COVID-19: Wrath or Chance

S2 E2: Vaccine and Mandates: A Theological Perspective

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   COVID-19 Vaccines have been a topic of debate among many. And I will start with the disclaimer that what I know about science is very very little. The last science class I took was more than seven years ago. So I am not talking about science today which you probably guessed from the title of the episode. There are two aspects of it that I hope to shed some light on today: first, the use of fetal tissues in testing it and second, the mandating of the vaccines. And as always, these are controversial topics so you can go ahead and disagree with me if you don’t like my evaluation of these aspects of the vaccines. I am merely sharing with you an alternative way of thinking which you can totally discard if you wish to do so.

Use of Fetal Tissues in Manufacturing the Vaccine 

           So let us begin with the question of use of fetal tissues for testing the vaccine. The argument of those opposed to the vaccine because of being tested on fetal tissues which are harvested from aborted fetuses. It follows then that because the Church condemns abortion because she upholds the intrinsic value of human life from conception, that the Church would equally be opposed to the use of the consequences of the sin of abortion. The issue with this line of thinking is both theological as it is practical.

To begin with the theological perspective, let us go ahead and clear up the fact that the fathers condemned abortion in unapologetic terms. The only exception is if the mother’s life is in direct danger, that is if the abortion does not happen, she is at a risk of imminent death. It is not one of those things that are really that open for interpretation.

Another important note is that we have nothing from the fathers that speaks to organ donation. But we know that we are called to give up our lives for those whom we love as this is the greatest form of love. Therefore, if we follow in the footsteps of our Lord who gave up His body on the Cross for the life of the world, it would make sense for us to give up our bodies for many and if that is not feasible then at least we can give directives so that our body may be used to save other lives after we no longer use this body. As such, you would probably fail to find a single Eastern Christian theologian objecting to organ donation. That being said, many times those whose organs are harvested for donation are the victims of murderous accidents. Sometimes, such accidents are the result of a drunk driver killing someone whose organs are used. Yet we find no one in good conscience saying that the Church agreeing to have organs donated is effectively the Church accepting or encouraging the reckless behaviour of drunk drivers. This would be utterly ridiculous. So how come we are making the argument that the Church accepting the use of a vaccine that happened to use fetal cells for testing or manufacturing is in fact the Church accepting the sin of abortion.

            Some would argue the reason for their objection to use such vaccine is that while I have the capacity to donate my organ, this fetus had no capacity to accept or reject the abortion let alone the donation of their cells. While this objection is reasonable, it is quite ironic given the fact those bringing forth this objection are the very same Christians who see no problem baptizing their infants and communing them on account of their parents’ faith. Now of course, there is no comparison between the blessing of baptism and the sin of abortion but the point I am making here is that there is room for us to understand the involvement of parents in their children’s lives even if we do not exactly approve of their action. I am certain there are parents out there who look at Jewish parents as abusive for circumcising their children or Christian parents as abusive for indoctrinating their children with Christian values, forcing them to be baptized and sometimes commune them. But at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parents or guardians whether we like it or not. This is simply how life works.

            And because life is not always providing us the most optimal of situations, I would like to invite you to listen to the previous episode where I talk about how God makes the most wicked of situations an opportunity for something positive to come forth. It was wicked of Herod to murder the children of Bethlehem but in a way they were sacrificed that Christ may be protected and the Church today celebrates them as martyrs despite them not having the capacity to consent to protect or be scapegoats for Christ to be spared the death sentence of Herod. We celebrate the death of many martyrs not that we accept the sin of murder but that we celebrate their sacrifices for Christ.

