Catholic Ethical Considerations and a Morally Bankrupt Church

Ever since the sex-abuse scandal the Catholic Church has struggled to maintain its station as moral arbiter. Of course, the Church was slowly falling from grace in that area long ago, but the breadth and severity of the scandal has permanently tarnished the Church’s reputation in the modern era. How could anyone possibly look to the church on more nuanced ethical topics when it couldn’t even get it right in one of the most obviously easy ethical quandaries?

That’s why its funny to see the Catholic Church equivocate on moral issues that are far less dire. The Church’s statement on the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is almost laughable, not for what it concludes but for what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, for instance, that since the vaccine was developed using stem cells from aborted fetuses that it is immoral to accept. It doesn’t say the vaccine is immoral. It doesn’t say the research was immoral. The cell lines themselves are “morally compromised,” but we don’t know the circumstances of the harvesting of those cells.

The document does say that other vaccines made from stem cells are morally acceptable, like the Rubella vaccine. There is no alternative to that vaccine, though, and there is to the Coronavirus vaccine, which is how the Conference of Bishops arrive at their conclusion.

Traditional Catholic morality is founded on a Kantian sort of deontology: God tells us what is right and wrong. The ends do not justify the means. Abortion, for instance, is a moral wrong, not because of the consequences, but because it is wrong, full-stop. It doesn’t matter if terminating the pregnancy makes life better for other people, or if the child would unreasonably suffer by being born, it is simply an ethical precept that abortion is immoral.

Yet the Bishops here are asking us to decide that using a particular vaccine is on some scale of morality based on how many people might be saved in so doing. It doesn’t matter if the development process was morally compromised if it is the only vaccine and the only way to prevent that suffering. Even if there are other alternatives, those are only “preferable,” not moral requirements.

Catholic morality has never worked this way, and to see the Bishops slowly arrive at a consequentialist meta-ethic is an incredible demonstration of the collapse of traditional religious teaching, much more so than if the church were to finally catch up to modernity on, say, same-sex marriage. It means that there is no right or wrong, only utility. It means that we can abrogate moral precepts if the ends justify the means. It means that “morally compromised” science (or people or situations or whatever) are acceptable if the outcome is good. Good for whom? The Catholic Bishops, presumably.

Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

QAnon epistemology and Christian Nationalist hermeneutics; lies the faithful believe

The American political landscape has been dominated in the last half decade by an increasing confusion about the nature of “Truth.” This wasn’t always a problem for the media; for generations we simply believed whatever Walter Cronkite told us. Even when we began to embrace a need for a variety of reporting outlets and styles, we always assumed that the very nature of the fourth estate would be self-policing. Misinformation would be rooted out by other reporting, and outlets with a track record of untrustworthiness would lose readers.

“Fake News” was originally a verifiably false report which was pushed by the power of the people: misinformation could be elevated in the public consciousness simply by it being spread. This was a danger in the unregulated mediums of social media which lead to our current apprehension about all news. If any news can be fake, why can’t all news? And if all news is fake, why not believe an outlandish theory that captures my imagination and my heart?

So we see the rise of QAnon, the meta-conspiracy du jour. These QAnon people are generally republican voters almost by definition, which means there is a lot of crossover with evangelical groups. Christian Nationalism is closely linked to QAnon belief. In fact, a majority of republicans believe in at least some of the QAnon lies, and about half of ALL Americans in a survey were unable to correctly identify one of QAnon’s most outlandish theory that Satan-worshiping child-sex-traffickers run the government. How could we possibly have come to this?

Although it is difficult to disentangle correlation and causation, it is not coincidence that those who are historically devoutly religious in a traditional way seem to be most swayed by QAnon nonsense. There is, of course, the way in which the whole movement wraps itself up in the trappings of religion; perhaps you remember the “shaman” in fur and horns proclaiming victory on the dais in the Capitol?

More importantly, people who have been conditioned to believe without evidence, and who hold belief without evidence as a virtue, are naturally going to gravitate towards wildly inaccurate conspiracy theory. They’ve literally been told since birth that those who “believe without seeing” are blessed, that faith is a virtue in-and-of-itself, that the greatest truths in the world are untestable and unverifiable. This hermeneutic of belief is fundamental to their culture, their worldview, their identity; of course it was going to be co-opted at some point.

