Speech by Florio Scifo, ALU Secretary, at the ALU Conference (12/04/2021)

I would like to begin this speech by partly repeating what I wrote a few weeks ago in an article published on the website of our Associazione Libera-mente Umani, concerning “freedom of religion and the pandemic”. At the end of the article, I pointed out that “pronouncements on the moral evaluation of certain scientific procedures or medicines should be critically examined, while respecting the legitimate authorities”.

The reference was, of course, mainly to the ‘Note of the [Pontifical] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the morality of the use of certain vaccines against COVID-19’. This Note, approved by Pope Francis on 17 December 2020 and published by the Prefect of the same Congregation, Card. Luis Ladarìa, on 21 December, refers to two previous documents of the Pontifical Academy for Life, respectively of 2005 and 2017, and to an Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of 8 September 2008. The 21 December Note, as we know, affirms the moral legitimacy for a Catholic to undergo the so-called COVID-19 vaccination, even if the product used was prepared using cell lines from aborted embryos or foetuses. This position, which currently concerns all the main so-called COVID-19 vaccines on the market, developed using the embryonic cell line HEK 293 (or Per.C6 for Johnson&Johnson), actually offers several points for reflection.

First of all, it prudently speaks of a moral acceptability, not a moral obligation, of the so-called vaccination, and in paragraph 5 it leaves room for the possibility of refusing it anyway, again on moral grounds. It insists, in fact, on the fact that “[…] it appears evident to practical reason that vaccination is not normally a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary”. However, as we know, this very voluntariness is currently being undermined by the regulations in force, especially for Italian health workers.

Secondly, and here I respectfully and humbly allow a pars destruens, albeit tending ad construendum and always without any desire to replace the legitimate magisterial authorities, the “recommendation” to vaccinate is based on the assumption that the so-called new coronavirus is “a serious pathogenic agent”. This, as Dr. Aiese has just said, is certainly true in a certain number of cases, but it is just as certainly questionable in general. Moreover, vaccination with products that have used foetal cell lines in their preparation is deemed ‘acceptable’ insofar as there are no other effective cures or treatments available. This is also not the case with the coronavirus, for which, as we know, there are other cheaper and less dangerous treatments, which will be discussed by those in charge. There are also vaccines that do not make any use of the Human Embryonic Kidney 293 line, which were listed as early as November 2020 in a list published by the Fraternity of St Pius X. However, they are not currently available or, in any case, do not enjoy the favour reserved for the others.

Thirdly, the Note cited above is based on the assumption that the drugs on the market are deemed ‘safe and effective’ by the scientific authorities. An assumption of certainty which apparently does not currently exist.

Lastly, having recently edited a volume of miscellaneous bioethical studies on the right to life, I cannot help but point out on a personal level that ‘remote cooperation in abortion’, indicated in the Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while not constituting, according to the Congregation, a (mortal) sin for a Christian unless he or she approves the act that is the cause of it, poses a moral problem of a general nature and all the more so in this specific case, in the absence of the other presuppositions I have indicated.

Paragraph 3 states, in fact, that it should be ‘emphasised, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, because of the particular conditions which make it so, cannot in itself constitute legitimisation, even indirectly, of the practice of abortion, and presupposes opposition to this practice on the part of those who have recourse to it’.

Yet we know how the world works, and if a product derived from practices judged immoral is nevertheless accepted by those who reject them, this will encourage unscrupulous producers to continue their practices, based on the well-known psychological process of the ‘Overton Window’. This is precisely the ‘indirect legitimisation’ that the document seeks to avoid. Proof of this is the fact that the very morality of the use of a foetal cell line similar to HEK 293 was already being questioned in 2005, when the previous papal document I mentioned was approved, and which concluded by recalling the need to eliminate this problem as soon as possible. In 15 years, therefore, there has been no step forward from a moral point of view, but a largely unsatisfactory compromise solution continues to be proposed and is increasingly accepted.

It would therefore be right to demand that those who have imposed the compulsory nature of the so-called vaccination for health workers, and who carry it out more or less coercively on millions of people, should also make available products that are not simply ‘acceptable’ but ethically unobjectionable and of proven efficacy and safety. The fact that compromises have been made in the past does not mean that such compromises should always be made, especially since the solutions already exist and all that is needed is to apply them on a large scale.

Obviously, this applies not only to vaccines or drugs but also to all products that, for example, are the result of the work of people, often minors, who are treated in a beastly and inhuman manner. Those who are aware of such practices should therefore do all they can to prevent them from being perpetuated by boycotting their products and making their acquaintances aware of them.  

