The climate of discourse? That is indeed an interesting phenomenon, on which further remark should be made. But I must first thank Peter Leithart and the Theopolis Institute for arranging this particular discourse, which falls out quite neatly into two who take my side of the argument (perhaps more ably than I) and two who take the other side; with a swing voter, so to say, whose ballot must prove decisive. I will speak briefly to the former pair, then to the latter, and finally to the all-important fifth. I thank them all for their time and trouble in hearing my case.
Hans Boersma makes some very kind remarks, which I probably ought to contest, before proceeding to his own analysis, which I won’t contest. He brings us straight to the question, which is twofold. Is it right to disobey an unjust law, and is a given law sufficiently unjust to warrant disobedience?
To the primary question he gives the only possible answer. Of course it is right and just; indeed, it would be wrong and unjust not to disobey should a law, by reason of a disproportionate lack of justice, offend against justice in some fundamental way. To the secondary question he offers a nuanced answer, as we must. There are degrees of infringement and therefore degrees of permission for, or even obligation to, disobedience. And, given the essential good of civil order, the bar for disobedience must be set quite high.
Boersma then parses the present situation by finding in it three challenges under the rubric of coercive mandates: laws that seem to discriminate in significant ways for unjust or merely arbitrary reasons; laws that coerce in ways that violate fundamental rights; and ecclesial laws that divide the church and deprive the faithful of the sacraments. With each category he grows progressively more confident that the bar for disobedience can be cleared, though only in the third case does he commit to a moral obligation to disobey.
Before considering whether he is right as regards the pandemic laws—perhaps we had better say “directives” or “decrees”—suppose we change the illustrations. First category, blacks to the back of the bus; second category, coerced aborting or even coerced abortions; third category, diversity quotas for baptisms. I doubt there is anyone taking part in this conversation who would not then agree that the bar is cleared in each case, though someone might try to argue that the first example again entails permission rather than obligation, so long as other things are being done to achieve the goal. And someone else might try to claim that the church itself is a sort of bus, or at least a boat, and that therefore diversity quotas (not, alas, an entirely far-fetched idea these days) should not be resisted. This little exercise serves to reinforce the claim that the task is to decide whether disobedience is warranted in a given case, not whether it is ever warranted. It also serves to remind us that all such decisions entail complexities we cannot afford to pass over.
Now, both Boersma and Kheriaty believe, as I do, that disobedience of some kind is warranted in the present circumstances. Perhaps that shared belief stems in part from personal experience of unnecessary and wrongfully imposed suffering. Perhaps it stems from the hard work that was necessary to discover the reasons for that suffering and to explain them to others who didn’t understand or were themselves suffering. At all events, I find in their remarks an admirable combination of reason and compassion (just the combination Augustine recommends at Mor. Ecc. 53) that I miss in some of the other contributions.
Boersma’s high bar, “unless human authority demands that we directly contravene a natural or divine law, we ought to obey,” is set at the right notch; so long as we don’t misunderstand it as requiring the kind of decree that Daniel’s three friends were confronted with. It is perfectly possible for the state to demand contravention of natural or divine law without the state explicitly declaring itself divine. When, as in Boersma’s reading of category one, it requires us to injure our neighbor—even and especially when that is called loving the neighbor—the bar is reached. Or when, in category two, it requires us to injure ourselves—even and especially when that injury is called protection—the bar is reached. When, in category three, the church is required to do what the church must not do, or not to do what the church must do, the bar is reached.
To Aaron Kheriaty’s very fine and carefully constructed remarks, which supply some of the particulars necessary to demonstrate injury to the neighbor and injury to the self—injury indeed to science, to society, and to the state itself—I have nothing to add, except confirmation that the damage is so well-coordinated and so extensive and so persistent that it cannot be put down to good intentions gone awry, though doubtless that was the case in some instances. By no means every instance, for there was foul play from the start, including criminal negligence and what looks like involuntary euthanasia of the inconvenient elderly. And there is foul play today, not only in the ongoing restrictions, mandates, and injections—especially the unforgivable injection of children—but also in the persistent mendacity and perverse projection of guilt onto the innocent. The deep hostility driving that projection was illustrated the other day in Ottawa, when the public was deemed safe only if Tamara Lich, a Freedom Convoy organizer who had been denied bail, was brought into court wearing ankle cuffs. The judge ordered their removal, but the Canadian equivalent of the Committee on Public Safety had made its point: Resistance is forbidden. Resisters will be rounded up. Their assets will be confiscated. The gulag awaits.
