Faith amid the Pandemic

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An elderly woman receives an injection with a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Vallecas nursing home in Madrid on 27 December 2020. Photo: CNS, Comunidad de Madrid handout via Reuters

Australia is lagging behind many other countries with comparable populations in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. While government ineptitude is at least partly to blame, community anxiety about the vaccine is clearly a factor as well, including among some Australians of faith. The Church has a role to play in responding to this unease with faith and reason.

Much ink has been spilt on the ethics and efficacy of vaccines and public health policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Needless to say, it is a virus that pays no heed to such popular debate and conjecture as it continues its unrelenting march through our social and common life as we know it and, dauntingly, may continue to do so for some time to come.

Here in the city of Sydney we are about to enter our third month of continuous lockdown, with the situation more severe in our part of the world than at any other time since the pandemic first broke 18 months ago.

Combating the misinformation

While our infection and death rates in Australia are miniscule compared to those in other parts of the world, the relative increase in local cases of the Delta strain and the extended lockdowns in our cities, suburbs and potentially regional areas of the country have begun to expose significant social tensions, from which Catholics in Australia are not immune.

This expressed itself most recently in violent ‘anti-lockdown’ protests on the streets of Sydney late last month and again this past weekend, as well as in the barrage of dissent, outrage and misinformation that continues to spread online.

The roots of vaccine hesitancy can include scepticism about the benevolence of government.

This is intensified by suspicions of their incompetence, and has been perpetuated by some celebrity medical professionals in Australia (oddly enough, some of them pediatricians) whose social media presence can outstrip their qualification on the matter.

This milieu is supercharged by online commentary and the claims of the conspiracy theorists, a phenomenon that predates the pandemic and speaks to alienation and estrangement from the life of institutions – governments without doubt but also, and interestingly, a minority of Catholics from the pro-vaccine stance of their own Church.

“One of the ‘issues-under-the-issues’ that can fuel the particular Catholic brand of hesitancy on vaccines is the desire to uphold and protect the sovereignty of God.”

Also influencing vaccine hesitancy in Australia are views transplanted from the global north, most especially the U.S. While our own civic culture in Australia is generally law abiding – ironic for a former penal colony – the influence of political debate in the U.S. and the subjective rights culture that dominates the American imagination is unmistakable.

As such, many of the anti-vaccine arguments circulating in our part of the world are not original but plagiarised from other sources.

As Gray Connolly, a Sydney-based barrister and writer, points out, from the beginning days of British settlement, Americans saw the Crown and State as a tyranny to be thrown off by way of rebellion.

In contrast, in our Australian experience the Crown and State were viewed from the earliest days of settlement as the ‘builders’ of our social infrastructure.

So today, notwithstanding critique of the timing and severity of our most recent lockdowns, there remains wide and general trust among Australians in the functional parts of our federal and State governments and an expectation that its various bureaucracies and agencies will keep us safe at home, regardless of the political noise from the top.

An anti-vaxxer protest on Bourke Street, Melbourne. Photo: Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
An anti-vaxxer protest on Bourke Street, Melbourne. Photo: Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Putting faith in vaccines

All the more noteworthy, then, were the placards seen at recent street protests against the latest COVID-19 lockdown in Sydney, with more than a few Catholic participants among their number.

These protests carried not only an anti-government flavour but were infused with religious profession: “The Blood of Christ is my vaccine!”, “No vaccine but Jesus”, “It doesn’t end with vaccines – Revelation 13:16:17” and “I believe in Jesus not the vaccine”.

Hence, while Christians in Australia are subject to the same conspiratorial theories, musings of celebrity medicos, and media generated anxieties of other Australians, there are particular issues that colour the scepticism we find among our own faithful.

One of the ‘issues-under-the-issues’ that can fuel the particular Catholic brand of hesitancy on vaccines is the desire to uphold and protect the sovereignty of God.

The truth is that we are not masters of our universe and we should not overestimate our ability to secure life or its flourishing by our own effort or technology alone.

However, this does not mean that vaccines need be treated as a test of faith, that to stand against vaccines is somehow proof of our ultimate trust in, or absolute respect for, the power of God.

