It isn’t often that I come across an editorial filled with as much factual inaccuracy and misunderstanding as the recent one by Dr. Amesh A. Adalja.
This is striking, because he’s a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and his editorial is on health security.
The piece is titled, “No, the New COVID Vaccine Is Not ‘Morally Compromised.’”
What’s wrong with the piece? Let’s look . . .
Pope Francis vs. U.S. Bishops?
Dr. Adalja begins by discussing the new Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine and the concerns raised about it by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes:
Is this group concerned about lower numerical efficacy in clinical trials? No, it seems that they have deemed the J&J vaccine “morally compromised”. The group is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and if something is “morally compromised” it is surely not the vaccine. (Notably Pope Francis has not taken such a stance).
Apart from the nasty insinuation that the bishops conference is morally compromised, what’s wrong with this is that he states Pope Francis has not taken a stand like the U.S. bishops.
Adalja bases this assertion on a news story headlined “Vatican Says Covid Vaccines ‘Morally Acceptable.’”
Here’s a piece of advice for Dr. Adalja: Don’t trust what the press says about religious topics. Always look up the original sources.
Had Dr. Adalja bothered to read the primary sources, he would have come across this document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was authorized by Pope Francis, meaning that he put his teaching authority behind it.
The document holds that—although circumstances may permit taking vaccines like the Johnson & Johnson one—those that used cell lines derived from aborted children are morally compromised, and so the document states:
Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.
So, Pope Francis takes exactly the same position as the U.S. bishops. Or rather, they’re taking the same position he is.
The Issue at Hand
Adalja then begins his case for why the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should not be considered morally compromised, so he argues that cell lines from aborted children are widely used in biotechnology and that they are used to find treatments for diseases.
These facts are not in question, but raises them does not engage the moral issue from a Catholic perspective.
The Catholic Faith holds that unborn children are people, and therefore they must be treated as such.
You could not kill an innocent person and then harvest his body for medical consumables. That is immoral, and that is what is happening with the cell lines in question.
The problem is not the cell lines themselves. It is the way they were harvested, which was—in essence—scavenging the body of a homicide victim.
If biomedicine needs cell lines to develop treatments, fine! But get them in an ethical way!
This is not impossible. There are perfectly legitimate ways of doing it. It’s just a question of being willing.
What the bishops want to see is not a banishing of cell lines from medicine.
Instead, they want to see public agencies and private companies—like Johnson & Johnson—get enough pushback that their consciences are activated, and they stop making morally tainted cell lines and replace them with ones that have been developed ethically.
Dr. Adalja does not recognize an unborn child as a human being. He states:
An embryo or fetus in the earlier stages of development, while harboring the potential to grow into a human being, is not the moral equivalent of a person.
Scientifically, this is nonsense. (Notice that he invokes the nonscientific category of “the moral equivalent of a person.”)
Viewed from a scientific perspective (as opposed to a faith perspective), a human being is a living human organism.
An unborn child—from the single-cell, zygote stage onward—is a living human organism:
- The unborn are living (because dead fetuses don’t grow).
- They are human (because they have human genetic codes).
- And they are organisms (because they are organic wholes that are not part of another organism—as illustrated by the fact their genetic codes are different than those of their mothers).
Unless you want to invoke nonempirical concepts, you have to put unborn children in the same biological category as born ones, which is the category of human beings.
And unless your system of morality allows you to kill innocent human beings, you cannot kill them.
Adalja may not agree, but if he wants Catholics to disregard this purely objective viewpoint that is based on reason—and which also happens to be the teaching of their Church—he needs to provide arguments against it, which he doesn’t.
Enter the Ad Hominems
Like many who can’t produce objective arguments for their position, Adalja turns to ad hominem attacks on the Church. His overall attitude is expressed when he says:
Appeals from clerics, devoid of any need to tether their principles to this world, should not have any bearing on one’s medical decision-making.
It’s true—and irrelevant—that the bishops are clerics (as if that were a bad thing!), but they are not “devoid of any need to tether their principles to this world.”
Without invoking any nonempirical concepts, they have recognized the truth—which is entirely accessible to reason—that unborn children are human beings.
But Adalja doesn’t stop there. He then produces a brief litany of assertions that are further ad hominems.
The Dark Ages?
In the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church opposed all forms of scientific inquiry
This is factually inaccurate in the extreme. Dr. Adalja is apparently not a historian of science, for no historian of science would make such a claim.
It was—in fact—the clerical caste in the Middle Ages that contained the principal drivers of scientific inquiry, or natural philosophy, as it was then known.
Dr. Adalja should learn more about this period before he makes further assertions about it.
Allow me to recommend a good, popular level course on the subject that he should consider taking. (And so should everybody else; it’s really good.)
Lust of the Eyes?
Dr. Adalja asserts that in the Middle Ages the Church was “even castigating science and curiosity as the ‘lust of the eyes.’”
The scientific revolution didn’t occur until after the Middle Ages, so science did not exist in its present form then. Adalja’s claim that the Church was “castigating science” in the Middle Ages is thus going to be in some degree anachronistic.
But if he wants to say that “the Catholic Church” was doing this, he’s going to need to quote some official source capable of speaking for the Church—like a pope or an ecumenical council.