There are lots of conclusions to draw from this, as well as solutions. For now, though, it might be enough to say simply, “we brought this on ourselves.” Our country’s backwards adherence to supernatural belief created an epistemology which prizes falsehood. We literally have centered our biggest national holiday around a fantastical lie about an old man breaking and entering our homes, leaving our children to traumatically discover later in life that not only their parents and friends have lied to them since birth but also an entire national cabal of coconspirators all complicit in the same fabrication. Growing up in this framework, who wouldn’t later in life assume that the entire political establishment was lying to them?

Pope in the Times: Francis would be a liberal Supreme Court justice

Of course the Pope showing up in the Old Gray Lady merits comment even in unexceptional times, but when his comments position him as more liberal than half of the United States’ Supreme Court it really becomes headline news.

The Pope’s comments are adapted from an upcoming book, but the timing of his op-ed in the New York Times, just a day after an opinion striking down NY state restrictions on religious gatherings, makes his words seem like a direct response to an increasingly conservative court. In short, Francis doesn’t see restrictions on gathering for worship as being antithetical to personal freedom; these restrictions are part of a coordinated response to a public health crisis. Somehow, the common good was co-opted for political partisanship and became a “prism” through which things are viewed.

Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.

Pope Francis, NYT op-ed

This struggle between individual benefit and common good has, of course, been a guiding conflict for the development of all human governments. In particular, the American proclivity towards individual freedom has lead to our country realizing the worst of the pandemic’s horrors as cases and deaths continue to mount.

In particular, the Pope expresses his understanding through a story of his illness when he was younger: having a piece of his lung removed, being hospitalized, gave him the empathy to understand how important it is to control the spread of this virus and think with the common good in mind. It is a common sentiment: something traumatizing happens to you personally, and so you develop an empathy towards helping people avoid that situation.

Humans are at their best, though, when we recognize suffering and extend empathy even without having ever experienced something similar. Indeed, if we’re ever to reach the next level of human understanding or peace in our countries and governments, we’ll need to find a way to respect and empathize with people whose experience we could never understand. That’s the real trick to providing for the common good.

And it is what Jesus taught! That’s the most remarkable thing; that contemporary Christians (or at least the conservative, right/Republican ones) seem to have forgotten that the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, to empathize with your common humans as if they were you personally. The fact that the Pope supports this worldview is hardly surprising. But that the religious-leaning conservatives of the court (and the country) would dispute this, that’s the surprise.

Is the Pope a Communist now?

The release of a papal encyclical may get lost in the news deluge of 2020, but Pope Francis’ latest is clearly a referendum on global politics, a message to an America embroiled in a hightened election process, and a shocking repudiation of conservative thinking.

Just the lede of this AP summary alone is pretty remarkable:

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis says the coronavirus pandemic has proven that the “magic theories” of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war at all costs.

Associated Press

That’s the language of a revolution, not of the figurehead of a traditionally conservative institution. This language is fully revolutionary:

“Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality,”

trans. Crux

The critique of global capitalism is clear. In its place, he promotes “fraternity.” It is a poor translation of an idea he’s borrowing from his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, which is also the title of the encyclical. Besides the flawed nature of the term being gendered, in American English it conjures up images of rowdy college parties more than unity and friendship.

Francis seems pretty clear that the United Nations provides a model for global fraternity, and between this and his excoriation of capitalism it seems like we would do better to translate “fraternity” with a term that more appropriately focuses on his communal and social inclinations.

I mean, he even goes so far as to deny private property as a right:

Francis rejected the concept of an absolute right to property for individuals, stressing instead the “social purpose” and common good that must come from sharing the Earth’s resources. He repeated his criticism of the “perverse” global economic system, which he said consistently keeps the poor on the margins while enriching the few.

Associated Press

This is remarkable insight from the Pope, and a further evolution and radicalization of the Chair even from previous statements we’ve heard. Although it is at odds with, for instance, conservative evangelical Christian teaching, it is absolutely defensible by almost any interpretation of the Bible. This attention to community and friendship was a cornerstone of Jesus’ teachings and continues to define the Vatican’s statements in this papacy.

How are we to view this in light of the American presidential election? Which candidate more closely embodies the principles outlined by the Pope? Clearly, one candidate prefers expanded social programs and reducing wage inequality, while the other believes in laissez-faire capitalism and the (erroneous) trickle-down effect of tax cuts. Yet neither candidate actually would agree with Francis’ call to replace the system en masse. Both candidates are capitalists who are attempting to refine or reform the existing system; both are “denying reality” according to the Pope’s worldview, where the systems need to be changed entirely. In this election, remarkably, both candidates are way more conservative than the Pope!