As we survey the dismal inability of so many Americans to bring themselves to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the language is very much about “my right” to choose yea or nay. This is just one instance of the way rights language is despoiling the earth, as I exercise “my right” to use and abuse the non-renewable resources of the planet, or “my right” to gorge while others starve, or “my right” to ignore democratic freedoms and declare a free and fair election to be a falsity, or “my right” to carry a gun. Nor is this kind of rights language restricted to the secular world.
When the church argues that it has the right to withhold birth control coverage from its employees’ health care packages, or the right to fire an elementary schoolteacher because she is married to another woman, or the right to turn a politician away from the Eucharist, common sense is far from these judgments and some kind of ideology, some ecclesial culture war, is driving them. The few Catholics who argue for a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement at the most sensitive and sensible Catholic colleges and universities probably do so, like their non-Catholic counterparts, out of some vaguely ideological Trumpian anti-vaxxer sentiments. But their objections, often employing the papally discredited argument that a possible remote connection between the vaccination and aborted fetuses precludes Catholic cooperation with evil, are hard to defend when Pope Francis has declared that vaccination is “a moral imperative.”
I have lately been reading Robert Zaretsky’s new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, which, while it might be a little guilty of domesticating that least tamable of thinkers, offers us much food for thought for our present-day church and world on exactly this topic of rights. Weil is deeply suspicious of how potentially egotistical a focus on rights can be. Here is where we have to be careful, because the world is way too short on the right kind of rights. But what are they? They are the rights of those who pretty much have no access to the rights that the rest of us can enjoy without pressure or penalty.
Catholic social teaching has been aware of this issue of rights language for a very long time. Classically, it insists that every right has a concomitant responsibility. But Simone Weil eschews the language of rights and responsibility in favor of the idea of duty; duty can have no conditions; it is simply just what my conscience and human nature require of me as a member of the human community. There is an absolute quality to duty; there is no such thing as a conditional duty. This is clearly more congenial to Weil’s temperament than any kind of moral compromise or casuistical escape-clause. Indeed, it was probably her extremism here that hastened her death in England in 1943, when she felt duty-bound to eat no more than her French fellow-citizens suffering under Nazi occupation. “Duty to what?” one might ask, and Zaretsky’s reply is that Weil saw “duty to the good” to be the motivator. In this, she was shadowed by Iris Murdoch, an admirer of Weil, who though an agnostic wrote in language redolent of the doctrine of original sin, of human beings’ “insuperable psychological barriers to goodness,” and thought that the task of moral philosophy was “to purify this energy which is naturally selfish in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly.”
And so, we come to the reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID. The language of rights is used overwhelmingly among those unwilling to be vaccinated, and the idea of duty is never mentioned. Duty to the good or duty to God, both amount to care for the community. What God wants is a loving and caring community in which “my rights” are second to “the common good.” The centrality of the idea of the common good to Catholic social teaching (CST) coincides with Weil’s duty to the good and her interpretation of duty points exactly to the particular way in which CST understands the common good, as the good of the whole measured by the particular care and concern for the least powerful members of society.
It is quite clear that vaccination against COVID-19 is a fine example of the application of the principle of the common good, so how come the U.S. church has not spoken forcefully to promote it? And why have some Catholic universities resisted the idea of a vaccine mandate, while so many have imposed one? There is undoubtedly a mix of motives, including the fear of backlash from parishioners, or from anti-vaxxer donors, alumni and trustees of the schools. I suppose it’s a trade-off. A few more people die, but the money keeps coming in. What bishops and college presidents should be making clear is that putting one’s personal freedoms before the needs of the community, in any situation but especially in one so dire as the present pandemic, is a deeply sinful course of action. When Pope Francis says that being vaccinated is a moral obligation, the implication for those who choose otherwise is clear. The hands of those who choose the freedom to exercise “their rights” may turn out to have blood on them.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.