“Pillar-ying” Bishop Strickland

Now that the growing tyranny of our government and the media have developed a “cancel culture,” the title of a recent article from The Pillar criticizing Bishop Joseph Strickland for his views on the COVID-19 vaccines is remarkably tone deaf: “Will the Vatican address vaccine confusion, and the bishop at its center?” The Pillar—a new Catholic media outlet founded by former Catholic News Agency journalists JD Flynn (the author of this piece) and Ed Condon—is calling on the Holy Father basically to “cancel” a bishop. But not a bishop engaged in sexual or financial misconduct, or a bishop espousing heresy, but a bishop willing to take an unpopular stand against vaccines—vaccines that are problematic for several reasons. 

It is hard to read this article without concluding that Flynn has some kind of odd vendetta against Strickland. He begins by resurrecting an old charge against Strickland for supposedly misunderstanding what the U.S. bishops were voting on in respect to the language regarding abortion and the election as a “preeminent priority.” I have reread Flynn’s article on this charge several times and find it confusing. Strickland may have been confused during a confusing exchange on the floor of a USCCB meeting, but Flynn had a lot of time to get it right; I have no idea what happened as Flynn reports the situation. 

What is important is that Strickland stood up to make an important point about abortion and voting—one it seems the bishops really don’t get, given their failure to denounce Joe Biden during the campaign for his extreme advocacy for the availability of abortion. Strickland was one of the few to denounce Biden’s stance on abortion before the election. Why return to this nit-picking criticism of him as though it reveals something disturbing about him? Is there some kind of peculiar glory in going after one of the better bishops?

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Perhaps Flynn’s most serious distortion is his attribution of undue authority to the Vatican’s guidance on the morality of the vaccines. He states: “The Church has offered guidance on the morality of vaccines for more than a decade,” as though that shows that the Vatican has a settled view on this issue and it is wrong to question it. But 12 years in Church “time” is a blink of an eye; in fact, rather than supporting the view that the Vatican position demands obedience, it indicates that a teaching is anything but authoritative.

Moral theologians have found confusing the section of Dignitas Personae (2008) that speaks to the morality of vaccines (the document is also confusing on the matter of embryo adoption.) That’s to be expected; these are new issues and we have lots to learn before we have definitive answers. In fact, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued guidance on the use of vaccines from tissue of aborted babies “way back” in 2005. It, too, is confusing.

It is a welcome element of Flynn’s article that he speaks of Vatican “guidance” rather than “teaching.” What the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued recently (2020) on the use of COVID-19 vaccines is definitely—and let me say only—“guidance” that Catholics are very free to follow or reject. The Church does not teach about the morality of the use of any particular vaccine because the Church does not teach about particular moral judgments. For instance, the Catechism teaches that employers must pay a just wage but cannot teach what any given employer must pay or even what the minimum wage must be in any culture. 

The CDF document makes the uncontroversial claim that no formal cooperation with evil is involved with the use of the vaccines, but that settles almost nothing. Indeed, I have questioned whether the categories of cooperation with evil are applicable for assessing the use of the vaccines: one can only cooperate with an evil before it is done or while it is being done but not after it is done (see my article on the vaccines).

That the categories of cooperation with evil don’t apply doesn’t invalidate the conclusion of the CDF that it is moral to use the vaccines; I think that conclusion can be drawn by analyzing the use of the vaccine in terms of benefitting from ill-gotten gains. Still, even using a more applicable principle doesn’t solve the question. There are other concerns that come into play, such as scandal or complicity with evil enterprises. But most importantly, the teaching office of the Church simply doesn’t extend to particular matters since, for instance, it has no expertise on the safety of the vaccines.

The Church can and should give “guidance” about such matters, but what is important to note is that there is no guarantee that curial offices will use the right categories or apply them properly or that they will properly assess all the factual matters surrounding any particular situation.

Note that I don’t disagree with the conclusion of the CDF that COVID-19 vaccines can be used for suitably serious reasons, but I want people to understand that it is not the task of the Church to decide what those suitably serious reasons are or when they exist. Those are prudential decisions to be made by individual moral agents—not by any curial office. The Church can only give “guidance.” 

Flynn, however, treats the “guidance” as something Catholics, and especially Strickland, must accept. Again, it is hard not to think Flynn has some kind of vendetta against Strickland when he acknowledges that Strickland has stated his acceptance of the CDF statement but keeps hammering Strickland for repeated statements that he (Strickland) refuses to get the vaccine because he wants to make a strong statement against abortion. His accusation against Strickland is, at the very least, suspect: “But Strickland’s tweets have seemed to frame the Vatican’s view as overly complicated and insufficiently pro-life, and to suggest that some of the options identified as licit by the Vatican are actually morally unacceptable.” Notice the words “seemed” and “suggest.” This appears to be a trumped up charge designed to back Strickland into a corner and separate him from the Church.

It gets worse: Flynn smears Strickland by stating “Strickland is at the center of a contingent of online Catholic personalities and anti-vaccine media outlets, advancing arguments against vaccines that contradict those of the Holy See. Some of those personalities have explicitly rejected the authority of the Church to teach on the subject.” What does it mean to say that Strickland is “at the center” of some contingent; whatever this contingent is, their view is not his; his is not theirs. This is an accusation of guilt by association. It is an association created by Flynn, and it is unworthy of a man of his abilities.

Flynn escalates his charges against Strickland: “While both CDF officials and U.S. bishops seem to be aware of growing dissent from their guidance on the issue of vaccines, none have yet offered directly a comment, correction, or concern about Strickland’s voice on the subject. Absent correction, the Church is faced with dueling magisteria on vaccines: one coming from Rome, and one from Tyler, Texas” (emphasis added). This is absurd. Saying that one will not receive a vaccine is not “dissent,” for how can one “dissent” from “guidance?” The word “dissent” has no intelligible meaning here, especially since Strickland has said he accepts the teaching that for serious reasons people can take the vaccines. And “dueling magisteria?” Flynn is trying to create a tension where none truly exists.

If this is what The Pillar believes is a worthy topic for treatment, and if this is how it is going to treat topics, I can’t say I welcome its voice. There is real dissent in the Church against dogma, doctrine, and authoritative teaching, and, sadly, seemingly intractable corruption. Go after that, please. And leave the powerful, heart-felt voice of Strickland against the connection of the vaccines with abortion alone.

[Photo Credit: Diocese of Tyler, Texas]


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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