Underlying this false equivalence can be a worldview or piety that treats history and Catholic faith as utterly separate, or in technical terms, that conceives of the ‘order of nature’ and the ‘order of grace’ as unrelated or altogether isolated spheres.

This viewpoint tends to treat the ‘supernatural’ as something completely extraneous to human life, and human nature and innovation (read vaccines) as its own affair with an entirely separate, natural end.

“It is an irony of ironies that in the effort to preserve the sovereignty and power of God from any ‘contamination’ or protect the Church from the influence of history and society, the Catholic activist can unknowingly ‘isolate’ God and the divine from social life.”

It is this kind of ‘extrinsicist’ thinking in Catholic circles that has contributed to the rise of secularisation over centuries, that has, in fact, legitimised a social life and cultural situation cut off from God.

It is clear in the current vaccination hesitancy among some Catholics in Australia that this age-old dualism or ‘separated theology’ still infects the contemporary imagination.

It is an irony of ironies that in the effort to preserve the sovereignty and power of God from any ‘contamination’ or protect the Church from the influence of history and society, the Catholic activist can unknowingly ‘isolate’ God and the divine from social life and leave the field open to the invasion of the very secularism that they would want to guard against.

The sacramental principle at the heart of Catholic life and tradition offers another and better way, taking its basis from the Incarnation, from Christ himself who comes to us as ‘the sensible bond between two worlds’.

It is Jesus, the man who is God, who unites history and faith, time and eternity, the human and the divine, and nature and grace into personal synthesis.

In its carefully-developed christology, our Catholic tradition understands that the authentic reign of the divine is never established on the depreciation of the human.

As the ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac maintained in concert with tradition, ‘the greater the capacity of the vase, the more it cries out for fullness’. In short, one can seek vaccination and still believe in and depend entirely upon Jesus Christ.

A man receives a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at the Belgrade Fair in Belgrade, Serbia, April 13, 2021. PHOTO: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters

What’s driving the slow uptake?

In our local context, there has been a worryingly slow take up of vaccines, a result of media hysteria regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine and the rare risk of blood clots, as well as what could be described as a typically Antipodean complacency, a “we’ll be right” attitude for which the coronavirus has shown little patience or respect.

Clearly, there is more work to be done to encourage Australians to work together toward a higher rate of vaccination across the country.

The Church has a role in this public good, in the form of catechesis and formation of its own, including our clergy, lay leaders, and communities, to work against the isolation of their thought and practice from engagement and contribution to the concrete concerns and questions of human flourishing and culture.

Our pastoral leaders have a particular duty to set a good example and even promote vaccination not only as morally acceptable but morally warranted.

“… narrow thinking also neglects the responsibility that people of faith have toward the common good and the Catholic understanding of objective rights that we find in tradition.”

The fact is that the theological extrinsicism evident in commentary on vaccines by some Catholic figures undermines the confidence of Catholics in these services as well as the credibility of the Church in the public square.

This narrow thinking also neglects the responsibility that people of faith have toward the common good and the Catholic understanding of objective rights that we find in tradition, particularly in St Thomas Aquinas who locates rights not in monadic individuals but rather defines them as intrinsically social in nature.

Rights are a way by which we relate to others, are a kind of relation, and Catholics should be encouraged to engage the issues surrounding vaccines and lockdown with that understanding.

Despite the assurances of the magisterium, that receiving these vaccines would normally involve no formal cooperation in the evils of abortion or the exploitation of foetuses, there are still Catholics in Australia who are muddled on the matter. Photo: CNS, Alan Trounson, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via Reuters
Despite the assurances of the magisterium, that receiving these vaccines would normally involve no formal cooperation in the evils of abortion or the exploitation of foetuses, there are still Catholics in Australia who are muddled on the matter. Photo: CNS, Alan Trounson, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via Reuters

A pivotal moment for Australian Catholics

As someone who works in the area of Catholic evangelisation, this persistent tendency among many believers to separate history and faith, the world and the Church, and human and divine – out of a fear of ‘naturalising’ grace – is, I think, a critical issue of formation that ought to be considered as our Church prepares for a Plenary Council, the fifth such ecclesial gathering in our short history.

An ahistorical faith and non-sacramental outlook that is unable to relate God’s revelation to the concrete concerns of human history undermines any impetus for evangelisation in its unconcern for ‘the world’.