With this image before us, I turn to Alastair Roberts. It won’t do, I’m afraid, to talk dismissively of “tribal anxieties” in a context where tribal existence, and even national sovereignty, is a key issue in dispute. If you don’t know that it is, perhaps you haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the past fifty years, or even the past dozen years. Globalism is colonialism writ large, and the covid phenomenon is being used to advance globalist ends. Nor will it do to observe that “the supposed ‘fear’ that characterizes the ‘alien religion’ Farrow opposes seems quite in evidence in his own dystopian anxieties.” Perhaps it does, but not all fears are alike. You may as well say that Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength because he was an anxious man, or that Jesus delivered his Olivet discourse for the same reason. Fearing the advent of a dystopia is like fearing the advent of a train when forced to walk on the tracks. If the tracks are no longer used, that is irrational. If they are used, and the terrain affords no escape, it is not only rational but entirely prudent. One does not want, like a tired moose, to be too “tractable to persuasion” by the locomotive approaching from the rear. One can and should, at the same time though in very different ways, fear God and fear men who play God.
Surely it is obvious that there is a profound moral difference between deploying military-grade PsyOps to generate and sustain a debilitating fear—it is very difficult to put a charitable construction on that!—and urgently warning people that fear, the kind grounded in reverence for God rather than for a virus or for the men who purport to be able to manage the virus, is entirely requisite as a stimulus to prayer and political action, so as to derail the train of tyranny that is about to overtake us. Surely it is right to warn people that “safe and effective” is a fact only in the sense that an hypnotic mantra is a fact. As for preferring tyranny to anarchy, that at present is a false dilemma. For the anarchy, as Chesterton saw not fifty but a hundred years ago, is powered from above, not from below.
Roberts dismisses my reading of the facts as demonstrably false. Since he offers no demonstration, I can’t engage his claim, except to say that the one fact he himself offers—a million covid deaths in America—is not a fact and, being uninterpreted, would be of little use even if it were a fact (see, e.g., Rancourt, at 112). Nor does he attempt any justification of the claims on which coercive mandates rest. Take the vaccine mandates, for example, in defence of which one must show that the campaign promotes products that really are both safe and effective; that mass vaccination is necessary or at least urgent and that it requires a threshold higher than can be obtained voluntarily; that the harm done by infringement of rights and liberties is both proportionate to the severity of the threat and a lesser harm than that which would result from any other course of action. Readers of my article already know that, on my view, not a single one of these conditions is met. Readers of Roberts’ response will be no closer to confidence that they can be met.
Roberts also engages none of my theological arguments, or those of Aquinas, so I can’t engage that either. His charge of divisiveness I find extremely odd, however. While I’ve had my knees in the snow, fighting division, he seems to have had his head in the sand, ignoring division. Division is not, however, an absolute evil. From Joshua and Jeremiah to Jesus and Paul, the scriptures ask us to reckon with the fact that truth is a sword, a sword that divides even bone from marrow and requires hard choices. Simeon’s prophecy over Jesus predicted that the thoughts out of many hearts would be revealed. The covid era, I have argued from the outset, is such a time, and it has something to do with Jesus just because it wants nothing to do with Jesus—beyond pilfering the second Great Commandment, in abstraction from the first, which was J. S. Mill’s technique in Utilitarianism.
