So, Father Peter Williams up in Vermont was just now cancelled because he has a conscience against the abortion tainted vaccine and follows the science on masks, what with the CDC saying they’re worthless. I include below his take on authority and obedience. Great! Meanwhile, it being that I myself built a hermitage in what seems like another lifetime (and now no longer available), I very much appreciate the skills he learned in building his own mobile tiny house, pictured above. Impressive. The drawback is that it takes a truck that can tow 12,000 pounds. He started this years ago. That’s the angels at work.
Father Peter Williams on Authority and Obedience
Most Catholics have a sense that the Church is really big on authority and obedience, and that’s true. But did you know that the Church teaches that neither authority nor obedience are absolute?
When the Church discusses authority taking a wrong turn, it’s always in terms of civil authority. This is because the Church in charity presumes that her clerics are fully immersed in the privileges of their unique relationship to Christ, and that no one so closely connected to Jesus will act against him.
Nevertheless, the rules of morality that govern civil authority naturally apply to religious authority as well.
That said, there’s an important limitation the Church puts on authority in Evangelium Vitae, paragraph 72:
- Authority is a postulate of the moral order and derives from God. Consequently, laws and decrees enacted in contravention of the moral order, and hence of the divine will, can have no binding force in conscience…
Did you catch that? An authority which pits itself against God by making immoral demands has no right to obeyed in that matter. So our question is this: Are any of the demands being made because of Covid immoral? The answer is yes, and they fall into two categories: demands that violate natural law, and demands to violate the dictates of conscience.
Let’s start with natural law.
Natural law tells us the purposes, rights, and responsibilities that come from our nature as creatures with souls. It tells us how to order our lives and actions in proper relation to God, especially when it comes to using our own bodies.
We’re not going into the various opinions about the science of the vaccines, because the Church only gives us the moral lens through which to look at science. That said, it’s undeniable that at the time this video was posted, all of the COVID vaccines in the United States were approved under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA. It’s an acknowledgment by the FDA that these vaccines are experimental.
The Church addresses the subject of experimentation on human persons in Catechism 2295, which says that conformity with the dignity of the human person requires that experimentation must include the informed consent of the subject or his legitimate representative.
If “informed consent” doesn’t include the ability to decline a treatment or procedure, then it is not informed consent. Why do we need informed consent?
In Donum Vitae, section III:
- The inalienable rights of the person…. are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his or her origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard: every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death….
Furthermore, Evangelium Vitae paragraph 40 says that the inviolability of life comes from its sacredness. It then traces the development of that understanding from the Old Testament to the New, which makes “a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person.”
This emphasis on the physicality and integrity of the person is based on the Church’s concept of the human person as corpore et anima unus, or body-soul unity. Donum Vitae, paragraph 3 of the introduction says:
- ….[I]n the body and through the body, one touches the person himself…. To respect the dignity of man…. amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man corpore et anima unus…. An intervention on the human body affects not only the tissues, the organs, and their functions, but also involves the person himself on different levels. It involves, therefore….a moral significance and responsibility.
This concept of the body-soul unity goes all the way back to Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being,” and Gen 1:27, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”
Catechism 1700 confirms that “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God.” This means that our bodily integrity goes to the very core of what it is to be human: the only creature with a soul and the only spiritual being with a body. To force any physical act or medical procedure on another person is to violate his humanity at the most fundamental level.
The second class of immorality being committed in the name of COVID is the demand to violate the dictates of conscience.
But before we talk about conscience rights, let’s look at our responsibilities. The Church says we have a serious responsibility to form our consciences, and Catechism 1785 lists the resources we have at our disposal: Scripture, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, the witness and advice of others, and the teaching of the Church. That’s a short list easily spoken, but it can’t be overemphasized: Catechism 1784 tells us this is a lifelong task!
Once we’re investing in the formation of conscience, Catechism 1778 tells us, “In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.” And in Donum Vitae Section III, the Church says, “In no sphere of life can the civil law take the place of conscience or dictate norms concerning things which are outside its competence.” This freedom is so fundamental that according to Catechism 2217, even children must disobey orders that violate their consciences.
Furthermore, Catechism 1782 says,
- Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make 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.”
A little later in number 1790 we learn what happens to the one who acts against his conscience:
- A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.
When you have invested in forming your conscience as a child of the Most High God, he expects you to follow it. Violating your conscience is a serious matter and grave sin.
So what does all this mean, practically?
It means that God grants us authority over our bodies and our consciences authority over our actions. When an organization or person in power issues a directive that violates God’s law in one of these ways, we do not owe obedience; in fact, it may be appropriate to defend ourselves against the order. According to Catechism 2242,
- When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.
Evangelium Vitae explains in paragraph 74:
- Those who have recourse to conscientious objection must be protected not only from legal penalties but also from any negative effects on the legal, disciplinary, financial and professional plane.
Since the Church gives us such clear guidance about our bodily integrity and our consciences, why would anyone give in to unjust demands?
There are plenty of reasons, but the most extreme, and a popular method right now, is coercion.
Coercion is the act of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats. For example: the government says, Take this shot or lose your job. Your family says, Take this shot or you can’t Facetime with your grandkids. Your company says, Take this shot or we’ll work our way through your emails, clients, friends, and family until we do enough damage to your reputation to remove you from your position.
The Church is against all forms of coercion, first because God refuses to use it (that’s Catechism 160). Catechism 2372 says that civil governments can influence population statistics — like the number of people vaccinated — by providing objective and respectful information, but they don’t have the moral right to use coercion.
In Evangelium Vitae paragraph 3, St. Pope John Paul II defines coercion as a moral crime on par with genocide:
- Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as …. attempts to coerce the will … these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.
But what about an extreme case like a global pandemic? If people won’t do what they should to protect the vulnerable, isn’t it okay to use force or threats? After all, there is a greater good to consider.
Once again, the Church clearly and emphatically says: No.
In Catechism 1753 she states,
- A good intention (for example, helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered… good or just. The end does not justify the means.
And in number 1756,
- It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only…. the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.)…. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
Coercive acts are never in keeping with the Faith, regardless of the circumstances.
What this means is that, according to Church teaching, there is no moral way to force anyone who doesn’t want it to get the COVID vaccine.
But all is not lost. As the Church says in Evangelium Vitae paragraph 33, “In this contrast between threats and insecurity on the one hand and the power of God’s gift on the other, there shines forth all the more clearly the glory which radiates from the house at Nazareth and from the manger at Bethlehem….”
But surely morality doesn’t give anyone the right to reject the vaccine? Love requires us to put others before ourselves.
Evangelium Vitae speaks to this beautifully in the same paragraph, “Life’s contradictions were fully accepted by Jesus.”
What constitutes love of neighbor is different in every circumstance. And because each person is what the Church calls in the introduction to Donum Vitae an “absolutely unique singularity,” the best way to love a neighbor may look different to two people, even in the same circumstances. Each of us must love his neighbor from the basis of his personal relationship with God, his own experience, the information he encounters, and his well-formed conscience. That means that how you love and how I love will likely be different. From our limited, human point of view, it may look chaotic, but:
- God is the sovereign master of his plan…. to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.
That’s Catechism number 306, and it means that God is in control. Even in a world where love looks messier than we might like it, God is in charge. As Catholics we know we can’t control each other, and we can’t control God. We can only trust him, with everything—including the pandemic.
In the words of St. Paul: Grace and peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ!
I announced your justice in the vast assembly; I did not restrain my lips, as you, O Lord, know. Ps 40:10