As I have detailed previously, the Orthodox Church has never taken a firm stance against the usage of vaccinations, but has always cautiously (and often enthusiastically) endorsed their use. What the Church has condemned at high levels (including synodically) has been the use of mandatory vaccination. The Church has also inveighed against the use of fetal tissue in the development or production of a vaccine. The individual Christian has always been left to make her/his own medical decision and work out spiritually whether to take the vaccine, despite the moral ramifications of its production. This is seen as a sort of economia that condescends to people’s weakness and the overall material betterment of society.
In short, the Orthodox Church is pro-vaccine and it is hard to find anything from the highest teaching authorities (our Bishops) disallowing for vaccination, even those sourced and developed unethically.
And so, in making this critique, the focus is not on whether one is permitted to get a Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccination is an allowable practice and permitted by the Church, and sometimes even endorsed. However, this critique takes issue with the ethical stance of the Orthodox Theological Society’s (OTS) comments pertaining to Covid-19 vaccination, penned by Hermina Nedelescu, Catherine Creticos, and Gayle E. Woloschak.
I found the following problematic:
OTS’s claim that “the end justifies the means.” The Church has consistently condemned the usage of fetal cell lines. There has never been a statement explicitly endorsing it. Yet, the OTS, as we shall see does just that.
The statement emphatically asserts that, emboldening their own words, “No new fetuses have been sacrificed” in the development and production of Covid-19 vaccines and that (thankfully) the government “has banned the generation of any new cells or the sacrifice of any [further] embryos.” It emphasizes that, “Most vaccines do not ‘grow’ well in adult cells, and therefore require the use of fetal cells.” One may obviously infer that the “sacrifice” of an innocent life is justified, because there is no better way to make a vaccine.
This is not a merely an inference, as the paper then explicitly states this. It asks the question whether “vaccines [are] unethical because of their use of aborted fetal cells,” to which it answers “vaccines present the best ethical option to promote health and life, despite their connection with the use of aborted fetal cells.” This is a disconcerting answer, as simply promoting prolonged life is not the goal for mankind.
Prolonging one’s life to the detriment of someone else as a sort of “collateral damage” is not the reasoning of the saints. In fact, even the Scriptures make light of it: “Like the desire of a eunuch to violate a maiden, so is the man who executes justice by violence.” (Sir 20:4) Christians are called to a higher standard and are not to bring about greater good through wicked means. “The end justifying the means” is the utilitarian ethic of history’s tyrants and misanthropes.
The chief goal for mankind is one’s own, and others’ (secondarily), personal sanctity. When addressing the ethics of vaccines, this must be the first (and second) consideration. Societal ramifications pertaining to general wellbeing ought to be secondary in the eyes of the Church.
Yet, the OTS does not address this and instead gives the following rationale as to why using aborted fetal cell lines are the “best ethical option”:
- “The fetal cells in use today are derived from two or three therapeutic abortions performed several decades ago” and so no new babies need to be “sacrificed.”
- “[O]ther substitute cell lines have not proven to be effective for growing the vaccines; this has been the only alternative.” (emphasis added. The preceding statement is scientifically untrue, as almost every vaccine required for children to attend school have “ethical” alternatives that do not use fetal cell lines, with the key exception chicken pox.)
- “Most Church leaders have agreed that the many lives saved by vaccination are an important factor in permitting the use of these vaccines.”
One can easily condense #1 and #3 as an utilitarian ethic (“the end justifies the means”), with point #3 being a logical fallacy (argumentum ad populum) on top of that. Point #2 is scientifically false, and so it can likewise be disregarded.
Hence, the only cogent point the OTS is actually making is that “the end justifies the means.” This should trouble the reader, as there is no Scripture or saint that would encourage this sort of ethical approach.
OTS endorses human cloning. Without indicating that this would be at all controversial, the OTS’s document endorses the use of “clones from the original fetal cell lines” and emphasizes that it does not matter “whether a few cells or many are used, there are NO new fetuses involved.” (The original document contains the capitalization of “NO.”) To quote one medical source which lauds the practice of cloning the child’s cells for medical use:
The original cells were transformed and immortalized in January 1973 by a young Canadian postdoc by the name of Frank Graham, who was working at the time in Leiden, the Netherlands in the laboratory of Professor Alex van der Eb. Normally, a cell has a finite number of divisions, but Graham managed to modify these cells so that they divide ad infinitum.
