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Bishop Schneider’s Critique Of Church Teaching On COVID-19 Vaccines

January 8, 2022 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By FR. BRIAN HARRISON, OS

On October 26, 2021, the Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider posted on his personal “Gloria Dei” website an article headed, “There’s a ‘basic error’ in Vatican documents on ‘material cooperation’ with abortion-tainted vaccines.”
As most Wanderer readers will be aware, Bishop Schneider is justly renowned for his courageous and outspoken defense of Catholic tradition against widespread contemporary errors emanating even from very high levels of church authority. However, I believe His Excellency occasionally misses the mark and goes too far. I find it very unfortunate that in this case he has thought it necessary to dissent publicly from two statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) formally approved by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis respectively. Both documents teach that under certain conditions it is morally acceptable for Catholics to receive medications which involved the use of cell lines from aborted infants in their development process. (1)
Bishop Schneider claims, on the contrary, that taking an abortion-tainted vaccine is gravely and intrinsically immoral, so that we must be prepared to sacrifice everything — career, home, livelihood for ourselves and our families, and even our life itself — rather than commit this supposedly evil act. He asserts:
“[Taking the vaccine] is in itself immoral and not pleasing to God. We can never do something consciously that will displease God. We have to be ready as Christians to lose all temporal advantages and even our short temporal life, rather than offend God and participate in the chain of criminal acts, of which the manufacturing and testing of abortion tainted vaccines is also a part.”
Now, as we shall see in this article, the aforesaid Vatican doctrinal decisions, while not indeed enjoying the note of infallibility, are in no way contrary to previous Catholic doctrine, and are fully in line with the traditional moral theology taught in all seminaries long before Vatican II, which is also reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Therefore there is no doubt that they constitute authentic (or authoritative) teaching of the Church’s magisterium, which as such requires our religious assent of mind and will. But because of Bishop Schneider’s reputation and great prestige among traditional Catholics he is, alas, leading many of these faithful into unwarranted dissent from orthodox magisterial teaching.
His Excellency says the “essential point” of his argument is that
“. . . the use of abortion tainted vaccines brings us to a close collaboration with the fetal industry and their products, a use which is because of this proximity immoral, and furthermore it gives a scandal, since by such a use we are de facto supporting that immoral industry” (emphasis added).
Now, the CDF has declared that this collaboration is remote, not proximate; and the U.S. Bishops, as well as our National Catholic Bioethics Center (which has a well-deserved reputation for competence and orthodoxy), accept this evaluation handed down by the Apostolic See. The cooperation with evil is particularly remote in the case of Pfizer and Moderna, which (unlike the Johnson & Johnson vaccines and some others) do not actually contain any fetal cells.
It should also be noted that Bishop Schneider, while asserting here that the cooperation is “close” and “proximate,” does not back up this assertion with any supporting argument. Nor does he offer any argument to support his assertion that accepting the vaccine is “de facto supporting” the immoral fetal industry. (Whatever immoral use of new fetal remains is being made by today’s scientists, this is something happening decades after the abortions involved in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.)
It might perhaps be argued that benefiting from an abortion-tainted vaccine is morally similar to buying and selling valuable goods brought to you by a thief who you know stole them from someone else. In such a case, benefiting from another person’s grave sin is indeed immoral. But that’s because those goods still belong to someone else and so can and should be returned to their rightful owner. But in the case of an abortion-tainted vaccine, life can no longer be restored to the innocent victim whose cells were illicitly used in its development. So there’s no moral equivalence here with the action of a criminal who accepts and sells stolen goods. A more realistic parallel would be recovering gold from a shipwrecked pirate vessel that sank centuries ago, knowing that the pirates stole it from some other ship they attacked. Since it is no longer possible to restore that gold to its original owners, who also died centuries ago and could probably no longer be identified anyway, the individual or company that finances the underwater recovery of that pirate gold commits no sin of injustice if they keep it.
Bishop Schneider’s position actually seems inconsistent — a sign of not being too well thought out. As we saw, he first says that taking the anti-COVID vaccines is “close collaboration” with the fetal industry and its products, and is “immoral” because it’s in “proximity” to that industry. But a little further down he says the opposite: “The anti-Christian world powers and political elites, who in our day are actively promoting the culture of death as their party program, are imposing on the entire population of the world, an implicit, even if it is remote, passive collaboration with abortion and with the fetal industry” (emphasis added). So Bishop Schneider’s first says that taking the vaccines constitutes proximate collaboration with abortion, and is immoral precisely for that reason. But then he says that such collaboration is only “remote” and “passive.” So which is it?
Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, in approving the two CDF documents, teach that the main reason why receiving the vaccines can be morally permissible is that, for a faithful Catholic, this will constitute only remote and material cooperation with the historic abortion involved in the vaccine’s development. (Formal cooperation would mean taking the vaccine while approving of that abortion — which of course is ruled out for any faithful Catholic.) But for Bishop Schneider, even material cooperation is immoral when it comes to these vaccines. His online article proceeds as follows:
“The problem is that you cannot apply the principle of material cooperation with the evil or of benefiting from evil deeds of others to these exceptional, horrible crimes exploiting and commercializing fetal tissues of aborted babies. So you cannot compare the principle of material cooperation with the evil, for example, with paying taxes or with using some products of slave labor. Slavery is not comparable to killing an innocent, to killing cruelly innocent children. Slavery is also an evil, but is incomparable with the killing of innocent unborn children and the exploiting of their bodies. Therefore, there is already the basic error of the mentioned Vatican documents, which apply this principle to this concrete case of abortion tainted vaccines, which use the cells and cell-lines of aborted children, exploiting them and commercializing them” (emphasis added).
The passages I have italicized in the above citation brings out several key points in Bishop Schneider’s position:
First, he is boldly accusing of “basic error” two official magisterial pronouncements approved by successive Successors of Peter. This is already a serious matter, since, as we noted at the outset, these pronouncements constitute authentic magisterial teaching that requires our internal assent (even though not the absolute and irrevocable assent due to infallible teaching).
Moreover, the bishop is once again making an unsupported assertion here. To justify his accusation that the CDF has made a “basic error” by applying the principle of material cooperation to cases involving the direct killing of the innocent, he would need to back up his accusation by citing some previous magisterial statement(s) — or at least some weighty testimony from the Church’s Fathers, Doctors or approved theologians — that contradict these recent decisions of the CDF. But he does not. Indeed, he cannot — because there are no previous magisterial interventions, or teachings of Fathers, Doctors, or traditional theologians, that support His Excellency’s unduly strict opinion. (2)
We also see from the above citation that Bishop Schneider is making a distinction between two levels of mortal sin, and then using that distinction as a “litmus test” for deciding whether or not material cooperation in specific kinds of mortal sin can ever be justified. He claims, for instance, that while using products made by unjustly enslaved persons could constitute legitimate material cooperation in that injustice, taking abortion-tainted vaccines is always illegitimate, precisely because killing the innocent is worse than slavery: the two are “not comparable,” he says.
Now, it is indeed true that some mortal sins are worse than others; but the litmus-test conclusion His Excellency is drawing from that fact has never been drawn by the Church or her approved theologians. In vain will we search Denzinger’s standard compendium of magisterial teaching, and all the approved theological treatises I have ever seen on cooperation in evil, for any suggestion that some mortal sins are so extremely bad that even remote and passive material cooperation in them will always be sinful.
Here are several examples of what approved moral theologians actually do say:
The traditional Jesuit Fr. Henry Davis, in a textbook widely used in seminaries before Vatican II, says that material cooperation with “a surgeon about to perform a sinful operation” can be permitted for serious reasons, and specifies that examples of such legitimate cooperation would be “where an assistant had to sterilize or set out the instruments [or] prepare the patient for operation.” (3) If Davis had wanted to exclude abortion from the “sinful operations” in which he says such material cooperation can be licit, he would surely have said so. But he didn’t.
The late Prof. Germain Grisez, one of the drafters and constant defenders of St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the immorality of contraception, is more explicit on this point. He says the kind of material cooperation with abortion carried out by “an engineer who keeps the utilities working in a hospital where abortions are done, only to make a living and further the other good things done there…may well be justified.” (4) Then, in a later volume of the same work, Grisez considers an even closer form of cooperation with abortion, asking, “Must a nurse give up her hospital job to avoid assisting at abortions?” He answers this question negatively, arguing in great detail (5) that provided certain conditions are met, the nurse need not resign her job, but rather, may assist with abortions in accordance with “the usual norms regarding material cooperation.” (6)
While Bishop Schneider is telling devout Catholics they must sacrifice even their lives, if necessary, rather than “take the jab,” the great Spanish Thomist theologian Antonio Royo Marin is not nearly so severe. He teaches that material cooperation in even “a grave injustice” against the human person (which would include abortion) can be justified in order to avoid “very grave harm” to oneself or one’s family, such as “loss of employment, the complete ruin of one’s business, etc.” (7)
Out of many further examples that could be cited, one more will suffice. The Redemptorist Fr. Francis Connell was one of the most respected and orthodox moral theologians of the immediate pre-Vatican II period. He was known as solidly conservative, and indeed, has won high praise from post-Vatican II traditionalists, largely because in the 1950s he engaged in an extended written debate with Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, criticizing the latter’s liberal views on Church-State relations and religious liberty. So cogent were Connell’s arguments that they helped persuade Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then head of the Holy Office, to prohibit Murray from writing any more on that subject. (8) Nevertheless, Fr. Connell would by no means have agreed with Bishop Schneider’s rigorism regarding material cooperation with abortion. He writes:
“A nurse could cooperate remotely [in an abortion] if otherwise she would lose her job, be treated harshly, refused promotion, etc. By remote cooperation would be meant the care of the patient before the operation, the cleaning of the operating room, the sterilization of the instruments, etc.” (9)
Indeed, unlike some other traditional moralists, Connell would allow even proximate cooperation with abortion in extreme circumstances. Right after the passage just cited, he adds that proximate material cooperation such as handing the instruments to the abortionist, or even administering the anaesthetic, could be justified for “a most grave reason,” for instance, if the nurse would otherwise not only be dismissed from that hospital but also “be barred from continuing her profession” elsewhere. (10)
Another important observation needs to be made at this point. All the traditional treatises of moral theology that I have seen restrict their treatment of cooperation in evil to situations in which such cooperation precedes the sinful act in question, and contributes in some way — formally or materially, remotely or proximately — to its actual commission. For some reason these authors never discuss the different kind of situation that now confronts us with the COVID vaccines, in which the cooperation in question takes place after the sinful act has been committed. I think it will readily be agreed that this latter kind of cooperation is more indirect, and therefore less serious per se, than the former. For here the relevant sin — that of abortion in the present case — is in no way the result of anything the cooperator does. His or her action in no way causes, or even remotely contributes to, the commission of that sin, and consists only in drawing some benefit from it after it was committed — decades afterwards, in the case of receiving anti-COVID vaccines.
Therefore it stands to reason that since the traditional theologians we have cited allow even the kind of material cooperation that in some way helps cause an abortion, much more would they allow (if asked) the kind of after-the-event cooperation that in no way does so. No doubt this point was taken into account by the CDF in coming to its successive decisions that receiving the abortion-tainted vaccines under certain conditions is in accordance with the Church’s existing doctrine and tradition.
Finally, it is worth noting that as well as those two CDF rulings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church implicitly endorses the same position. No. 2272 states, “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.” Its silence in that context about material cooperation in abortion is a clear indication that this is not being ruled out as immoral.
It needs to be said in conclusion, with all due respect to Bishop Schneider, that his absolute opposition to any acceptance of the current anti-COVID vaccines is seriously mistaken and pastorally harmful. Because of his great prestige among devout traditional Catholics, his undue rigorism is contributing to, or reinforcing, unwarranted and unjustified moral scruples in the minds of many of them, and leading them into dissent from magisterial teaching that is perfectly orthodox and based on sound, traditional Catholic moral theology. Tragically, this is making some of these faithful feel obliged in conscience to sacrifice their jobs, homes, and livelihood rather than accept the vaccine, thereby unnecessarily causing great hardship for themselves and their families.
It is fervently to be hoped that Bishop Schneider will revise his position, and that if he does not, other Catholics, at least, will follow the Church’s authentic teaching rather than His Excellency’s dissident personal opinion.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Cf. CDF Instruction Dignitas Personae, September 8, 2008, art. 35, and CDF, Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, December 21, 2020, arts. 2 and 3. These two documents were approved and ordered to be published by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis respectively.
  2. I will stand corrected if some counter-example[s] from these authorities can be cited that prove me wrong. But I doubt that will happen. As a retired moral theology professor I am quite familiar with the relevant literature and have never come across any traditional source that supports the rigorist opinion which Bishop Schneider now asserts against the authentic teaching of two Popes.
  3. Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology (London and New York, Sheed & Ward, 6th edition, 1949), vol. I, p. 397.
  4. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL, Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 441-442.
  5. Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 3, Difficult Moral Questions (Quincy, IL, Franciscan Press, 1997, pp. 355-360.
  6. Ibid., p. 356.
  7. Antonio Royo Marin, Teologia Moral para Seglares (Madrid, BAC, 7th edition, 1996), vol. I, p. 507 (present writer’s translation).
  8. A few years later, however, Connell was left mortified and dismayed when his erstwhile adversary was rehabilitated at Vatican II and ended up having a significant influence on the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. Connell regarded this document as far too liberal. My own former superior Msgr. John F. McCarthy, founder of the Oblates of Wisdom, knew Fr. Connell and has recounted to me conversations they had in Rome during Vatican II in which the distinguished theologian expressed his disillusionment and grave concern at the powerful neo-modernist influences he saw coming to light at the Council.
  9. Francis J. Connell, CSsR, Outlines of Moral Theology (Milwaukee, Bryce Publishing Co., 1958). p. 95 (emphasis in original).
  10. Cf. ibid.
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