Yet when we click the link he has provided, we find only a statement of a single theologian: St. Augustine.
And has Adalja even understood St. Augustine?
If you read the page (from Augustine’s Confessions), you discover that the kind of curiosity he’s rejecting as trivial is the kind people have for things in theaters and circuses, about astrology, and about magic and divination. He writes:
[T]he theatres do not now carry me away, nor care I to know the courses of the stars, nor did my soul ever consult ghosts departed . . . I go not now to the circus to see a dog coursing a hare.
Those are the kinds of things Augustine considers idle curiosities.
Adalja should really read and digest the pages he’s linking.
“Because It Is Absurd”?
One early Middle Ages church father reveled in his rejection of reality and evidence, proudly declaring, “I believe because it is absurd.”
This time, Adalja gives us a link to a Wikipedia page about a quotation attributed to Tertullian.
And we have numerous problems.
First, Tertullian did not live in the “early Middle Ages.” He lived in classical antiquity.
Second, he wasn’t a Church Father. He has been denied that title because of his problematic views.
Presenting Tertullian as a reliable representative of Catholicism is like presenting Immanuel Velikovsky as a reliable representative of mainstream science.
Third—as the Wikipedia page points out—the quotation attributed to him isn’t accurate. As Wikipedia notes:
The consensus of Tertullian scholars is that the reading “I believe because it is absurd” sharply diverges from Tertullian’s own thoughts, given his placed priority on reasoned argument and rationality in his writings.
Fourth, the sentiment that Adalja tries to attribute to the Catholic Church is, in fact, rejected by the Church. As Wikipedia also notes:
The phrase does not express the Catholic Faith, as explained by Pope Benedict XVI: “The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith.”
Did I mention that Adalja really should read and digest the pages he links?
Finishing the Litany
Adalja finishes his litany of ad hominems by saying:
This organization, which tyrannized scientists such as Galileo and murdered the Italian cosmologist Bruno, today has shown itself to still harbor anti-science sentiments in its ranks.
The Galileo situation was much more complex that Adalja presents it—as acknowledged by Galileo scholars and historians of science. (Really, Dr. Adalja! Check out that history of science course I linked earlier!)
The case of Giordano Bruno is complicated by the fact that the needed part of the records of his trial has been lost. But his cosmological views were not the key issue. As the Wikipedia page Dr. Adalja links observes:
Starting in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges of denial of several core Catholic doctrines, including eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. Bruno’s pantheism was not taken lightly by the church, nor was his teaching of the transmigration of the soul and reincarnation.
And, needless to say, the Catholic Church would not today support what happened to Bruno, as illustrated by its stance on the death penalty.
Back to the Future
All of this raises the issue of the extent to which any of this matters.
Rather than providing evidence that would undermine the Catholic Church’s position on unborn chidren, Dr. Adalja has been giving us a litany of historical ad hominems that don’t engage the issue.
His project at this point is simply to attack the Catholic Church rather than seeking to engage and interact with its views.
Yet—despite the problems with the historical examples he cites—let’s grant him all of them. Let’s suppose that things really were as bad as he says.
What does that have to do with today?
The Catholic Church clearly has a pro-science attitude in the present. Consider this quotation from the Catechism, which is just one among many:
The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers (CCC 283).
The Church runs its own astronomical observatory, as well as a special organization dedicated to the appreciation of science—the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Members of the academy include numerous distinguished scientists, including many Nobel laureates, and they are appointed to the academy based on their contributions to science, without respect to whether they are Catholic or whether they even believe in God.
Members have included famous scientists such as Niels Bohr, Alexander Fleming, Werner Heisenberg, Stephen Hawking, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and Erwin Schrodinger.
Given all this evidence, it is clear that the charge that the Church is “against” science is sweeping and unjust hyperbole.
Dr. Adalja’s conclusion that the Church “has shown itself to still harbor anti-science sentiments in its ranks” is a bit underwhelming.
Every group of humans harbors “anti-science” sentiments in its ranks. Even scientists sometimes harbor “anti-science” views.
The question is whether a particular instance involves such views, and Adalja has done nothing to show that the Catholic Church’s assessment that unborn children are human beings is scientifically false.
Indeed, he cannot do so without invoking nonempirical—and thus nonscientific—criteria, because they objectively are living human organisms.
What Dr. Adalja does do is provide a compelling illustration of how to get science and religion wrong.
Instead of entering into the thought of the bishops he is criticizing, identifying the relevant, underlying premises, and then interacting with them:
- He hasn’t done his research (the bishops are basing their position on Pope Francis’s)
- He makes bare assertions about unborn children without providing evidence for them (i.e., that they only have the potential to grow into a human being, when they already are living human organisms)
- He turns to a litany of historically oriented ad hominems that he (a) gets wrong and (b) do not reflect the Church’s stand on science
This is not how the dialogue between science and religion should proceed.
People of whatever perspective should seek to enter and understand the thought of the other before attempting to critique it. In other words, they should do their homework.
In particular, they should avoid ad hominem attacks on the other.
It’s both unfair and irrelevant to use ad hominems to attack and dismiss religious claims, just as it would be unfair and irrelevant to use ad hominems to attack and dismiss scientific claims (which could easily be done if that were desired).
Let’s hope that lessons can be learned from this unfortunate example.