Let us do a thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back-to-back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you,” To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment and can safely be unplugged from you.”
Nine months is not arbitrarily chosen, indeed this scenario is taken from the famous essay “In Defense of Abortion” by the moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson. It is stark but is powerful because it acknowledges the humanity of the unborn but holds that this does not supersede or eliminate the rights of the mother. She cuts through the sentimentality and asks the key question: “What do we owe other humans?”
The last time I used this example I thought I provided good arguments for a more expansive view of mutual obligations. After Mass, a couple told me that it was “very clarifying.” I realized I had confirmed them in their pro-choice convictions. This was disturbing but I said to myself that my day would come.
We have again been hearing people say, “My body, my choice.” This time about a refusal to be vaccinated, believing that what goes into their bodies only pertains to them. As we have seen with climbing infections in areas with low vaccination rates this is untrue. Unvaccinated people can very easily cause distress and even death to others as well as themselves. The first principal of Catholic Social teaching is that every human is of infinite value. The belief in the common good follows that is that our actions must be directed to building up the entire community. Failure to vaccinate oneself shows a lack of concern for the preciousness of one’s own life but also for the lives of others. Several weeks ago, a formal statement was made by the “Pontifical Academy for Life” which works on issues at the intersection of biological science and moral theology. It stated the moral imperative of being vaccinated not only to show respect for one’s own body but for the common good. Notice this statement was issued by the official church body for pro-life activities. Vaccination is a pro-life issue. People’s lives are in danger. But also of great interest is that most of the statement was on the responsibility of rich countries to share vaccines with poorer ones. Personal responsibility is the necessary beginning but not the end of our obligations: the common good in this connected world is the universal good.
This has been a trend since St Pope John Paul 2. In the seminary we were told that Captial Punishment was not required. It then changed so that it was not desired. Then that it could rarely be used and with Pope Francis totally condemned on all occasions. The consequences of accepting the sanctity of life are far reaching and deep.
The church is a worldwide institution, and every culture presents unique challenges. In the global north in which we Americans are the key players it is our notion of freedom. Overall, we are committed to the opinion that if we give individuals maximum freedom of choice in every aspect of their lives all will be well. This unites constituencies as disparate as pro-choice activists, antivaxxers, and second amendment absolutists. Planned parenthood and the NRA have more in common with each other than they do with Pope Francis.
Yet traditional thought of which Catholic Social teaching is the last major remnant holds that freedom occurs before choice. Freedom requires the removal of impediments which would prevent us from acting without bias. It depends on self-knowledge to know our faults and the courage to remove them. A free life is a virtuous one. A free person is one whose life is marked by goodness. It also assumes that our fellow humans will often be inconvenient, and that communal life will bring a degree of suffering. Sometimes to a very substantial degree. We hold with John Milton: “none can love freedom heartily but good men, the rest love not freedom but license”
This is very difficult for many people to accept. A truly frightening development is the elimination of babies with Down’s syndrome in countries where screening for it is mandatory. This is ironic as well as tragic as people with Down’s Syndrome have recently achieved so many advancements. Perhaps we who know people with Down’s syndrome may react with horror but what about autism? That can be a substantially more difficult path. But where does it stop, dyslexia?
Covid has revealed both the need for community and how our individualistic and liberaltarian understanding of freedom undermines it. As Pope Francis has reminded the world many times it has been a disaster but also presents opportunities. Indeed, we have seen that in the Church itself. Opposition to abortion required the church to examine our first principle of the sacredness of human life. Seeing that this comes from God and recognizing that we did not give it and we cannot take it away the Church has, as we have noted, formally rejected Captial punishment in all cases: a necessary if not popular decision.
Covid, climate change and whatever will be decided with Roe v Wade will require rethinking on many issues by our entire society. What are the consequences of holding that all human life is not sacred and concern for others is a matter of preference? During the inevitable negotiations to come, let us remember that our faith and tradition teaches that the well-being of everyone depends on our concern for each one.