29 December 2021

Lay Catholics Suffer From Church Leaders' Silence on Conscience Rights

'Should Catholics who resist vaccination apologize to their bishops, for failing to follow their advice? Or should the bishops apologize, for failing to protect the conscience rights of their faithful?'

From Catholic Culture

By Phil Lawler

Does Franz Jägerstätter owe an apology to his bishop?

Jägerstätter, as you will recall, sought counsel from his bishop before defying the Nazi regime, refusing to engage in military service, on the grounds that “he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic.” The bishop sought to dissuade him, yet Jägerstätter persisted in his lonely opposition to a brutal ideology—and won for himself the crown of martyrdom.

So then does Bishop Joseph Fliesser owe Blessed Franz Jägerstätter an apology, for failing to support his powerful witness? The bishop could point out that many thousands of loyal Catholics had sworn allegiance to Hitler, without apparently violating their consciences. He could assure the earnest young Austrian layman that the Church was not encouraging resistance against the Nazis. He could argue that Jägerstätter would be sacrificing his life and his family’s future, in a gesture that would have no influence at all on Nazi policies.

Those are powerful arguments. But they were not enough to satisfy Jägerstätter’s conscience. The point, as this heroic lay Catholic explained, was not what others could justify or rationalize or explain away. The point was that his conscience told him that he could not take the oath. He was not compelled by the teachings of the Church to refuse participation in the Nazi war machine; he was compelled by his own soul.

Today many Catholics Americans (myself included) feel compelled by their consciences to refuse Covid vaccines that have been developed with the use of fetal tissue lines derived from abortion. We recognize (how could we have missed it?) that Pope Francis has encouraged vaccination, and that scores of Catholic bishops have joined in the pro-vaccine campaign. We realize that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has concluded that the “grave necessity” created by the epidemic is sufficient reason to accept morally tainted vaccines. We understand, then, that the Church does not require us to refuse the vaccines. But the key question remains: Doesn’t the Church allow us to refuse them?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1782) is clear. Every individual must make his own moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” If my conscience tells me not to take the vaccine, I should not take the vaccine—even if my pastor and my bishop and the Bishop of Rome all encourage me to do so. Church leaders have the authority to tell me that I may take the vaccine; they do not have the authority to tell me that I must. And in fact the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the very statement encouraging vaccination, stipulates that “it must be voluntary.”

(At some point here I should make it clear that I am not suggesting that the vaccination campaign is the moral equivalent to Nazi brutality. Clearly, there is an enormous difference between the two cases. What the witness of Franz Jägerstätter and that of health-care workers resisting vaccination share in common is an insistence on the integrity of conscience. I might also add that there is an enormous difference between the costs that might be born by those who resist. Today many health-care workers are losing their jobs; Jägerstätter lost his life.)

New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul—who identifies herself as a Catholic, and graduated from Catholic University’s law school—has acknowledged that when she crafted a vaccine mandate for her state, “we left off [religious exemptions] in our regulations intentionally.” In a brief defending the state’s policy against a legal challenge, Attorney General Letitia James could not resist invoking the support of “Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church (with which all but one of the plaintiffs are affiliated).” These canny politicians recognize the propaganda value of identifying opposition to the vaccines as a Catholic issue, and then dismissing it because (as Hochul put it) “everybody from the Pope on down is encouraging people to get vaccinated.” They blithely ignore the formal teaching of the Church regarding individual conscience.

But then, politicians can safely ignore that teaching of the Church, because so few American prelates have proclaimed it. As thousands of Catholics (not to mention other Christians) face the loss of their jobs, or the threat of second-class citizenship, because they are following their consciences, our Church leaders are joining the chorus of conventional public opinion, rather than defending the vital point that the Catholic Church is so well equipped to defend.

So maybe I asked the wrong question at the start of this column. Should Catholics who resist vaccination apologize to their bishops, for failing to follow their advice? Or should the bishops apologize, for failing to protect the conscience rights of their faithful?

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