Vaccine Good Friday, Resurrection, and a year in the desert

Jesus only had to spend 40 days in the desert and 3 days in the tomb before his resurrection. We’ve been cloistered for more than a year, and even with a dose of the vaccine we spend between 2 weeks and 2 months in the “tomb” of waiting for immunity. I received the first dose of the vaccine on Good Friday, and it feels like I’m waiting for Easter.

We’re all waiting. We spent a long winter in the desert, seeing deaths and illnesses mount, watching loved ones struggle from afar. Now we’re in the tomb; we’re not free yet, and we don’t know if we will be. But the promise of resurrection is on the horizon, and in three short days we’ll rise anew.

What is life like after being resurrected from the dead? Jesus floated around for some dramatic appearances before zapping into space. For most of us, although we’ll return to a life that may look similar to pre-pandemic times, we’re now forever transfigured by our experience.

A year in the desert is transformational. For many like me, our lives and careers stopped. We turned to long-distance friends and solitary entertainment. Some were able to slowly return to a sense of normalcy, although I do not envy them. Given the time to pursue whatever I’d like, I was forced to question what my purpose truly is. Stuck in the desert of meaninglessness, what do we choose to pursue?

I’ve found that external affirmation is hugely important psychologically. It is the primary thing I’ve been missing, as the external signifiers of worth and achievement have been stripped away. I’ve also realized that, although it feels good, doing things for the praise and respect of others is fundamentally a hollow pursuit! Staking one’s own meaning on the opinion of others is at best empty and at worst self-destructive.

The desert reminds us how small we are, how vast the sandy expanse of life is, how little the wind or sun cares for our very existence. The tomb reminds us that darkness and nothingness are pervasive and eternal. Resurrection teaches us that we can find joy in existence despite these things. Resurrection doesn’t provide us with meaning to live, but it does afford us the opportunity to enjoy the search for meaning, or, at the very least, enjoy the lack of meaning.

I’m feeling optimistic this Holy Week. It usually has that effect on me, but even without being in church in person I’m still buoyed by hope. Happy Easter.

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.

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.

Existentialism and inaction

I was reminded of this Peter Watson piece from an old Time Magazine about atheism and existentialism. One of his conclusions after studying existentialist writers is:

 “If there is no afterlife, which they accept cannot be, we must attempt to make our lives on Earth as intense as possible: this is the only meaning we can have.”

Certainly when we stop relying on a spiritual reward in heaven there’s a lot more incentive to carpe the diem in real life. Lots of existentialists are very inspiring in this regard, and they have to be. That much freedom, with so little direction or predesigned structure, can be very frightening!

The current pandemic shutdown has really thrown things into sharp relief. When you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but ponder your existence, what is really the point of your life? A lot of people spend most of their energy in professional pursuits, either for the sake of the job itself or for the money they make. But many of us are rendered useless professionally, lots of people have lost jobs and even those that can work from home are naturally questioning the worth of their contribution. Maybe we get to spend time with our families, and lots of people place their home life as their primary motivation. But that’s hard to cultivate too, not just because you’re trapped with your household but because you can’t help them develop: if you have kids, you can’t watch them make their way in the world, if you have a romantic partner you can’t go on dates, if you take care of parents you can’t get them out and about with friends. Of course lots of people prize their relationships with friends highly, but those friendships will be distant for the time being. You can stay home and make things, but depending on what you’re creating it may not make its way into the world anytime soon. And all this is constantly overshadowed by the spectre of death and illness.

Perhaps that’s why quarantine has me feeling a little lethargic lately. It is kinda draining to think so seriously about existence. That’s probably why people hate philosophy.