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Why Anti-Vaxxers Are (Kind of) Like Marxists

image of anti-vaxx protestor

On February 26th, the second-oldest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the United States issued an official statement warning church members about their COVID-19 vaccine options; in particular, it labeled the recently approved, single-dose vaccine from Johnson and Johnson “morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.” In the following days, numerous representatives of Catholic dioceses around the country chimed in to agree, not actually forbidding the pious from being vaccinated, but rather advising that “If one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

To those unfamiliar with Catholic dogma, this warning is likely peculiar: what do abortion practices (which the Roman Catholic church officially, if not pragmatically, opposes) have to do with vaccinations? But this critique of vaccines is far from unique to conservative Catholic clergymen: for some time, critics of vaccines in general have lobbied pro-life sentiments as anti-vaccination arguments: my goal here is not necessarily to respond to abortion-based anti-vaccine rhetoric, but rather to demonstrate what else that kind of thinking might require someone to believe.

In short, it’s kind of Marxist.

Let’s back up and explain some things first. The “vaccinations-are-pro-abortion” (or even the less severe “some-vaccines-are-tainted-by-abortion”) argument is rooted in the fact that several vaccines, including Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 treatment, have been developed, in part, by using celluar tissue taken from an aborted fetus in the 1960s. Understandably, biomedical research often requires human tissue samples for many reasons, but it can be difficult to collect and store cellular material in a way that is both efficient and effective for long-term use; typically, human cells die too quickly to be used in long-term experiments, but fetal human cells are not only inherently capable of reproducing themselves indefinitely, but scientists have developed techniques to intentionally grow them in cellular cultures in a way that effectively “immortalizes” them. So, medical researchers studying how to cure ailments ranging from Alzheimer’s Disease to spinal cord injuries to multiple kinds of cancer to, yes, diseases susceptible to vaccinations will typically rely on several immortalized cellular lines that have been cultivated for decades in order to test their experiments.

It is not the case that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine — or any other vaccine, for that matter — contains aborted fetal tissue (that is to say: absolutely no one is receiving literal fetal cells in their arm when they get their COVID shot). Nor is it the case that abortions are being done in order to develop vaccines today (each of the cell lines now in use, such as the MRC-5 and WI-38 cultures, originate in abortions performed in the mid-20th century — often for separately tragic reasons, such as the rubella epidemic of the 1960s).

But this is not to say that there are no moral questions that arise about the use of fetal cell lines (or any other human culture) in contemporary research contexts. For example, the HEK-293 line used in the development of several COVID-19 vaccines may have come from an abortion in 1973, but its exact origination is unclear and it is entirely possible that the original cells were collected from the remains of a spontaneous miscarriage. Either way, despite the fact that HEK-293 cells have been used to develop a wide variety of medical advances and medications (including many of the various antipsychotics today used to treat diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), the original donor of those cells (or their family) has never been compensated for their contribution to an industry enjoying billions of dollars of profit. Similarly, the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951, is a terrible example of how biomedical research can be built on a blatant injustice: after doctors collected a sample of Lacks’ cells without her knowledge, they discovered that the cells unexpectedly possessed the same kind of propensity for “immortalization” that makes fetal cells so useful, so they patented and commercialized the “HeLa” cell line. Despite never receiving Lacks’ consent for her cells to be used in this way (much less compensating her for her donation), the HeLa line has developed into one of the most useful (and lucrative) cell cultures on the market today; Lacks’ family never even knew the cultures existed until two decades after her death.

Setting those issues aside for now, what can we make of the claim that the conditions under which a commodity is manufactured can irrevocably taint the commodity itself with immorality? This is, I take it, a core complaint of the pro-life critic of vaccine development practices: the goals of vaccine deployment might be laudable enough (namely, reducing the spread of disease), but the methods of doing so are, arguably, associated with something purportedly inexcusable. For some, the difference between contemporary abortions and contemporary immortalized fetal cell lines originating in initially-unrelated abortions a generation ago might be sufficient to distinguish morally between pro-life commitments and vaccination acceptance — that is to say, someone could easily be a critic of elective abortion and consistently still believe that modern vaccination programs are morally acceptable. (It is worth noting that several outspoken pro-life American religious leaders, including Robert Jeffress, Al Mohler, and Franklin Graham have spoken out recently in support of COVID-19 vaccination programs.)

But let’s suppose that this is inconsistent (as many of Graham’s fans argued after he publicly surmised that Jesus would be pro-vaccine); what might we be committing ourselves to if we affirm that the use of fetal cell lines in their development hopelessly entangles vaccines within a morass of morally unacceptable problems?

