a negative protection given to the Church which presumes the sinfulness and stupidity of every one of the Church’s members. The meaning of infallibility is not “Bishops are smart and flawless and will never err” but “Bishops are such a pack of fools that were it not for the Holy Spirit the Church would have lost track of the gospel five minutes after Pentecost.” Infallibility means this and this alone: when the Church, on those rare occasions she is required to do so, says, “This is definitely what we, as the whole Church, do or do not believe” she will be prevented from screwing that statement of belief up.
That’s it. That’s all. There is absolutely no guarantee that individual bishops will not complete bollix things up in their practical applications of the Tradition. There is not even a guarantee that a pope or council will not say or do something stupid when it comes to some practical application of the Tradition according to their human wits. When a council ordered that clothes be painted on a nude in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment, that was not an infallible act. It was just some dumb bishops imposing bad aesthetics in mistaken piety.
For the same reason, when a bishop in the pocket of English masters burns Saint Joan at the stake, there is no reason to pretend he did not sin gravely. When Dante puts bad popes in hell, there is no teaching in the whole of Catholic dogma to deny him his right to his opinion if he can produce the evidence for Boniface’s guilt.
Likewise, when a bishop is an ignorant antivax kook like Joseph Strickland, we are under no obligation accept his dumb statements or believe that ordination magically confers a degree in epidemiology or immunology.
That said, most bishops are not dreadfully bad like Strickland, a MAGA zealot who not only believes nutty conspiracy theories, but who has been at open and naked war with the Holy Father for years. Most bishops have actually done a pretty decent job trying to live by sane public health guidelines. But we live in such confused times that an uncertain trumpet still baffles people, and the guidance from bishops about COVID vaccination is not all equal. Here are two samples of such guidance. The first–and I think much the worse of the two samples (though nothing like as deadly and damnable as Bishop Strickland’s anti-vax idiocy and conspiracy theories) is the rather tepid counsel of the Colorado bishops:
We, the Catholic bishops of Colorado, consistent with our previous letters on COVID-19 vaccines, affirm that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances. Throughout the pandemic we have cooperated with the various secular authorities and encouraged Catholics to help each other, and the broader society, remain healthy and safe during this challenging time. We understand that some individuals have well-founded convictions that lead them to discern they should not get vaccinated. We are pleased to see that in the case of the most recent Denver vaccine mandate there is accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs. This is appropriate under the laws protecting freedom of religion.
We always remain vigilant when any bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping requirements on a group of people in areas of personal conscience. Throughout history, human rights violations and a loss of respect for each person’s God-given dignity often begin with government mandates that fail to respect the freedom of conscience. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are convicted that the government should not impose medical interventions on an individual or group of persons. We urge respect for each person’s convictions and personal choices.
We have been asked several questions by the Faithful about relevant Catholic teaching applicable to this issue. The Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse a medical intervention, including a vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision. Here are relevant points for this personal decision:
• Vaccination is not morally obligatory and so must be voluntary.
• There is a moral duty to refuse the use of medical products, including certain vaccines, that are created using human cells lines derived from abortion; however, it is permissible to use such vaccines only under case-specific conditions—if there are no other alternatives available and the intent is to preserve life.
• A person’s assessment of whether the benefits of a medical intervention outweigh the undesirable side-effects are to be respected unless they contradict authoritative Catholic moral teachings.
• A person is morally required to obey his or her conscience.
• For more information on these weighty ethical issues, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued a statement that can be read here.
Taken as a whole, these points mean a Catholic may judge it right or wrong to receive certain vaccines for a variety of reasons, and there is no Church law or rule that obligates a Catholic to receive a vaccine — including COVID-19 vaccines.
The three Colorado Catholic dioceses remain committed to working with public health and other secular authorities to protect the wellbeing of our communities, at the same time urging that personal freedoms of conscience and expression be fully supported, and the integrity and autonomy of religious institutions be respected. The vaccination question is a deeply personal issue, and we continue to support religious exemptions from any and all vaccine mandates.
If any person comes to an informed judgment that he or she should receive or not receive a vaccine, that person should follow their conscience, and they should not be penalized for doing so. We encourage any individual seeking exemption to consult their employer or school. The Colorado Catholic Conference also has a letter template available to be signed by pastors of the Faithful if a Catholic wants a written record that they are seeking exemption on religious grounds.
Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver
Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg
Bishop of Pueblo
Most Reverend James R. Golka
Bishop of Colorado Springs
Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver
Yes, we believe in the primacy of conscience, etc. But compare and contrast this to, say, the approach of these bishops to the matter of abortion. Can you imagine, for one second, these bishops taking this “Hey, just do whatever your conscience says!” approach to Catholics for a Free Choice? Clearly, the audience this statement is directed to is asking, “What is the absolute bare minimum we can do and still be Good Catholics?” The answers provided here are keyed to people who cannot see beyond the event horizon of their own narcissism. Questions concerning the good of others do not enter into the discussion of conscience. The only thing being addressed here is, “Am I legally bound to be vaccinated and, if not, can I avoid it and still be a Good Catholic?” It is speaking to an incredibly cramped moral conscience in terms of the absolute least it can do and get away with it.
Meanwhile, the far more sound approach of the bishop of San Diego synthesizes the same guidance of the Church’s Magisterium and comes to a far more sensible conclusion:
Bp. McElroy is doing a far better job of expressing the Church’s actual position, because he is not simply addressing the selfish narcissistic MAGA question, ‘WHAT ABOUT ME? HOW LITTLE CAN I GET AWAY WITH CARING ABOUT ANYBODY ELSE? ME! ME! ME!” but is instead addressing the reality that vaccination is as much about the needs of those who cannot be vaccinated.
That seems to me to be the core difference between the former and latter approaches. The Colorado Bishops seem to primarily have in mind an audience of intensely selfish MAGA adolescents whose sole question is “What is the absolute least I can get away with in terms of love of neighbor and still be technically ‘obedient’?” and the bishops seem to be answering that question and demanding nothing more of them.
Now, to be fair, extremely minimal moral demands of profoundly immature and selfish personalities has a long history in the pastoral tradition of the Church. From Jesus making no demand of the Centurion to free his slave (Matthew 8:5-13) to every parish priest in the world asking penitents in the confessional to take some baby step toward maturity followed by three Hail Marys, the Church famously (and, I think, wisely as a rule) does not impose Seven Herculean Feats on penitents asking “What must I do to be saved?”
But, on the other hand, there is also a pastoral tradition for challenging the flock stretching from Jesus’ confrontation with the Rich Young Man to Ambrose commanding the Emperor to do penance for a massacre to the tough old parish priest calling out the phony penitent and telling him to forget absolution if he doesn’t get serious about not burning through the family savings on whores and brawling.
In short, sometimes you have to address the weakness of the penitent, but other times you have address the fact that the penitent is a selfish jerk who needs a good smack upside the head.
Tackling the issue from the standpoint, not only of sound science, but of fully orbed Catholic morality, McElroy seems to me to take the latter approach and remind the intensely narcissist MAGA antivax crowd that everything in the universe is not All About Them. And he takes the obviously better approach, in my view.
He accurately points out that vaccination is, in fact, a moral obligation to the common good (as the pope has repeatedly said), that if you can get vaxed, you owe it to your neighbor to do so, and that if your ignorant, warped, malformed, narcissistic, individualistic conscience demands you refuse to vax, you may do so, but don’t lie to yourself or anybody else that you are “obeying the Church” as you do it. You aren’t. The teaching of the Church is clear: unless there is some medical reason like an allergy or some other legitimate excuse that prevents it, you should get vaxed. It is obedience to the second greatest commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.