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COVID Vaccines, Conscience, & the Pope: a Catholic Dialogue

COVID Vaccines, Conscience, & the Pope: a Catholic Dialogue August 21, 2021

Charlie Fromm-Starkville, a Facebook friend of mine, describes himself as a “traditional Catholic”. This back-and-forth exchange took place on my Facebook page: edited (some sub-threads not included) for the sake of relative brevity and flow of content. His words will be in blue.

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Pope Francis has endorsed (as he must, because it is solidly established Catholic teaching) the right to conscientious objection:

I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection. But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.
Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying ‘this right that has merit, this one does not.’ It is a human right. It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right. It is a human right. (September 2015)
We see every day that the powerful countries create laws that force us to go through this path … a nation that doesn’t follow these modern laws, these cultures, or that at least doesn’t want to have them in its laws, is accused, is politely persecuted. It’s a persecution that robs man of his freedom, even from conscientious objection! Conscientious objection is a right, and part of the body of all human rights. If we want to make peace, we must respect all rights. (April 2016)

Moreover, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced on 12-21-20: Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccinesAt the end it states:

The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 17 December 2020, examined the present Note and ordered its publication.

This papal approval included the following, from section 5:

5. 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. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed. Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable. [my bolding; italics in original]

See also:

“On vaccination, NY archdiocese tramples the rights of the faithful” (Phil Lawler, Catholic Culture, 8-5-21)

“Two Catholic groups: No vaccine mandate without conscience protections” (Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service, 8-2-21)

To my knowledge, when Pope Francis has encouraged people to receive a COVID vaccine [see one example], it was a general recommendation: not a mandate that all Catholics must receive it, as a matter of absolute moral obligation, in conjunction with the commands to love our neighbors, etc.

The Church is also crystal-clear as to the individual right of conscientious objection. See, for example, the Catechism:

1776 “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” [Footnote: Gaudium Spes 16.]
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1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
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“Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
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[Footnote for citation: John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.]
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1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” [Footnote: DH 3 § 2.]
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1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. . . .
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1800 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.

I am a traditional Catholic. I am also a realist. It brings me no joy to say this, but the reality is that Darwinism is taking care of those who object to vaccination or treat mask mandates like a conspiracy theory.

Peter has spoken through his successor Francis. And it appears from news reports that he is speaking directly to Catholics in America. [provided a link]

I will not receive parts of murdered babies used for vaccine research and development into my body; period.