We come, then, to Jason Eberl’s epistemic humility, which I think quite revealing. So reluctant is Eberl to render judgments beyond his field of competence that he describes as “patently false” (at the moment patent is a loaded word, but we may leave that aside) something that Bayer’s Stefan Oelrich seems to think true, though Oelrich later described it as “a slip of the tongue.” Quite so; when one is marketing something as a vaccine that is not a vaccine one does want to keep one’s story straight. But let’s not quibble. I have described these miraculous products more fully as “an experimental injection with lipid nanoparticles of uncertain and possibly toxic effect on bodily tissues, used as a delivery system for genetic instructions designed to reprogram certain cells so as to cause them to produce an unknown quantity of a spike-protein pathogen with equally uncertain, but certainly dangerous, effects on the immune system and on other crucial systems, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, etc.” I’ll stand by that description, though when overtaken by a fit of epistemic humility I’m happy enough to accept Robert Malone’s compromise, “genetic vaccines.”
The line of questioning that matters just here is whether they really are toxic, how frequently, in what ways, and for how long. Disconcerting data continues to pour in on that subject. O yes, and who has known about the toxicity and for how long. The Pfizer papers tell quite a tale there. As for the promise that these genetic vaccines don’t alter one’s own DNA, let’s not be hasty. Perhaps they don’t and perhaps they do. I couldn’t tell you for certain, this being well beyond my own competence. Nor did I speak, as alleged, of “the ‘evil’ nature of the vaccines themselves.” What I actually said bears repeating here:
Because they are not safe, their use is immoral except under strictly controlled experimental conditions involving free and fully informed consent—which children cannot give—and where serious injury or death is not an acceptable outcome. Their use is immoral for the additional reason that they still depend upon fetal material and remain implicated in the ongoing crimes of abortion and fetal experimentation. And for the further reason that they belong to an aggressive program of genetic experimentation, a program including DNA and germline modifications (with the backing of Mr. Gates, Gavi, and the World Health Organization) that proposes to redesign the immune system and other natural features of the human animal.
This passage, which begins with the injections in question and says nothing contrary to fact—including the facts of Catholic teaching about such things—proceeds to remark on the larger program of dealing with what Yuval Harari calls “hackable animals,” a genetic modification program that provides the context for any sensible consideration of the place and use of this technology. I would like to think that Eberl knows of all this, but, if so, why is he misrepresenting me? And if not, why is he not more consistent in his epistemic humility?
Rather than diverting at this point into the good and necessary business of synthesizing Catholic teaching about the moral questions involved in matters such as vaccination—about which, as a Catholic moral and political theologian myself, I do know a little something, though there is not room here to insert my lengthy lectures on conscience or on the relevant spheres in which conscience requires information and reformation—I will merely observe that Catholic teaching does exactly that: It helps us wrestle with moral questions by supplying moral principles. It is no business of the Pope or of the CDF or of PAL (which today is pally with people who seem quite adept at the suppression of conscience) to pronounce on specific vaccines. What they have to say about that is no more than private opinion. Unless of course it is heavily lobbied private opinion that amounts, as others have said, to complicity in child abuse.
These are murky waters, on which subsequent developments and, eventually, infallible divine judgment will cast their light. But Eberl fails to mention that the CDF goes on to say that “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” That is what I argued at Ad 3 in “Whether there is a Moral Obligation to be Vaccinated.” And if that is so, then making it mandatory contravenes natural law, with possible very rare exceptions of which this is certainly not one. The CDF also allows for “those who for reasons of conscience refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses.” The only advice it proffers is “that they do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” Well and good. Yet the general rejection of prophylactic means and other appropriate behavior, in order to create demand for genetic vaccines that don’t prevent infection or transmission, was just what we witnessed before the coercive mandates came down. All of which clearly suggests that we ought to oppose such mandates, even if we are among those who make the enormous medical mistake of proposing widespread vaccination in the middle of a pandemic.
I will leave that there. But since it is indeed training in virtue that one hopes for from the church, and even—in a very limited fashion—from sound government, I will spend a few words more on the virtue of seeking the common good, which is said to justify all these medical and moral errors.