Firstly, it seems like we would also need to reject many additional medical advances made over the last five decades. Anyone who rejects a vaccination against the novel coronavirus (or any other disease) because of the abortion-based critique of vaccinations I’ve been discussing will seemingly also need to reject treatments for conditions ranging from various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and macular degeneration to Alzheimer’s, paralysis, strokes, organ transplants, and medications for a wide variety of conditions. Without some special reason to think that vaccines are uniquely susceptible to being morally tainted via their tenuous association to past abortions, it is unclear why one could be an anti-vaxxer and not also a critic of many other elements of modern medicine.

Secondly, this whole conversation reminds me of the broader Marxist critique of capitalism in general. In his essay “Estranged Labor,” Marx introduces the idea that, under capitalism, workers are alienated from multiple things, including the products of their labor, their fellow human beings, and even themselves. A society split into different class-divisions, Marx says, necessarily prevents certain people (workers) from being able to live lives as fully realized human beings, creating and enjoying both cultural artifacts and the other people within our cultural relationships. In later works, like the first volume of Capital, Marx would develop the further critique that capitalism is not only alienating but exploitative because it, by design, transfers the value created by the labor of workers to the pockets of business-owners; for one example, consider the connection between Jeff Bezos’ wealth and the often-cataloged, but rarely-prevented dehumanization of workers in Amazon distribution centers (another is the dangerous abuses regularly perpetrated against both human workers and nonhuman animal victims in factory farms). Nowadays, this critique is sometimes summarized in the sloganized observation that there exists “no ethical consumption under capitalism” — although Marx himself never wrote those words, it is a (somewhat oversimplified) distillation of his broader point: the conditions under which capitalism operates necessarily spreads a taint of moral corruption throughout the entire line of commodity production in a manner that should provoke us to rethink the structuring of that productive system as a whole.

Of course, if someone is apt to think that products are, in a sense, insulated from the moral conditions of their production, then they would be able to quickly reject the Marxist critique of capitalism. Notice that there is at least one person who can’t do this, though: the person who accepts that vaccines are necessarily morally tainted because of the conditions of their production.

In short, if someone is inclined to believe that their pro-life commitments require them to think that vaccines are morally tainted, then they are seemingly required (upon pain of inconsistency) to believe that their anti-abuse commitments will require them to believe that many additional products, including anything produced on a factory farm and, perhaps, even all products produced by capitalists, are morally tainted as well.

What’s Wrong with Hypocrisy?

Black and white photograph of the inside of a cathedral

Much has been written about the recent grand jury report revealing both an epidemic of extreme sexual abuse among Roman Catholic parishes in Pennsylvania and a conspiracy by church leaders to quietly cover up the crimes. The numbers are shocking: over 300 priests across 54 counties abused more than 1000 victims over the course of at least 80 years. Of course, sexual assault of any stripe is abhorrent, yet the moral hypocrisy evident in this case makes this story particularly cruel. Not only have the “predatory priests” damaged a thousand immediate victims, but the ripple effects of their decisions to twist their respected social positions into such corrupted outlets for their own selfish evils will inevitably taint the faith of a generation of Roman Catholics or more.

Indeed, it is bad enough to be a victim of injustice, but when the crime is performed by one who claims a position of moral authority, the injustice is multiplied. One can do wrong without being hypocritical, but one cannot be a hypocrite without doing wrong; in fact, hypocrisy typically compounds the painful consequences of evil.

In chapter two of her 1963 book On Revolution, German philosopher Hannah Arendt dubs hypocrisy “the vice of vices” on the grounds that it is inescapably indefensible. Any other vice, she argues, could feasibly be justified from the right perspective, but hypocrisy alone is bereft of any possible integrity: “Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

On one level, being a good person – and being known for being a good person – affords an individual certain social benefits. Moral hypocrisy amounts to a person attempting to get those benefits without actually being the moral person they appear to be. In many cases, moral integrity requires some level of self-sacrifice; if a person can receive acclaim for being self-sacrificial without actually sacrificing anything, then that person selfishly comes out ahead. However, to do so means not only committing to being a moral hypocrite, but also to committing additional immoral acts such as lying or threatening those who know the truth to hide your secret. Once revealed, the moral hypocrite’s victims are not limited only to those affected by their explicit crimes: the dissonance suffered by those whom the hypocrite played for fools must also be considered.

