THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
DUTY TO TAKE THE VACCINE
The delivery of an effective and safe vaccine against coronavirus is a triumph of modern science. Vaccinations have begun in the UK, and will be followed in due course across the globe. The difficulties are immense: the first approved medication, manufactured by a partnership between the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the GermanTurkish firm of BioNTech, has to be stored at below 70 degrees Celsius. Other vaccines are in the pipeline, most of which are easier to handle. Literally billions of doses will eventually be required, and millions of trained personnel to administer them.
Reaching every vulnerable member of the population will not be straightforward, as there are still widespread reservations about safety despite assurances from the regulatory authorities. Mistakes have been made in the approval of medicines in the past, and the whole subject of mass vaccination has given rise to an epidemic of myths and conspiracy theories. Black people in the United States remember all too painfully how the authorities have used their communities as guinea pigs for drug testing, sometimes with disastrous results.
Some query the morality of using vaccines whose manufacture involves cells taken from aborted human embryos some four decades ago. Cells derived from this original batch are still in use in the production process, though they are eliminated from the final product. Such processes have long been used in the preparation of vaccines against disease. This
coronavirus vaccine has revived that anxiety. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued guidance three times in recent months. Its latest statement says: “Whilst many may in good conscience judge that they will accept such a vaccine, some may in good conscience judge that they will not.” It adds: “If the choice is made not to receive this vaccination, then the person must make other provision to mitigate the risk of harm to the life or health of others and to his or her own life and health.” Given that the ending of the coronavirus epidemic depends on vaccination being widespread enough to create herd immunity in the population, it should be clear that there is a moral duty to take part in the name of the common good.
The bishops’ sensitivity makes for an uncomfortable contrast with another issue regarding abortion about which they have so far said nothing. Research into the reasons why women resort to abortion has identified an additional factor: the government decision to limit child support under the welfare benefits system to the first two children. Some women with two children finding themselves pregnant are having an abortion despite wanting a third child, for fear of impoverishing their family by the arrival of another mouth to feed. The pro-abortion British Pregnancy Advisory Service identified this increasingly common phenomenon.
Catholics are sometimes urged by bishops to lobby their MPs. This would be an ideal issue for such a campaign, coupling the defence of unborn life with child poverty.
OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD
In the light of the highly critical report into its safeguarding arrangements by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has to go back to the drawing board. Accepting the report’s conclusions with suitable apologies, and agreeing to another round of restructuring of its child protection arrangements as recommended, will not be enough. The bishops’ response so far has fallen short of the drastic measures required to restore confidence.
Yet a solution is at hand. Two years ago a report appeared titled “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church”, which examined the way the Church would function if it took its own theology seriously. It was written by the International Theological Commission under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and published with an endorsement by Pope Francis. It is clear on every page that to take decisions affecting the People of God without even a gesture of consultation with the People of God is contrary to the Church’s basic constitution. What the distinguished panel of theologians propose is not actually remote from the bishops’ own agenda. Their new safeguarding Code of Practice specifies that clergy of all ranks must be “accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office”. But it is obvious to everyone that there is an immediate accountability gap in the way the Catholic Church operates. Bishops answer upwards, to Rome, and not downwards, to the lay faithful.
So how is that accountability gap to be closed?
Synodality is the inescapable way forward. “Pastoral conversion for the implementation of synodality,” says the theological commission’s report, “means that some paradigms often still present in ecclesiastical culture need to be quashed, because they express an understanding of the Church that has not been renewed by the ecclesiology of communion. These include: the concentration of responsibility for mission in the ministry of pastors; insufficient appreciation of the consecrated life and charismatic gifts; rarely making use of the specific and qualified contribution of the lay faithful, including women, in their areas of expertise.”
Synodality does not mean following the Anglican pattern, where the general synod was designed as a law-making body to replace the control of church affairs by the UK Parliament. But the Anglican general synod highlights two key issues. Consultation and shared decision-making inevitably involve disagreement, even conflict. The structures proposed to implement synodality must be able to stand the strain. Once the sensus fidelium is admitted as evidence of what the Church is really thinking, the possibility exists of a collision between it and the Church’s teaching authority. That is what concerns Pope Francis when he criticises some elements in the way the German Catholic Church is adopting a synodal process. These difficulties are not insuperable; they may merely be transitional. But as synodality and the accountability it provides emerges as the necessary response to the child abuse crisis, they must be faced with courage and faith.
2 | THE TABLET | 12 DECEMBER 2020