It inevitably leaves the Church as a whole, and individual Catholics in particular, poorly equipped to speak into an Australian culture that sorely needs the message of Christ and witnesses to His mission.

“However, it is also true that the believer today bears no moral culpability should they receive a vaccine connected to such cell lines …”

It is a long-held Catholic truism that we cannot participate in the redemption of what we do not acknowledge.

To underscore this need for formation of our own, the enduring confusion we see among some Catholics regarding the permissibility of receiving the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, whose origins are remotely connected to cell lines originally derived from aborted children, is instructive.

Despite the assurances of the magisterium, that receiving these vaccines would normally involve no formal cooperation or impermissible material cooperation in the evils of abortion or the exploitation of foetuses, there are still Catholics in Australia who are muddled on the matter.

A scientist filters out samples during the research and development of a vaccine against COVID-19 June 11, 2020, at a laboratory in St. Petersburg, Russia. Spanish Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera of Valencia made headlines June 5, 2020, when he described as a “work of the devil” attempts to find a COVID-19 vaccine using cell lines created from fetuses aborted voluntarily decades ago. (CNS photo/Anton Vaganov, Reuters)

Addressing the moral questions

The Church’s objection to the use of foetal stem cells is clear and unyielding, and it cannot be otherwise.

Manufacturers of vaccines should continue to be pressed to produce vaccines without their use.

However, it is also true that the believer today bears no moral culpability should they receive a vaccine connected to such cell lines, such as AstraZeneca, though some Catholics will prefer the Pfizer vaccine on the basis that it is the less morally compromised.

In an era of unfiltered social media and ‘fake news’, ecclesial polarisation, and the politicisation of the vaccine rollout, even the statements of the Roman Pontiff, several Vatican dicasteries, episcopal conferences around the world, and our own Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, to this effect have not convinced some of our Catholics that the faith of their own Church permits and encourages measures to protect themselves from the spread of the virus and the wider community of which they are a part.

“Realistically, Catholics in Sydney and in other parts of the nation are staring down the barrel of many more months of COVID-related lockdown, unless vaccination rates improve rapidly.”

As we see government restrictions extended in Australia to slow transmission and to incentivise the resistant or holdouts to vaccination by a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, we will see the immovable ‘anti-vaxxers’, including those within our Church, become increasingly uncomfortable as social policy and workplace regulation are likely to become more stringent and favour the vaccinated.

Realistically, Catholics in Sydney and in other parts of the nation are staring down the barrel of many more months of COVID-related lockdown, unless vaccination rates improve rapidly.

As a part of our response to the pandemic and contribution to the common good, we need to better understand the dynamics of our own ecclesial culture that lead some Catholics to oppose or reject anything that does not originate from its own life, to over-spiritualise a biomedical disease whose risk to self and other can be practically reduced, and to conflate an opposition to the vaccines as a marker of Catholic identity.

Volunteers Caroline and Jacob Badra, volunteers with ‘Food for Friends’, prepare a meal for fellow parishioners in need.
Volunteers Caroline and Jacob Badra, volunteers with ‘Food for Friends’, prepare a meal for fellow parishioners in need.

Uniting faith and reason

An authentic catholicity demands a critical engagement with the events of history.

As ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak observes, ‘To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ’.

If we are to be a community in Christ, witnesses to His redemptive presence in history, then we cannot retreat from the issues of our day into the isolationism of the ‘Catholic Amish’.

We cannot neglect the love of one’s neighbour in the vain pursuit of the love of God.

“There is no solution to the pandemic that does not involve everyone from every section of our community, and indeed every nation and community across the world.”

We have a critical role to play in the ‘next normal’ that this pandemic is bringing about in our country, for our Catholic tradition unites enlightened faith and natural reason, the devotion of our worship and rigour of our intellectual tradition, the call to communion and the integrity of the human person who works toward his or her salvation in this world and not despite or above it.

As our own Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, has observed, ‘there is no solution to the pandemic that does not involve everyone from every section of our community, and indeed every nation and community across the world’.

The Church has its part to play in these challenging days, including forming its own in the Christ who ‘so loved the world’ that he redeemed it from within (John 3:16).