With so many challenges facing us today when it comes to COVID—new variants, shifting directives from numerous authorities, endless questions about so many complex factors—I was heartened to read this bit of sensitive sanity from an American Cardinal:

It goes without saying that this will also mean rejecting an authoritarian or paternalistic way of dealing with people that lays down the law, that pretends to have all the answers, or easy answers to complex problems, that suggests that general rules will seamlessly bring immediate clarity or that the teachings of our tradition can preemptively be applied to the particular challenges confronting couples and families.

Perhaps you missed it. If so, there’s a good reason: the quote, while indeed by an American prelate, has nothing to do with COVID. It is from a February 9, 2018 address titled “Pope Francis’ Revolution of Mercy: Amoris Laetitia as a New Paradigm of Catholicity”, delivered by Cardinal Blase Cupich at the Von Hügel Institute, in Cambridge, England.

I mention and quote it because last week Cardinal Cupich published a column with the rather rigid, black-and-white title, “Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a moral imperative”. He applauds the growing numbers of Americans getting the COVID shots, and says: “Controlling the growth of the contagion is critical, making universal vaccination a moral imperative.” He states it is “promising” that “60% of Americans agree with the statement, ‘Because getting vaccinated against COVID-19 helps protect everyone, it is a way to live out the religious principle of loving my neighbors.’”

Now, that may be praiseworthy. Maybe not. But it is simply beside the point. Neither the pope, nor his doctrinal dicastery, nor any serious moral theologian has argued or asserted that getting the vaccine is a moral imperative.

In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explicitly said the opposite, a year ago: “At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” Individual Catholics are free to use their prudential judgment and make informed decisions, while following their consciences, about the COVID shots.

Cupich, in his column, of course never mentions the conscience. I point this out because he has a notable record of invoking “conscience” when it comes to matters of sexual morality. For instance, six years ago this month he stated:

When people who are in good conscience, working with a spiritual director, come to a decision that they need to follow that conscience. That’s the teaching of the church. So in the case of people receiving Communion in situations that are irregular, that also applies.

The question then was, ‘Does that apply to gay people?’ My answer was, ‘They’re human beings, too.’ They have a conscience. They have to follow their conscience. They have to be able to have a formed conscience, understand the teaching of the church, and work with a spiritual director and come to those decisions. And we have to respect that.

No mention of a “moral imperative” there. And that isn’t too surprising, as Cupich has a flawed and problematic understanding of conscience, as I’ve examined in detail.

Meanwhile, we are left with this uncomfortable fact: some Church leaders are more confident, or even outrightly brazen, in turning vaccines into an issue of morality than they are of turning sexual morality into a serious issue—one that affects lives and souls in ways that are physically, emotionally, relationally, and eternally damaging.

To be clear, I have declined to take the existing COVID shots primarily because of concerns about efficacy and safety, not to mention necessity. I am also curious about the increasingly religious, even cultish, nature of those who insist that the vaccines are the way, the truth, and the life. The obsession with the shots is not really rooted in science, just as the fear-mongering about COVID betrays a technocratic vision of life that is, in many ways, far more concerning on a social and civilizational level than is COVID itself.

That being said, if you decide the shots are for you, I have no interest in stopping you or making any moral judgments about your choice. But declaring that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a “moral imperative” is a bridge too far. Not even Pope Francis’s CDF went there.

The above comes from a Dec. 24 column by Carl Olson in Catholic World Report.