Fr Stephen Torraco on Vatican Statement

OVERCOMING “TUNNEL VISION”: THE PONTIFICAL ACADEMY FOR LIFE ON VACCINES PREPARED FROM CELLS DERIVED FROM ABORTED HUMAN FETUSES

Rev. Stephen F. Torraco, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Theology, Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts

EWTN Board of Experts, Catholic Questions and Answers, Moral Theology

In its recent document on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human fetuses, the Pontifical Academy for Life has set forth some important points about applying the moral principle of cooperation to this moral issue. The Academy applies this principle to the actions of all involved in this issue: from those who cooperated in the evil of voluntary abortion for the sake of procuring the fetal tissues needed for the vaccines to those parents who, without sharing any evil intention, have access to the vaccines for the sake of the health of their children. In this brief reflection, I focus exclusively on the latter.

The Academy recalls the classic distinction between formal and material cooperation, that between immediate and mediate material cooperation, that between remote mediate and proximate mediate material cooperation, and a further distinction between active and passive cooperation, adding that passive, like active, cooperation can be either formal or material. The Academy defines passive cooperation as “the omission of an act of denunciation or impediment of a sinful action carried out by another person, insomuch as there was a moral duty to do that which was omitted.” In connection with this last distinction between active and passive cooperation, the Academy notes that “every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted by many authors that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.” (emphasis added)

Overcoming “Tunnel Vision” 1: The Cultural Implications of Passive Cooperation with Evil

As the Academy’s document progresses, the statement highlighted above becomes very important in two specific ways. First, the Academy makes clear that applying the principle of cooperation on a societal or cultural level is more complex than applying it to the actions of an individual; and that the latter is not sufficient in connection with examining the moral status of the use of these vaccines. Those parents who use these vaccines derived from cells derived from voluntarily aborted human fetuses for the health of their children, the Academy notes, are involved in “at least a mediate remote passive material cooperation to the abortion, and an immediate passive material cooperation with regard to their marketing.” The Academy continues: “Furthermore, on a cultural level, the use of such vaccines contributes in the creation of a generalized social consensus to the operation of the pharmaceutical industries which produce them in an immoral way.” (emphasis added)

In a previous article, I argued the same point in the following way:

“One cannot apply the principle of cooperation to an issue of far-reaching implications, socially and historically, in the same way that one would apply it to the behavior of an individual human being. On a societal level, the application of this principle requires far greater rigor precisely because, when, on the basis of apparently sound moral reasoning, cooperation with evils such as the one at issue in this case is viewed as permissible, the evils, by becoming institutionalized, take on a life of their own and become part of the very fabric of society…. To say that a person receiving this vaccination ¾ derived from a fetus aborted long ago ¾ does not will the abortion that makes the vaccination possible may well be true in the individual and isolated case of the person who does not know the origin of the vaccine. However…one cannot base the moral argumentation for a practice intended for the entire population upon the ignorance of this person or upon the correct moral behavior of the individual recipient of the vaccine. In fact, the…argument in favor of the moral justification of the use of  these vaccines not only very clearly presupposes the knowledge of the origin of the vaccine, but also advocates that society in general adopt the use of this vaccine. With that knowledge in place, and with the institutionalization of the vaccine within the very fabric of society in place, to say that a person receiving this vaccination ¾ derived from a fetus aborted long ago ¾ does not will the abortion that makes the vaccination possible is patently false. If I need the vaccine (and it is a need that can be satisfied only by an aborted fetus) and if I defend my needI will the abortion. The person receiving the vaccination may well be living long after the fetus was actually aborted, and had no involvement in and may even have no knowledge of the particular and actual fetus that was aborted. However, the remoteness in time is not sufficient for arguing that there is no act of the will on the part of the recipient of the vaccine, even if, once again, only an elicited act of the will, institutionalized within societal practice and within the habits of minds of its members.”

(“The Far-Reaching and Subtle Tentacles of the Culture of Death: the Dehumanization of Human Embryos and the People Surrounding Them,” Linacre Quarterly, February 2004, pp. 47-52.)

In the passage immediately above, I write about willing the abortion by an elicited act of the will. An elicited act of the will, distinct from commanded acts of the will by which we move other parts and powers of ourselves in visible actions, is an act of “pure will” within one’s own soul that involves no bodily action whatsoever, is a human voluntary act that can be intrinsically good or intrinsically evil and, as the Academy points out,can be identical with passive acceptance or acquiescence or passive cooperation with evil. As noted previously, precisely because this passive cooperation with evil, even if mediate material, contributes to the institutionalization of the culture of death, the Academy points out that such passive cooperation should generally be avoided.

Overcoming “Tunnel Vision” 2: Temporarily Morally Permissible Passive Material Cooperation

For the sake of the reader’s convenience, I repeat my earlier point: the Academy notes that “every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted by many authors that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.” (emphasis added) Having brought out above the first important  feature of this statement by the Academy, I call attention to the second important feature: while acknowledging that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid even passive material cooperation with evil in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so — as in the case of those parents who use vaccines prepared from cells derived from voluntarily aborted fetuses in order to avoid the danger of the spread of a disease — the Academy clearly notes that the parents’ passive material cooperation by their use of these vaccines is morally permissible “on a temporary basis.” (emphasis added)  The point here is that it is morally unacceptable and insufficient to apply the principle of cooperation to this issue, not only simply in terms of the actions of individual persons, but also simply in terms of the existing status quo. The status quo regarding vaccines prepared from cells derived from voluntarily aborted fetuses, the Academy sets forth, is neither necessary nor morally acceptable.

Rather than allowing “tunnel vision” to lead us to acquiesce in the face of this evil status quo in the very manner in which we apply the principle of cooperation, we ought to be actively involved in working for a morally sound status quo.