Will the Unvaccinated Be Saved?

George Orwell once said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His point has been proven for him a hundred times over, not least in the past few weeks, as Dr. Joseph Meaney shows his July 30 article “The Rhetoric of ‘Vaccine Hesitancy”. Dr. Meaney, who serves as president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), explains how the ideologically charged language already being used against ordinary people who haven’t accepted a COVID-19 vaccine. Such language serves as a means to corrupt public feeling towards these persons, with a view to segregating and dehumanizing them.

By now we’ve all heard the phrases “vaccine hesitancy” and “vaccine hesitant” a hundred times. The notion of hesitancy, Meaney says, indicates that the unvaccinated are undecided as to their course of action, and are “in need of persuasion or even coercion from authorities who know better.” It implies that people who haven’t taken a vaccine haven’t thought the issue through and made a personal decision in light of all known factors. Instead it portrays them as “trapped by irrational fears” in a state of inaction or ignorantly opposed to science. It’s strongly suggested that such backward and weak-minded persons are worthy of contempt, especially compared with the enlightened, confident people who signed up for the vaccine immediately.

Now, suppose you disagreed strongly with Dr. Meaney’s piece. Would you go out of your way to make his case for him—o demonstrate that such emotionally charged language actually is intended to stoke popular feeling against people who aren’t vaccinated?

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That, oddly, appears to be the course favored by National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winter in a blog post last week. “You know? Maybe Meaney is correct,” Mr. Winter writes. “Let’s start replacing ‘vaccine hesitancy” with ‘vaccine stupidity’ or ‘vaccine selfishness’.”

Hmmm. What other class of people is it OK to call “stupid” and “selfish” in a national newspaper column? Addicts? No, they are to be pitied, not judged. Suicides? Certainly not. Criminals? Again, not as a blanket group. Many, no doubt, are victims of circumstance driven to crime for social reasons beyond their control.

No: people who have not taken the COVID vaccine stand alone as Public Enemies. No one is asked to walk a mile in their shoes. No one is asked to empathize with them. Suggestions that they should be treated respectfully, like rational human beings are met with outrage—despite the fact that a little compassion might even help resolve some of their concerns about the vaccine, as Michael Brendan Dougherty recently wrote in a recent column for National Review.  No: we needn’t feel any shame at calling these fellow humans stupid and selfish.

Indeed, Winters agrees that the rhetoric used with regard to the unvaccinated is ideologically charged, intended (though he doesn’t say this in so many words) to segregate and dehumanize. What’s more, if another shutdown takes place, Winters says the unvaccinated will be to blame—not those who unleashed this virus on the world, nor those who failed to prepare their national health systems for emergencies, nor those who insist on pursuing impossible zero-COVID policies at the expense of every other social concern. That’s despite the fact that vaccinated people all over the world are still catching and spreading the disease, while those who contract and recover from COVID develop a robust immunity.

Where Mr. Winters and Dr. Meaney disagree is on the best climate for decision-making. The NCBC position is that “the best ethical decisions are made ‘in the moment’ based on a good understanding of the facts, when people are not subjected to pressure, or in the grip of powerful emotions.” It would appear Mr. Winters believes—together with many others in media and government—that applying high levels of pressure and emotional stress is the best way to help people make potentially life-changing decisions.

But what Mr. Winters is most annoyed about is Dr. Meaney’s statement that some might refuse the vaccines because of their link to abortion. Winters says that no Catholic can justify such a position, because both the Vatican and the Pope have stated that Catholics can take the vaccines in good conscience. Furthermore, the Pope said in an interview that he believes everyone must take the vaccine, that it is “the moral choice.”

Greater minds than mine disagree as to whether Rome’s deliberations on this matter demonstrate the theological rigors such an important issue deserves. In any case, the Pope’s casual comments in an interview can scarcely be invoked as imposing a universal obligation to be vaccinated under pain of sin.

“In doubt, liberty,” as the saying goes. Each individual has the responsibility to form his conscience and act accordingly. And the requirements of conscience apply not just to ethical concerns about the provenance of the vaccines, but also to the decision to accept for oneself or to direct those under one’s care to accept a new kind of medical intervention entailing a certain amount of risk and potential, as-of-yet unknown side effects.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, there’s a bit where the well-meaning Duke of Norfolk pleads with his friend Sir Thomas More to take the Oath of Supremacy, pointing out all the names of the great and good who have taken the Oath. “Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” he implores.

Sir Thomas is moved, but his rejoinder is unanswerable: “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

This is not to say that anyone is likely to face damnation for making the wrong decision about whether to be vaccinated or not. The issue is far from clear-cut, and there’s a great deal that we simply don’t know at this point. Rather, it’s to illustrate to people like Michael Sean Winters that individual responsibility is just that: individual.

So far, people are still free to consent to the vaccine or to refuse it. In fact, you actually have to sign a consent form. This means the individual must make his own decision, hopefully not in a frenzy of fear, but in an informed and thoughtful way. Pointing this out, as the NCBC has, is not libertarian, un-Catholic or anti-science. It’s simply a fact.

Nor has COVID created a new and unprecedented situation in which each person’s choices suddenly affect everyone. Individual choices, from the major to the mundane—who to marry, what job to take, what diet to choose, what medical treatment to pursue, which way to take to work—have always affected everyone, directly or indirectly. Having to live with the consequences of other people’s actions is both humanity’s agony and its ecstasy.

Unleashing a panicky witch hunt on the unvaccinated wouldn’t just be cruel and illogical. It would, and already has, set child against parent, brother against sister, neighbor against neighbor, worker against worker. It is an act of violence against the fabric of society—a greater evil, it seems to me, than the shared suffering of disease.

This is what Dr. Meaney is rightly calling out. The bishops are right to look to the NCBC for ethical guidance, and one hopes they will continue to do so. Its calm and rational stance is exactly what’s needed right now.


  • Jane Stannus

    Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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