One must reflect that the usage of cloning, especially in this context, is in effect playing God and prolonging the partially living state of the murdered child. Where is this child’s soul as her cells live on? What is the state of this soul if she cannot immediately be in heaven, where she belongs? These are all relevant questions to Christians, though irrelevant to epistemological materialists.
These are serious questions one must ask her/himself. The cloning of these cells is in fact something that may lead to the practice of “fetal farming” (literally growing cloned embryos in women and then aborting them for their tissue). A utilitarian ethic would obviously allow for such a thing. One can see how the deficient ethical approach of the OTS would lead to morally monstrous practices.
Does the OTS statement deliberately contain a political agenda? After considering the deficient ethical reasoning of OTS’s statement, one must carefully reflect consider its sources. Three individuals prepared the document: Hermina Nedelescu, Catherine Creticos, and Gayle E. Woloschak. All of these individuals have academic credentials and backgrounds in medicine, which are prominently disclosed in the document. The appearance is that they are experts in their fields and that their wisdom should be heeded.
And so, are the authors truly dispassionate experts, as they intend to portray themselves? If one looks at their backgrounds in a discerning manner, it appears that not all of these authors are aloof academics.
For example, Hermina Nedelescu made the nifty graphic for the promotion of the OTS’s document on the blog “Public Orthodoxy.” She has also commented on the topic of sacramentology (“The Eucharist, Its Physical Elements, and Molecular Biology”). In that article, her purpose was “to correct the dangerous misconception that diseases and viruses cannot be transmitted via the administration of Holy Communion.” It should be noted that not only is the official position of the Romanian Patriarch (which one may presume her parish belongs to) is that the Eucharist (and icons) do not spread disease, it must also be said Nedelescu is a neuroscientist, not a molecular biologist. Though by virtue of her education she surely is more knowledgeable in related fields than the average layperson, she still is not a subject matter expert in the field of epidemology. Rather, she is simply an interested person.
Gayle E. Woloschak works for several universities, including schools of theology. She is an advisor for “The Wheel” journal and has taken public stances in favor of LBGTQ.
Catherine Creticos is a renown doctor in infectious disease and has otherwise not had any forays into theology that may easily be found on the internet.
Though the information just presented is fragmentary and certainly cannot tell the whole story, without beating around the bush, it would seem that some of these authors are activists. It is not wise to trust activists to speak impartially when discerning ethical manners that depend upon their subject-matter expertise (though one of the “experts” is actually not trained in infectious disease). The reason this is the case is because activists use their positions, here academia, to pursue an agenda.
Now, it must be said that agendas are not necessarily bad. Clearly, there is an agenda behind writing this article. The question is, what is the agenda? The agenda of this blog (and my Youtube) is it the promotion of the spiritual life, Scriptures, sacramental life, teaching of the fathers, and academic (and intellectual) integrity. While these are my agendas, out of full disclosure I am far from having a perfect spiritual life, knowledge of the Scriptures/fathers, or integrity at every point. However, these are the ideals which I pursue in this blog.
So, what are the ideals the OTS authors are pursuing? Is their professional background in medicine being used as a cover to teach morals and ethics in the Church beyond what their professional training would equip them to do? Are they simply opinionated people as am I, and our respective professional backgrounds irrelevant to the conversation at hand?
Conclusion. The issue of Covid-19 vaccinations is far larger in its ethical ramifications than most popular discourse is allowing for. In the Church, much of our ethical confusion comes from the fact that we are missing the basics.
Keeping the cells of someone murdered permanently alive is a massive moral quagmire. The endorsing of utilitarian ethics is also extremely disconcerting. Lastly, the “experts” the Church is employing to discern these things are not dispassionate in their work, which should cause those listening to their advice to take it with a degree skepticism.
God has permitted great evils in this time, as He has had in many other times. We must pray and be patient, and from time to time speak out, though it is unpopular.