Once again, ought we not to walk in the footsteps of God and the Church and make the most out of the situation we find ourselves in for the greater good. The fact is aborted fetuses cannot go back in time and have a chance at life. So could we not at least use their cells to protect more lives from being lost? I will conclude the theological aspect of the abortion issue with the vaccine by a summary provided by a committee from the Catholic Church that had to deal with this question back when the Rubella and Measles vaccine was being manufactured. Before I share with you their summary, I want to point out two things: first, the Orthodox Church is far more open to discussion on bioethical issues than the Catholic Church is which tends to take a more conservative approach that barely allows for a discussion of eikonomia or a concession made for the greater good. The second thing I want to point is that the original summary had Latin phrases here and there so I simplified the language and omitted the Latin but will leave you with a link in the description of the document so you could read the full line of reasoning. So here is the summary:

“1. There is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems; 2. as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women; 3. the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extreme measure due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women); 4. such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”

Now aside from these theological reasons that might or might not convince you, I want you to realize how unpractical this line of thinking is. You have already taken measles vaccine among other vaccines that use fetal tissues such as hepatitis A and varicella. You probably have taken more than a few Tylenols in your lifetime. I would like to break it to you, all of these use fetal tissues for testing and manufacturing purposes. I hope that hearing this makes you reconsider your position on the vaccines testing and manufacturing process.

If it does not, remember the words of Christ on the Sabbath, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3: 4). By the way, this concept continues to be upheld by the Jews under the name of Pukash nefesh which is the permission to break the law for the sake of preservation of life because life is more important than the law. Now if we, as Christians, believe that Christ is our Passover and the fulfiller of the law, we are obliged to live the spirit of the law everyday not just on the Sabbath. And the spirit of the law is to have life and have it more abundantly and sometimes this entails a sad but necessary prioritization. The life of the fetus has been sadly already lost so let us harvest whatever life may come from it for the sake of the greater good.

 Mandating the Vaccine

           Before I get into the mandating of the vaccine in many places in the world, let me state that I am doubly vaccinated against COVID-19. My immunization records are complete, and I am by no means an anti-vaxxer. So here are my biases from the get go. Despite that, I must say that as an Orthodox Christian and as an instructor of Church history in Orthodox seminaries, I am compelled to say this does not sit well with me. Those who know anything about Eastern Christian history in general or Orthodox history in particular should probably have red alerts going on in the back of their minds.

There was no time when there was a loss of freedom and enforcement of mandates of any sort where the Church prospered to the extent that it could. Whenever freedom is lost, our capacity to choose is diminished. And when our capacity for choice is diminished, we can easily be manipulated to choose as per the wishes of those controlling us. But you and I are on the image of God and that comes with a God-given right and capacity to choose; and a right given by God ought not to be taken away by human beings. I would love it if we are all vaccinated unless we have a reason not to and put this pandemic behind us but I would not love for it to be forced on anyone against their freedom of conscience. I wounder how much we have learned from history seeing that many of us are totally okay with our freedom of choice being stripped from us before our own eyes.

Some will wonder: Will people choose evil occasionally if given freedom? Yes. But will anyone be truly good if they are only doing the good because they are forced to do so with no freedom to choose? The sad answer is probably not. I know there will be many arguments against what I am suggesting here and I know some of them will be incredibly intelligent but I cannot help but be worried about the state of affairs and the willingness of many to waive their right to choose the moment the government appears. I am not saying do not trust the government or health care workers. I am saying do not blindly trust anyone who is trying to force you to do anything even if it is for your own good. If you choose to do the good, let your God, faith, your love for neighbour, and conscience be the guide of your choice and nothing else.

I will conclude this by two quotes by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn who lived through camps of communist Russia. The context of the first quote is him sarcastically speaking about the pseudo-freedom of North American society. He says,

“Freedom! To fill people’s mailboxes, eyes, ears and brains with commercial rubbish against their will, television programs that are impossible to watch with a sense of coherence. Freedom! To force information on people, taking no account of their right not to accept it or their right of peace of mind. Freedom! To spit in the eyes and souls of passersby with advertisements.”

–Aleksander I. Solzhenitsyn

The second quote needs no explanation as he simply asks,

“Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”

–Aleksander I. Solzhenitsyn

Brothers and sisters, may we live in the freedom Christ granted us… the freedom to search for the truth, discern what is right, love our neighbour, and give ourselves up for the life of the world as our Saviour did.

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