To me this is the moral equivalent of Nazi research on Jewish concentration camp victims. The Church has condemned it (while allowing Catholics to receive vaccines due to remoteness of participation in the evil). This is a matter of conscience. It applies only to me. I’m not here telling you or anyone else what they should do. Go do your thing and leave those of us who have a different view alone.
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Exactly!
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As a Catholic apologist it would be completely and professionally irresponsible for you to tell others not to receive the vaccine when Pope Francis himself, the successor of St Peter, just cut a public service announcement aimed primarily at Americans telling us to undergo vaccination as an act of love towards our neighbor.
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I know many other Catholic apologists have exposed themselves as dissenters during Pope Francis’ pontificate. But you have for the most part remained faithful. So I could not imagine you taking a position contrary to the Holy Father’s.
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With that in mind, though, please keep in mind that there are a number of conservative and traditionalist Catholic apologists and writers who advocate that the Church ought to take a more aggressive approach to vaccination. It’s not just the Patheos crowd taking this position. Personally, I can appreciate Pope Francis’ approach: which is to use both tradition (Angelus message) and modern social media (YouTube) to appeal directly to the average Catholic in those parts of the world where clergy and lay apologists and theologians have proven most resistant to vaccination. If you have not seen the Holy Father’s video, it is well worth watching. 
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Here is the Holy Father’s public service announcement promoting COVID vaccination. [link] I much prefer the Pope Francis’s fatherly and loving appeal to vaccinate out of love of neighbour (Christ’s second commandment), to advocacy for mass excommunication.
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I’m not an ultramontanist, and this statement from the pope is not an infallible one. It’s not binding for all Catholics. He has to abide by the Catholic Church’s recognition of the right to conscientious objection, just like everyone else.
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And in fact he does recognize it, as I documented above. He must do so, because it is solidly established Catholic teaching) the right to conscientious objection. I have not argued that folks shouldn’t get vaccinated. I have said that it is overall a good thing.
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I do think Pope Francis is taking the right approach as pastor of the universal Church by cutting targeted public service announcements instead of using the hammer of censures and canonical penalties, as some have called for.
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Do you agree that any and every Catholic who has conscientious objections to the use of aborted babies, is not morally obliged to ignore their conscience and receive a COVID vaccine?
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I believe that. I also believe they have an obligation to examine and try and understand why Pope Francis, various Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, Cardinals, bishops, and learned theologians are promoting vaccination against COVID, especially if the anti-vax Catholics are clergy, religious, theologians, catechists, teachers, apologists, or public figures.
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Obviously they are promoting it because it lowers the incidence of COVID. That still doesn’t touch my objection based on conscience (though that’s not my only one: just the primary and most unassailable one). It doesn’t follow logically that if Pope Francis says “go get vaccinated. It’s an act of love” etc., that he is therefore denying conscientious objection. Elsewhere he has made it clear that there is such a thing as conscientious objection.
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I’m “anti-vax” for me, not “anti-vax.” It’s a big and important distinction. No one has any basis to attack my position, which is firmly entrenched in Catholic moral teaching. Conscientious objection was a fundamental notion of things like the civil rights movement, protests against Vietnam, and Operation Rescue’s blocking of abortion death center doors (of which I was a part).
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I start from the position that as both a scientist and a theologian Pope Francis is much more competent in these areas than I am. I admit up front that I am no expert, and so I cannot judge, but I personally believe that Pope Francis is more competent in science and moral theology than the vast majority of his critics within the Church. So my assumption is that he has considered all objections to the vaccine prior to putting out his YouTube PSA targeted to Catholics in the Americas. This includes both objections claiming moral theology and objections claiming science as their basis.
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To be fair, as a traditional Catholic and a pro-lifer I also shared your initial conscientious objections. Once Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, various patriarchs, cardinals, bishops (including our local bishop who says the TLM) . . . came out in favour of vaccination, I realized there is no moral objection I could formulate that these successors to St Peter and the Apostles had not already considered.
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It does not include those who object in good conscience, because it cannot. Catholic teaching on that is firm and clear. See, for example, the Catechism. Nor is he a science expert, as he himself admits, and this is not part of his jurisdiction. He can only give opinions. We must respect them, but we’re not bound to them. So, for example, in his encyclical Laudato si, he wrote:
There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good. [188]
I certainly did respectfully disagree with him regarding global warming and nuclear energy. Otherwise, I enthusiastically praised the wonderful document.
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Vaccines are a matter of science and medicine, and the pope is assuredly not infallible in those areas. Nor is the Holy Father a “scientist”. His Wikipedia page states:
He attended the technical secondary school Escuela Técnica Industrial N° 27 Hipólito Yrigoyen, . . . and graduated with a chemical technician’s diploma (not a master’s degree in chemistry, as some media outlets incorrectly reported). In that capacity, he spent several years working in the food section of Hickethier-Bachmann Laboratory, . . .
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As a Jesuit novice he studied humanities in Santiago, Chile. . . .
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In 1960, Bergoglio obtained a licentiate in philosophy from the Colegio Máximo de San José in San Miguel, Buenos Aires Province. He taught literature and psychology at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción, a high school in Santa Fe, from 1964 to 1965. In 1966, he taught the same courses at the Colegio del Salvador in Buenos Aires.
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A “scientist” is generally considered a person with a doctorate degree in science. The school he got the “chemical technician’s diploma” from is a high school and community college. In any event, that is not a “scientist’s” credentials. So kindly refrain from acting as if he speaks with that expertise. He’s a very intelligent, educated man, of course, but no scientist.