And perhaps the most rotten hypocrites of all are those who pretend to be moral while hiding their sins and set out to publicly condemn others.

In his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo introduced the world to the villainous Claude Frollo, the respected archdeacon of the famous French cathedral whose obsession with pious chastity gives way to an uncontrollable lust for the beautiful Esmeralda. By the end of the novel, Frollo’s bitterness has led him to betray his surrogate son, stab Esmeralda’s lover, and even turn Esmeralda herself over to be executed for a crime that Frollo committed simply because she continues to reject his advances. When Frollo himself is pushed over the edge of Notre Dame’s roof, the average reader feels little remorse for the death of the spiteful hypocrite.

In the case of most moral hypocrites, the problem is twofold: firstly, the hypocrite has committed an immoral act; secondly, he has simultaneously lied about and/or hidden that act, while also unjustly receiving moral praise from his peers. In Frollo’s case, the problem is threefold: he has committed a crime, he has hidden it, and he continues to publically crusade against others who are guilty of the same crimes.

Consider the perspective of one of Frollo’s fictional parishioners: they may agree with Frollo’s condemnation of sexual licentiousness, even once they discover that Frollo himself is guilty of that very act. On one hand, Frollo’s public words are correct; on the other, Frollo’s private actions are not – to try and make sense of such a disjunction can be remarkably unsettling. How can one easily reconcile the familiar picture of a respectable leader with the new knowledge that the person was dishonestly putting on a show for the public? Such lies cast a pall over Frollo’s entire public persona, calling into question even those things that most people would otherwise take for granted. This means that Frollo’s crimes are not limited only to his violent assaults on Esmeralda or Phoebus; the angst that his moral hypocrisy would force upon innocent observers is an additional wrong that complicates a situation already dripping with moral hazards.

On some level, studies suggest that most people are guilty of hypocrisy on some level. One experiment performed at the University of Kansas in the late 90s asked individuals to privately choose between doing two tasks: both tasks were left vague, but one was described as boring with no reward while the other would offer the person a chance to win a prize in a raffle. The subject was told that she could select which task she would be assigned and which task would go to her unseen counterpart; in 70-80% of cases, the individuals assigned themselves the raffle-eligible task and gave the boring one to the stranger.

Then, in a second round, the researchers explained the same parameters, but suggested that the subject flip a coin to randomly (and, therefore fairly) assign the raffle task and the boring task. The results here were surprising: the subjects who chose not to flip the coin saw the same rate of task assignments as in round one (roughly 80-90% of people chose the raffle-eligible task for themselves), but the subjects who did flip the coin also saw the same rate of task assignments as in round one (85-90%)! One would think that the subjects who used the coin would have task assignment rates closer to 50% unless there was some element of cheating going on behind the scenes.

However, many moral hypocrites willfully admit their limitations (in the Kansas study, for instance, cheating subjects routinely ranked themselves as having done something immoral at the end of the experiment). Perhaps this suggests that the ambiguity in many moral cases allows for some degree of natural forgiveness to be reasonably extended to fallible agents; to claim a form of moral infallibility, as Frollo does when speaking of morality from the position of a teaching authority, inversely changes an observer’s willingness to forgive a hypocrite.

The fallout from the Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Scandal has already led to responses from Catholics around the country as they have renamed schools, implemented new policies, and gathered to commiserate with loved ones after learning that beloved religious leaders were hiding horrible secrets. As if the monumental pain of sexual abuse alone was not horrible enough to force upon a community, the hypocrisy of these priests has sown seeds of mistrust, doubt, and fear to corners far beyond the Pittsburgh parish. Now, reports have begun to leak out that the Vatican and even Pope Francis himself may be implicated in the cover-up; facts that, if true, will only increase the waves of pain sent around the globe because of this horrendous scandal.

Although Frollo was trying to describe himself, his words in his final scene with Esmeralda ironically fit the victims of moral hypocrisy – both his and others’ – far better: “I bear the dungeon within me; within me there is winter, ice, despair; I have night in my soul” (Book VIII, chapter four).

Opinion: The Pope, Fake News, and the Gospels

A photo of Pope Francis

After an unpopular visit to South America, Pope Francis now has released a statement condemning “fake news.” It has long been suspected that this Pope has leftist ideological leanings, and it seems that Francis’ remarks about “fake news” are directed against Donald Trump and his populist tactics, although the U.S. president remained unmentioned.

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The Political Manipulation of the Fatima Cult

An image of the Sanctuary of Fatima.

