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.

Is the cool communist Pope maybe not so cool?

Pope Francis has been a refreshing liberalizing force in global Catholicism and a welcome change from Benedict’s regressive ideology. This Pope is a certifiable communist and seems more concerned with the actual lives of humans in the world than the minutia of canon, which is a big change over most Popes in history. So why is the Vatican again condemning gay-marriage?

By Deisenbe, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76694488

It is especially baffling that the church continues to pursue this condemnation of same-sex marriage in light of the overwhelming support for it. Vast majorities in the US and Western Europe support gay-marriage and have for a decade, and even South American countries are beginning to show majority support in polling. So just who is the Vatican appealing to by issuing these sort of statements? The articles on the decree interestingly point out that it isn’t clear who “asked the question” in the first place.

The stock answer would be that this is to shore up support in South America, but polling about homosexual acceptance in most South American countries shows the trend working against the Vatican on this topic. Perhaps it is meant as a play to appeal to African congregations, but Catholicism in Africa isn’t exactly thriving these days. At the very least, why not simply stay silent on the issue, so as not to alienate the growing numbers of people who believe in equal rights for all people?

The Lives of the Saints: making up miracles

“Sainthood” is decidedly medieval as a concept, and yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to canonize more saints than ever before. Beginning with unprecedented numbers of saints elevated during the reign of John Paul 2, and in part because of a sweeping rule change that allowed greater numbers than ever before, the church is claiming incredible numbers of new saints each year. In the case of the quickly canonized John Paul 2, there is some criticism of sainthood, and the very criteria for canonization, namely miracles, is already so bonkers that it raises the question: what does it mean to be a modern day saint?

The first steps to sainthood make enough sense: the person is a “servant of God,” a qualifier that is vague but intuitive. They further must have led a life of “heroic virtue.” This sets up the entire process to be one of subjective public opinion, since these adjectives don’t describe quantifiable metrics. That’s a good thing: sainthood is like pornography, you know it when you see it.

The last, and weirdest, qualification is two verified miracles. Sometimes it can be waived down to one, and if you died as a martyr for the faith you don’t need any miracles at all to qualify, but a central hurdle of the process is “verifying” miracles. These are normally performed during the saint’s lifetime but frequently verified much later: in the case of Laura Montoya, the first saint canonized by Pope Francis, the verification of her miracles was conducted over 50 years after her death. How could investigators possibly verify miraculous acts decades (or sometimes centuries) later? They conduct interviews, they do research, they ask around, check out physical evidence (if any exists), and then make a determination. Naturally, these determinations largely support the existence of “miracles,” especially once public opinion has moved the status of beautification far enough to warrant the verification process in the first place.

Rarely, the miracles are performed after the saint has died. This was the case with John Paul 2, who cured two people of illnesses after he he died by the intercession of their prayers. These miracles were verified and verifiably attributable, the panel said, to JP2, because the sick people prayed to him in their hour of need and so he became responsible. It was definitely him, they claimed, because the sick people prayed directly to JP2 and no one else.

Of course, there is suspicion surrounding the nature of these miracles. In the case of medical miracles, what appears miraculous in one decade becomes commonplace in the next. In the case of John Paul 2, the nun’s Parkinson’s seems to have relapsed several years after the saint’s canonization. Was it a miracle if it didn’t “stick?” Was it even Parkinson’s at all, or maybe some different undiagnosed condition? Or maybe the illness was inevitable, and the ghost of JP2 miraculously delayed it?

The process has the aura of scientific rigor: they make sure only one saint was addressed so there’s no confusion over who gets credit, they make sure medical miracle recoveries were from terminal prognoses only, they make sure the miracle is “sudden” and “unexplained.” But ultimately these situations are simply ones where something unexpected happens, and those situations happen in everyone’s life if you look hard enough. Usually, retrospect proves they weren’t so unexplained at all.

Hiding behind this veneer of science is bad for the church; every time science catches up with the miracles, the church can’t help but lose credibility. It is also bad for science; trying to give verifiable scientific explanations for things that are obviously unexplained happenstance muddies what the scientific method actually stands for.

Ultimately, the church doesn’t need to verify saints in this way at all. Of course there must be a measured way to elevate certain people to such a celebrated status, but this shouldn’t rely on sneaky investigators making arbitrary decisions. The example of their servitude and their heroic virtue should be enough, especially viewed through the lens of some time and retrospect.

When the sainted are not so saintly

We’ve been having a cultural conversation lately about what it means to support an artist’s work even if we condemn the actions of the artist. Is it possible, for instance, to like Woody Allen films, knowing what we know about his personal life? What about movies which Harvey Weinstein produced?

Last autumn’s revelations that Saint John Paul II may have been more complicit in the sex-abuse scandal than previously known casts an unfortunate pale over not only his papacy but his sainthood. How is it possible for a saint to have erred so egregiously? It raises questions about the hurried process of canonization, but even worse it tarnishes a beloved figure of the recent church.

With a living figure, there is an important element of accountability involved in rejecting their work; by ending our support for their art, we end our support for them in a very real way. But for someone who is already gone, their fate is sealed. We can, of course, diminish the honor of their legacy, and perhaps that is reason enough to demote JP2 from sainted status. We’ll always be left to wonder if there were other problems, or if his entire history should be viewed through the lens of someone willing to sweep aside a systemic atrocity, but his fate has ultimately already been decided; the balance sheet of the departed person is already closed.

The exercise of the 20th century was one in shades of gray: gone are the heroes and villains of our fairy tales. Even a saint, it seems, exists in a moral penumbra. So what does it even mean, if not total moral righteousness, to be a saint?

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.