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Pope Francis has a lot more knowledge, experience, and credentials in science than I do. He also has a lot more theological credentials. And of course he is the successor of St Peter and Christ’s Vicar on Earth. So even though I initially had some conscientious objections to receiving the vaccine, which is why I can sympathize with where you are coming from, I have opted to respectfully agree with the Holy Father on vaccination, as is my right as a traditional Catholic.
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We can and should all agree that it is good for many to take the vaccine. He has not, on the other hand, indicated that there has been a reversal of Church teaching on conscience. I disagree where I have a perfect right to, in non-magisterial areas where the pope cannot bind me to obedience, and it is not disobedience. Reactionaries disagree where they are wrong, and even have views contrary to de fide dogmas: such as the indefectibility of the Church and the pope.
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I’m not sure how much obedience a successor of St Peter, especially one with a science education, is due in this area.
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I am, as an apologist. You can either take my word on that or go on arguing, in perfect futility, with no basis. He can’t possibly disagree about conscientious objection because he okayed the Vatican document above, last December, which included that very thing. What is he: two-faced? Many of his critics think so. You shouldn’t . . .
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I can also ask my pastor or my bishop, or one of the moral theologians at our local Catholic college. Though the issue is somewhat moot since you acknowledge my right as a Catholic to agree with the Holy Father. I was criticizing clergy and Catholic apologists who deny Catholics have a right to agree with the Holy Father on this issue.
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I don’t judge those like yourself who disagree with the Holy Father on the basis of conscientious objection. I will, however, assert my right as a traditional Catholic to agree with the Holy Father on this topic, where prior to his intervention (and that of several patriarchs, cardinals, and bishops) I had disagreed based upon conscientious objection. If Catholics have a right to disagree with the Supreme Pontiff on this matter, they also have a right to agree with him.
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Of course you can agree. You have to know, however, exactly what it is you are agreeing with.
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By the way, my non-judgment is based upon a Catholic being honest in one’s actions flowing from one’s objections. We have a few Catholic apologists locally who have actually lied about being vaccinated and/or exempt from mask mandates because they object to vaccination and mask mandates. This is dishonest and it is always wrong.
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This document must be understood in light of Pope Francis’ more recent fatherly exhortation alongside several cardinals to receive vaccination as an act of love. I as a traditional Catholic will exercise my right to agree with the Holy Father.
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Yes, voluntarily, with the exceptions on the basis of conscience or advice of one’s doctor, etc. Learn the difference between “agreeing” and being “obliged to agree based on the magisterium.” This thing is not the latter. You’re simply agreeing with a non-magisterial opinion of the pope, where his particular view carries no more weight than anyone else’s.
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By living a healthy lifestyle, my family (generalizing) has healthy immune systems. None of my family have gotten COVID. That’s ten people: wife and I, four children, two daughters-in-law, and two granddaughters. Only one of us has received the vaccine.
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I’ve followed all of the public protocol. Michigan had some of the strictest restrictions in the nation for well over a year. Meanwhile, a guy like President Obama didn’t give a damn about the rhetoric of his own party concerning masks: with a birthday party of 700 mask-free people. So I follow rules even when I am skeptical about them, whereas folks like Obama and Pelosi and our beloved Governor Whitmer talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They’re not even consistent with the advice they dish out to others and force them to abide by (typical of liberal elitism).
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That said, we’re not gonna live our lives cowering in fear over a variant now that mostly has the terrifying symptoms of a common cold, and results in very very few deaths (most no doubt in those with other serious conditions already).
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My doctor is also a friend of mine. What I understand from him is that the symptoms often are not as serious for those who are healthy and have been vaccinated. It is different if you have not been vaccinated. Much higher risk of requiring hospitalization and of dying or experiencing serious long-term health consequences. The Delta variant which is much more contagious and appears to be much more serious. I would be extremely cautious.
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We go to church (our main social activity), go to our favorite lake, and my daughter just went to a concert in Comerica Park, where the Tigers play: filled up and almost no masks.
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Now, if, say, a thousand out of that crowd get COVID and have the sniffles and a sore throat for a week, I think they will think it was worth it to get back to normal again. Anyone there was obviously not concerned about it. Or they were vaccinated in the first place, or have natural immunity from having had it already.
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Meanwhile, those who are at serious risk can get vaccinated as they choose, and stop worrying so much about it. And they can take all the more precautions. It doesn’t follow that all of us must do so.
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Life is filled with risks. A certain percentage of people will get killed in car accidents. But virtually no one will say they refuse to drive a car because of that. Smoking is legal, even though we know full well that many thousands will die of lung cancer because of it (as my father did). No one is advocating making cigarettes illegal, or forcing all smokers to cease immediately. We’re relatively unconcerned about drunk drivers, who kill many thousands every year. The bars are doing a brisk business. Very few talk about the harm done by white sugar (that I have avoided for now 38 years), or the suicide and overdose epidemics among young people, etc., etc.
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The original virus was much more dangerous than this present one (though this one is more contagious: so they say). All your examples are from “before the Delta variant” as you yourself say. The media rarely makes any necessary distinctions. So they’ll say, for example, that the hospitals are filled to the brim, but they talk little about the mildness of symptoms, and long-term prognosis, or how very few die, or how those who do already were immuno-compromised or otherwise seriously ill, or elderly (i.e., among those who need to be much more cautious). The public deserves all of the truth, not liberal selected tidbits that fit their agenda.
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My understanding is that Delta is a lot more mild for those who are immunized.
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Here’s some homework for you:
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Please find me two articles: one that thinks Delta is really terrible and alarming, and another that doesn’t. Or do you think it is impossible to find anyone who thinks the latter? I’m pretty sure there is more than one legitimate scientific / medical opinion out there. And this is what ticks so many of us off. Only one side is ever presented, as if any disagreement is wacko conspiratorialism. The Democrats habitually do this with every issue.
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I’m not a medical expert. So generally I agree with my doctor and friends in the medical profession. Most of them are pretty much in agreement with Dr Fauci.
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Can you conceive of a legitimate scientific / medical opinion that differs from Dr. Fauci and current liberal dogma?
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Science is neither liberal nor conservative. It is science.
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Exactly my point. So why don’t you answer my question? Is it conceivable to you that a non-wacko regular old scientist could possibly disagree with Fauci and those who think there are no concerns whatever with the vaccines?
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On what basis?
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It’s a simple yes or no answer. Don’t play games.
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I have yet to meet a doctor in person among my various medical experts, family members, and social contacts who disagrees with Dr Fauci when it comes to COVID.
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I didn’t ask that. I asked, “Is it conceivable to you that a non-wacko regular old scientist could possibly disagree with Fauci?”
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The most candid answer I can give you is that I would need to know what that looks like. Conception, for me, should be based upon reality. And my reality so far is that every doctor and medical professional with whom I have spoken personally agrees with Dr Fauci. I’m not a doctor. So when it comes to medicine and disease control I trust what pretty much every doctor and medical professional is telling me. But as Christ states in the Gospel according to St Mark, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” What I have noticed is that the non-vaccinated trying to convince me doctors are wrong are all among the healthy.
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So you can’t conceive of it. Thank you. Of course, this is the characteristic of a closed mind. No one could possibly disagree with the Standard Line. It can’t even be conceived that a non-wacko, non-conspiratorialist doctor or scientists might have a different opinion. You won’t concede that. And my point is abundantly made.
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First, I think it was GK Chesterton who said: “An open mind is like an open mouth. It’s purpose is to close it again on something solid.” In this case the solid I identify as a non-expert in medicine is every doctor and medical professional I know, including those I know through the pro-life movement, telling me to get vaccinated.
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I have not told you or anyone else not to get vaccinated. So I am not contradicting that advice. But your latest replies are simply yet more obfuscation, and still don’t address my deliberately provocative, socratic question.
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As a traditional Catholic I know this advice from medical experts is not contrary to Catholic teaching because it is the same message professed by Pope Francis and several cardinals in the Holy Father’s recent PSA to Catholics. So the fact Pope Francis and Dr Fauci are in agreement seals it for me as a solid from the perspective of both medical expertise and Catholic moral theology.
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Second, I believe it was Socrates who pointed out that no person can read another person’s mind. Therefore it is never advisable that one presume to do so. My conception of you in the context of this discussion is that you are not a doctor, medical professional, or scientific expert in public health or disease control.
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The question does not depend upon, nor presuppose that you have to be a medical expert to answer it. It was asking whether you can “conceive” of a different medical opinion. It wasn’t asking whether you personally are aware of same, or whether you have the expertise to intelligently ascertain its truthfulness or plausibility.
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The refusal to directly answer and the hemming and hawing and topic-switching shows that you are uncomfortable with the question at some deep level: that you don’t want to grapple with it. And I say that it indicates a profoundly closed mind. Not only do you keep implying that there is no such legitimate dissenting opinion, but far beyond that, you can’t even conceive of such a thing.
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That’s exactly what the Liberal Thought Police want you to think and assume: no one can possibly disagree with what they decree and demand without being nuts, a wacko, a fringe fanaticist, or tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist. You’re a good, obedient sheep.
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If there is anything that genuine, authentic, true science assuredly is not, it is this:
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It’s not a set of dogmas asserted from on high, that no scientist (on pain of being classified and “cancelled” as a nutcase) can possibly challenge or submit to test, or hypothesize or theorize against, by the usual methods of science.
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By its very nature, anything can be questioned. Even Newton’s laws of gravitation (over against ferocious opposition) were eventually questioned and then overthrown (by eventual empirical observation), per Einstein’s initial theorizing.

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That is science. But this nonsense that “all” sane, rational, thoughtful, objective scientists and doctors supposedly accept one thing and one thing only is not science at all. It’s preconceived dogma, motivated by purely political considerations. And as you correctly noted, true science is not political.
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“You’re a good, obedient sheep.” Is that not a biblical image first introduced by Christ in the gospels for His people?
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Yep. But that’s theology and a religious matter, and the submission is to Jesus Christ and the Church. We’re talking about science, and its current massive corruption by politicization, and being “sheep” in the bad sense of fearful kow-towing to Arbitrary Liberal Dogma.
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Science is not of that nature. Scientists don’t accept without question any supposed “dogma.” Dogma is not a proper category in science. Nor is “obedience.” The scientist (by the very nature of science) relentlessly questions and tests and sees whether any given view can withstand scrutiny.
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Related Reading
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Photo credit: fernandozhiminaicela (4-1-20) [Pixabay / Pixabay License]
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Summary: We discuss the objection from conscience to the COVID vaccines (use of aborted babies). Then we address whether any legitimate scientist has valid concerns about the vaccines.
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