Archbishops, vaccines and COVID-19

The recent letter of the Sydney-based Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox archbishops on the ethics of the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine has left many believers and the general community gobsmacked.

Sometimes it’s hard to be publicly known as a Catholic; you can feel such a fool. Just now I’m experiencing that feeling with Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher nailing his colours to the mast of his colleagues, Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Makarios. All three claim that the vaccine that the federal government favours, the AstraZeneca/Oxford University COVID-19 product, uses a cell line (HEK-293) that is cultured from a previously aborted foetus, and that it is thus doubtfully ethical.

According to the archbishops, another problem is that of the 29 vaccines ‘already in clinical evaluation, the Commonwealth has thrown its lot in with one that some … find morally problematical’. They are also worried that if ‘the vaccine is adopted for use in Australia, it will be “as near as mandatory as possible”.’ They don’t acknowledge that Scott Morrison has already retreated from that hard-line stance.

Whatever about the views of Makarios and Davies, it’s the stance of Anthony Fisher that concerns me as a Catholic. Why? Because he is presented and presents himself in public as a spokesman for Catholicism, essentially claiming that his stance is church doctrine to be accepted by all Catholics. But many Catholics would argue that his pronouncements have ignored a basic Catholic moral principle, the principle of double effect (PDE). This principle is not exclusive to Catholics, but is used widely in the community to make ethical decisions about complex medical and other issues. In other words, Fisher’s stance doesn’t represent the mainstream Catholic moral tradition and is merely opinion with which most Catholics disagree.

First, let’s get clear what Fisher is arguing. He says he draws ‘a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell line, to the manufacture of this vaccine’. Here he completely ignores the fact that we know nothing about this particular abortion and its circumstances. What if it was to save the life of the mother, or the result of rape? He also claims he doesn’t want to benefit ‘from the death of a baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivializing that death, nor encouraging the foetal tissue industry’.

OK, that’s his opinion, and he has every right to hold it. But he’s also an archbishop, a public face of Catholicism. As such, he is obliged to present mainstream Catholic moral teaching, not personal opinion. And an important part of the church’s moral tradition is the PDE.

Although he never used the term, the origin of this principle goes back to Fisher’s Dominican predecessor, Saint Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, II-II, q64, a7). Thomas is discussing PDE in the context of self-defence; can you directly kill an assailant who is attacking you? Thomas lays down four conditions: (1) when an action, lawful in itself (self-defence); (2) produces two effects, one good (preserving your own life), the other evil (the death of the assailant); (3) then the evil may be permitted, but not intended; (4) provided that (a) the good effect is not directly brought about by the evil effect; (b) there is a proportionally serious reason for the unintended evil effect; and (c) other morally good means are not available.

Sure, this seems like casuistry and it is, but it’s how we argue ethically. Some may find this tedious, but it’s the kind of process that any responsible person uses in coming to grips with difficult and complex moral situations.

So let’s apply the PDE to the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. Clearly, the use of a vaccine is morally lawful in itself and all three archbishops concede this. No problem there. It gets more complicated when you talk about the double effect, because in this case the two events aren’t simultaneous. The evil occurred years before, whereas the good will occur when the vaccine is applied to vast numbers of people to save them from COVID-19. Here I would argue that the good to be achieved so vastly outweighs a past evil—if it was an ‘evil’—about which we can do nothing, means that the use of this particular vaccine is completely justified.

Nevertheless, Fisher might argue that the good effect—the vaccine—is a direct result of the evil, the past abortion, and that this invalidates the use of the PDE. Now, I’m not a virologist, so I can’t say just how direct the cell line is between the foetus and the vaccine. Let’s say it is direct. I’m still not prepared to concede that this invalidates the use of the PDE, because the issue is still one of proportion. The good effect far outweighs the evil, and Fisher essentially concedes this when he says that it would be OK ‘to use this vaccine if there is no alternative available’.

Interestingly, the national body, Catholic Health Australia, representing 75 hospitals—including several large public hospitals—and 550 residential and community aged care services, said it didn’t support Fisher’s concerns. ‘The most pressing issue for Catholic health providers,’ CHA said, ‘is whether any proven vaccine can be distributed fairly and equitably.’ The one place where Fisher and his colleagues are on solid ground is that there are other vaccines in development which they say would be morally acceptable. It’s up to them to negotiate this with Morrison.

Essentially, my problem with all this is that these archbishops claim to speak for the church when they simply have not considered the complexity of the issues they are dealing with, let alone represent the sophistication of the moral tradition to which they claim to belong. This is a result of the corrosive culture wars that some church leaders have been waging for the past decade or so. In an effort to score points, they simply embarrass educated believers. Their focus, as in this instance, is almost exclusively on sexual, gender and reproductive issues, with an occasional glance at social justice. They totally neglect a whole range of other, more important, moral issues, not least of which is COVID-19.

In the process they present the church as an oppressive and wowserish institution, unable and unwilling to enter into dialogue with Australian society and culture. They negate the good work that many Australian believers have achieved in building up relationships with our fellow citizens, and they reduce the church to a kind of caricature that has nothing to offer our contemporaries. You just wish they’d keep quiet!

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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