Now, whether we are dealing with covid mandates or with some other kind of mandate, a common-good argument must always be made. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about lockdowns or passports or coerced injections. It doesn’t even matter if we’re talking about bussing or abortion. That sort of argument must be made and will be made. Perhaps, where abortion is concerned, it will look like this: “There are too many children; it is perverse of you to be having another; this court orders an abortion.” Or like this: “We are talking about reproductive health. Are you not a licenced healthcare provider? Then provide or lose your licence.” Or perhaps it will look quite different, if it comes from my pen or from that of Eberl. Perhaps discussion of the common good might then begin with the fact that life is a gift, and that the Giver must be taken into account if any account of the common good is to be given.
So the question is always a question about the nature of the common good, and what serves it well here and now; not about whether it must be taken into account. It is also a question about who gets to decide such things, and for whom they can legitimately decide. Further, it is a question about competence in practice as well as in principle. Alastair Roberts’ diagnosis of competence is not promising: “Institutions and governments are increasingly sclerotic, ineffectual, untrustworthy, unjust, and incompetent, cynical vehicles for sectional interests, rather than servants of a common good.” D’accord. But what of Jason Eberl’s? Eberl takes a far more sanguine view both of the state of the church and of the state that wishes to be a kind of church—the state, indeed, that is determined to control the covid narrative to the point of establishing it as unchallengeable dogma.
In the article to which he sends us, Eberl thinks it voluntary ignorance to challenge the dogma. He thinks my own view relies on “unsubstantiated hyperbolic and conspiracy-theoretic comparisons.” He even supposes that my understanding of bodily autonomy depends primarily (and incongruently, from a Thomist perspective) on an appeal to the state’s prior religion; that I sacralize the deistic Declaration of Independence over against the positivist and occasionally Jesuitical construct that seems to prevail in much of Blue State America. But this, to reverse the charge, is vincible ignorance. The covid narrative to which he is clinging is counterfactual, a product of willful and well-financed corruption. And, just because it is counterfactual, it is falling apart. There is no need for me to take it apart again here. It is being taken apart in a thousand voluntary and involuntary ways. That is hardly occult knowledge.
Should the reader wish to learn what I think about autonomy—a thorny subject indeed—she might begin with my long chapter on that subject in Theological Negotiations, so as to set my approach more securely in its proper anti-gnostic and anti-nominalist context. The final chapter may also prove of interest, the chapter on what Aquinas calls “the gift of fear,” for it is only within the fear of God that the kind of autonomy proper to man can be properly preserved by man. What I myself most wish the reader to learn, however, is that the church’s own autonomy vis-à-vis the state—the libertas ecclesiae—should have made the church a champion, the champion,in the fight to defend the common good against the weaponizing of fear. This, in most places, it failed to be. Great is its guilt, where that is the case, for great is the word entrusted to it: “Fear not!”
I turn at last to our swing voter. Pastor Miller, if I read him correctly, seems to be swinging in my direction. I will try to take advantage of that rather than making the mistake of sending him swinging back the other way, if I haven’t already done so by an overly bellicose response to my somewhat bellicose critics. (Catholics and Protestants are wise to stay clear of each other’s quarrels as far as possible, though attending to them can be enlightening.) Miller’s flock no doubt benefits from his skill at seeing both sides, illustrated here by his helpful appeal to Beza, to which I will add a further appeal to Augustine.
It is certainly the case, as Beza says, that either “too much distrust” or “the immeasurable fear of death” can send one scrambling for safety at some false alarm. And since we seek peace in eternal life, and hence in this mortal life direct to that end every good act performed for God and for neighbor, we try not to care over-much about laws and customs that do not interfere with the religious life, which consists in worshiping the true God, or with the charitable life of helping the neighbor on towards God (Civ. 19.17). Thus far do I align with Miller, as indeed with Boersma.
