I know what some priests and bishops have said about vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccines in recent time. There have been numerous statements, opinions, and rebuttals from many individuals and organizations. I personally think some are a bit extreme, too. Perhaps in a perfect world, the answer would definitely be a “no” because there would not be a need for it. Yet, we are not living in a perfect world, and there are people who would really benefit from vaccines because of their conditions and fears… and because of that, I believe, with the proper understanding of facts and underlying conditions, with prayer, reflection, and discernment in all honesty and humility, it is permissible and encouraged, especially with those vaccines that have been affirmed by proper ecclesiastical authorities.
First of all, we have to understand that there is seldom a general blanket statement for everyone. Even St. Alphonsus, the patron saint of moral theologians who himself struggled with scruples, knew and wrote about this reality centuries past. He argued and protected individual discerned conscience against the overly-pious, self-justified extremities of his time, especially those from the erroneous thoughts of Jansenism. He affirmed the primacy of the individual and their conscience to seek the good and God‘s will as best as they are able, above what seemed to be outrageous demands, false piety, and destructive rigorism that thought almost everyone is damned and no one is ever good enough to truly be loved by the Almighty. As a son of Alphonsus (a former Redemptorist), I believe in doing proper research to present the facts to the person and allow them to pray, discern, and make a judgment in their particular case.
In reality, each of us stands naked, transparent, and vulnerable before God with all of our brokenness and imperfections. He sees our hearts, our true intentions, and decisions for what they truly are; therefore, we have to be honest with ourselves and with Him who judges us personally. Moral teachings, lessons, and examples are simply like guideposts to help us to seek holiness, clarity, and above all, freedom from lies and lesser things to love God above all things. True morality is not the enslavement of our conscience with scrupulous lists of do’s and dont’s but the affirmative, spiritual, and truthful embrace of what is true, real, life-giving, and everlasting that comes from God. Therefore, morality teaches us that if we do not need something, we should not pursue or attain it for its own sake… but if we do, especially for the greater and common good, then the good needs to be sought.
Furthermore, if Christ only wanted the good, perfect, and holy, ignored the sinners and outcasts, we would all be damned. If He just wanted to see and judge things as black and white, many of us would not fit the standards and would not be forgiven (over and over again). As sinners, we have failed Him in many ways, but His mercy and forgiveness are still there. God knows how imperfect is this world! He saw how screwed up we are from salvation history and our very own personal histories, but He still sees us worth saving and loving, not like the Pharisees or the self-centered righteous. His infinite mercy continues to be with us, to change and form us slowly with His loving grace.
The strong who are not fearful are blessed and should be commended. Unfortunately, not everyone is as strong, and fears are irrational! St. Augustine understood that when he protected those who were labeled as inferiors and apostates by the Donatists. The schismatic group was composed of rigorists who staunchly argued that the Church must be of saints and not sinners; therefore, any sacraments administered by “traitors” and “weaklings” were invalid. These heretical self-righteous people thought weaklings cannot be saved, should be outcasted and condemned at all costs, but Augustine defended them, affirmed that God’s loving mercy is with them and for them, too — even in their weaknesses. While the Donatists argued that Christians, especially priests, must be faultless for their prayers and sacraments to be valid, he affirmed God‘s goodness and the validity of the sacraments. The great teacher and shepherd affirmed that grace, especially sacramental grace does not dependent on the holiness of the person, but on Christ Himself. Perhaps he was merciful and did not expect total perfection from people and clerics because he himself knew what it meant to be weak, failed, avoided, and strayed from God. Furthermore, he understood, that in reality, His divine grace and providence are much bigger and able to be at work in ways beyond our imagination, even with our human frailties, weaknesses, and fears. The saint believed and taught that all should be given chances for repentance, conversion, and transformation, especially through proper discipline and education.
In the day and age where many people do not have much faith, and those who do are often weak and struggling. That is why surrounding fears often eat people alive! These irrational, sometimes spiritual, matters tend to sow despair and hopelessness in many’s lives. Therefore, many times, it is important that we affirm God’s goodness and mercy for those who are eaten alive by despair and fears. Even though the world is not perfect and people’s faith is weak, that does not mean there is no good because somehow things do not fit in one’s black and white picture or standard of judgment. In a broken world, we have to believe and preach that God‘s grace is still at work to change hearts and bring people back to His love, even in the midst of many imperfections. We can only do what we can with the best of what we have to help each other along the way, affirming goodness and truth first and foremost, but also try to understand people and help them at their levels. We are the Church of both sinners and saints, striving and failing, doing our best to love God — even if we are weak, broken, and eaten by fear. We are still His instrumental works in progress — messy and imperfect — but He still has not given up on us, yet. Therefore, let us not give up on one another, even those we deemed to be imperfect and weak, so that we can be patient, merciful, and loving toward them. This is the way that Christ has taught us, for we are all brothers and sisters, doing the best that we can to help each other on the journey home.
I know this is not what many of you want to hear… and many would like this bishop or that priest’s answer better. That is alright! I am not a holy and strong bishop or priest… I am just a simple parish priest trying to care for many people who have been hurt by this pandemic, and I offer you a very ignorant, uneducated, perhaps unpopular, and too simple of an answer. All I ask is that you pray for me so I can care for the people entrusted to me, especially those who are living with burdensome lives with (irrational) fears, anxieties, hopelessness, and despair.