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.

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.

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!