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The communist Left has organized celebrations, and this is unfortunate. That revolution did not topple the Czar’s autocratic regime, but rather a liberal government that was progressing towards important reforms. Furthermore, the Bolshevik Revolution soon turned extremely violent, and gave rise to a totalitarian regime that brought much misery to the world.

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Will Chief Black Elk’s Canonization Address Native American Oppression?

A photo of Catholic bishops during a 2014 canonization.

This past week, a Mass was held to formally open up potential sainthood for Chief Black Elk, a Lakota chief known for his life and work as a dedicated catechist. Black Elk was born sometime between 1858 and 1866, and died in 1950. He is known for combining Native American spirituality and Christianity, making it easier for his congregations to accept the Catholic Church. Bishop Robert D. Gruss from Rapid City, South Dakota, states that “for 50 years Black Elk led others to Christ often melding his Lakota culture into his Christian life.” Bill White, a diocese and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Pine Ridge Reservation, is leading Black Elk’s sainthood case.

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In Understanding Catholicism’s Satan, A Struggle over Symbolism

Arturo Sousa, the Superior General of the Society for Jesus (Jesuits) recently said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo that, “we have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil.” His words seem to imply that Satan is not a real being, but just a symbol; the devil would be more akin to Lex Luthor than Adolf Hitler, i.e., a fictional character.

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The Ethics of an Atheist Pope

With two deeply conservative predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), Pope Francis has raised a lot of eyebrows over the years. He has not made any significant reform (unlike, say, John XXIII), but his populist style has definitely struck a chord of sympathy amongst many Catholics. John Paul II was a populist as well, but he was closer to the original version of populism, gathering huge crowds all over the world. Francis, on the other hand, is not so apt at crowd gathering, but he is apt at appearing to be in touch with common folks. He has repeatedly washed people’s feet (in remembrance of Jesus’ humbleness), and he is very warm to journalists and visitors. Unlike Benedict XVI, he does not seem to be too interested in pompous rituals or luxurious protocols. We may never know whether these gestures are genuine, or a calculated political image; they are most likely something in between.

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Preparing for Pope Francis’ U.S. Visit

Pope Francis will begin his first visit ever of the United States tomorrow, when he lands in Washington, D.C. after a four day visit to Cuba. His visit is highly anticipated and there has already been a threat on his person that has recently been disrupted by U.S. authorities. The Pope’s visit comes at a critical time as the presidential campaigning for the 2016 elections has raised awareness and debate over a variety of issues. What we can expect from Pope Francis is that he is not only going to make a stance on these issues but also raise awareness on other ones.

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Pope Francis Reconsiders Excommunication for Abortions

Since the issue rose to prominence, the Catholic Church has deemed abortions immoral and worthy of instant excommunication. For those non-Catholics, excommunication is getting kicked out of the Catholic Church and barred from re-joining unless a bishop lifts the excommunication. Excommunication usually occurs after committing a grave sin, so in the case of abortion, the murder of an unborn.

Pope Francis, the current pontiff of the Catholic Church, announced on Tuesday that as part of his “year of mercy”, he is granting all local priests the ability to lift the excommunications placed on women who for one reason or another got an abortion.  In his letter he said, “absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

This immense decision holds a lot of ethical implications for old-school Catholics as well as a newer generation of Catholics. For many people of my grandparents’ generation, abortion is not something that should be 1) talked about or 2) done at all under any circumstances.  Yet for people in Generation Y, abortion is discussed less as an ethical issue and more of an issue of ownership over your own body.

Regardless of my personal beliefs about the topic of abortion, I applaud Pope Francis for making the Catholic Church less harsh and judgmental. The Catholic Church has not always been a champion of inclusion. With strong beliefs on many “hot topics” these days like gay rights, abortion and divorce, people are turned off from Catholicism. But is a church’s job to try and include everyone? Isn’t that why we have millions of different faiths today? Do people have a problem with the Catholic Church’s views because of its long history or because of its strong views?

My preferred version of the Catholic Church is one where kindness and acceptance are stronger than those of judgment and strict adherence to the rules.

Spas and Pilgrims in Assisi

Known for his simplicity and acceptance, Saint Francis is often considered one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church. The current pope even chose his papal name based off of the saint. Because Saint Francis is a favorite among Catholics, pilgrims have been flocking to his hometown, Assisi, Italy for centuries. Catholic visitors from around the world travel to Assisi to walk in the saint’s footsteps and to soak in the natural beauty of Mount Subasio, as well as the surrounding forest. Continue reading “Spas and Pilgrims in Assisi”