I think it wise, however, to qualify the claim that “the body is a public thing.” As I understand Augustine, “since the life of a city is most certainly social” and since the human being is “a rational soul with a mortal and earthly body in its service” (Mor. Ecc. 52), the public/private distinction does not break down along body/soul lines. That was Rousseau’s notion, not Augustine’s. As I tried to show some years ago in Recognizing Religion, Rousseau’s notion is a very dangerous one to adopt. It leads directly to the demand that one hand over one’s own body, and the neighbor’s also, to the state; and religion, too, insofar as it concerns the res publica. It leads forthwith to civil religion, as it did in the French Revolution; or to the civil secularism that now exists throughout the West, wherein it is claimed that the state can be completely unconcerned with the very existence of God or of the soul.
I pursued this in Desiring a Better Country, but I did not yet fully recognize, for I myself was not paying sufficient attention, the Public Health tyranny that threatened. Having seen it now close up and much more clearly—who indeed can miss it, except those who are looking out from within it rather than looking back at it?—I have tried to display the consequences of devotion to these new gods, Public Health and Covid, who seem rather like the old gods, Isis and Osiris. Horus is on his way, riding those clouds in which “principalities and powers in heavenly places” will store your digital identity and dominate your temporal destiny—your eternal destiny too, if you let them.
I also think it necessary, in just this light, to qualify the general claim that “disobedience may do more harm than good.” That is true in principle, but often false in practice. Likewise the more specific claim that lockdown, “though more extreme, could be borne with patiently, because it is indiscriminate (not directed solely at churches), temporary, and does not divide the Body of Christ,” whereas a passport requirement, “while less extreme, is actually more troubling, and seems to be Dr. Farrow’s main concern.” That arrives at the right place, but not by the same route.
Lockdowns are the signal that the state has full control over the body and may exercise it at will, as it does in China. In that way, lockdowns are like mask mandates, only they attack the whole body and not merely the face. I therefore joined the counterattack immediately. Vaccine mandates upped the ante, of course, because they asserted this control even under the skin, insidethe body, rendering control all but absolute. (Some of those behind these developments have boasted, not unreasonably, that this “under the skin” access is the most significant development of the last century and, in evolutionary terms, the most significant development ever, as I observe in part III of Anarchy from Above.) But, yes, I have reserved my most “hyperbolic” language for the impossibly hypoplastic, even hypoesthesiastic, bishops who have failed to grasp either the unity of body and soul or the distinction between church and state. Why? Because the church is the one thing in the world that must not fall prey to those who are playing God. Which it does, as soon as it agrees to cease its work of praising the Lord of Heaven and Earth and to resume this work only by permission of the state. That is already a denial of its own divine nature and mandate. When it gets to separating sheep from goats along lines determined by the state, it denies God himself.
Just about everything else Ben Miller says, I agree with, apart from the perdurance of the zero-covid aim in some jurisdictions. I suppose it possible that some authorities are that thick. I think it much more likely that they think us thick. The whole zero-covid doctrine was a ruse by which to maintain emergency powers. Which brings us back to the observation of Aaron Kheriaty that the “health and safety” excuse for a perpetual state of exception is one that has been used before, in Nazi Germany.
Kheriaty lost his job. I am in danger of losing my country, though not in the same way the Ukrainians (God help the righteous) are at risk of losing theirs. Even under covid regimes, where bombs go off inside heads, then inside cells rather than over heads, many have lost their lives—many whom covid would not have taken and many who could have been rescued from covid—while others are losing their rights, their freedoms, their culture. And this is happening globally, opening the door of distraction to opportunistic chaos such as we see in the Ukraine and to equally opportunistic “order” such as the Inclusive Capitalists wish to impose on the entire world. Such are the consequences of that tissue of lies that is the covid narrative.
In the resulting context, the climate of discourse can certainly be oppressive. One doesn’t always rise successfully to the challenge of authentic civility. But I’ll tell you where I set the bar on that, and I’ll tell you in a single word: complicity. Or, as I have said before, Complicity and her sister, Complacency, those two harpies we must at all costs avoid, for love of God and neighbor.
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University, and the author of several books including Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018) and a new commentary on Thessalonians (Brazos, 2020). This article was previously published at Catholic World Report and is being reposted with permission.
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