From this point of view, while preparing this contribution, I had the opportunity to read the remarks of an important Italian intellectual in favour of the so-called coronavirus vaccination, who gave the example of the morally permissible use of organs for transplantation taken from the body of a murder victim. This is, in my view, only fitting in the terminology used, because the link between abortion and the pharmaceutical industry is not just an ‘accidental’ factor.

Returning to the so-called COVID-19 vaccines, one should also note their recent development, with all the attendant consequences of the fact that they are still experimental, as a factor deserving prudential and therefore also moral attention. The prevailing scientism, i.e. blind faith in science, as if it were a new dogmatic religion, is certainly a dangerous aspect of our times, with profound moral implications that should be guarded against.

In particular, also from a literary point of view, I could suggest to whoever is listening to us now to read two books by C. S. Lewis, one of which is an essay (“The Abolition of Man”), while the other is a novel (“That Hideous Strenght”) that describes the drifts of a science that no longer has any morals beyond profit.

Moreover, it is doubtful whether we can speak of ‘vaccination’ (and not, rather, of genic therapy) for messenger RNA products, which would obviously entail further moral problems, linked both to the almost total novelty of the practice itself and to the worldwide administration and consumption of such products.   

On the other hand, conscientious objection to animal experimentation, as regulated by Italian Law 413/93, should be available to anyone who wishes to do so, at least in Italy.

Among other things, I would add, especially in relation to this last issue, that since we are dealing with cases of conscience, we should not even be able to question, as has sometimes been done, the choice of objecting to a particular product rather than another. In fact, given a general rule of ethical action, such as the biblical Commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ or the moral imperative not to harm one’s own body, distinct cases within it merit distinct evaluations (including moral ones).       

The issue of conscience also allows me to briefly mention two other aspects that are closely interconnected and equally threatened, or at least compromised, in this year and a half of pandemic: freedom of thought and freedom of movement.

Freedom of thought has been, and still is, called into question, not only by what I have said before, but also by the rhetorical creation of the social category of ‘deniers’, and by attributing blame for the disasters caused by the political mismanagement of the situation to different social categories each time. This is a communist system, based on the classic ‘divide et impera‘, well known to anyone who has read at least the first volume of ‘The GULag Archipelago’. Moreover, there is a very dangerous tendency on the horizon not only to censor but also to legally condemn the expression of opinions that differ from the thought that one wants to pass off as dominant.

According to the Pakistani diplomat Muhammad Zafrullah Khan, whose text I happened to translate in part, freedom of thought and religion, as set out in Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is closely linked to what he calls “freedom to travel”. Indeed, Khan noted that ‘it is somewhat paradoxical, however, that while the Declaration sets forth the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”, it does not seek to promote the freedom to travel […] across frontiers in search of knowledge, information and ideas – a freedom which mankind has enjoyed for centuries and which has been severely hindered in the present generation, with the consequent restriction of a fruitful source of knowledge and understanding’.

These words were written in 1961, yet they seem to me to be extremely relevant even today, at a time when moving, not only between neighbouring nations, until recently linked by more than one international treaty, but also between regions and even between cities has become a problem.

It follows that just as freedom of thought, albeit within the limits of decency, should not be censored, so too it should not be made difficult to move, except for short periods, for very specific reasons and in limited areas. This is because the damage, not only economic, of such measures is known to be far greater than the benefits. Nor should such freedom be indiscriminately subjected to the presentation of health certificates or passports which, in addition to being in themselves useless and more or less veiledly discriminatory, if not downright harmful in the light of recent studies and events, contain highly sensitive data and violate more than one right hitherto considered inviolable.

After all, the link between freedom of thought and freedom of movement is obvious to everyone, ictu oculi, so to speak. I myself, as the Roman representative of an international Italo-Austrian cultural association, well remember the exchange of e-mails between the members of the board of directors on the advisability of closing the Brenner border abruptly; a debate that led to an official communiqué inviting ‘all those involved to do everything possible and reasonable to avoid isolation and divisions that are not very useful. The coronavirus must be contained and fought, but we must strive not to bring Europe to the state of a stew that we humanists want to avoid […]. The idea of a Humanitatis symposium will guide us’.

There was even the idea of writing a letter to the political decision-makers to try to stop them from prolonging such drastic measures, but in the end nothing came of it. The lack of capacity to act and the indecision about what to do, together with the retreat into actions that are good in themselves but of little relevance in the current emergency context, are in fact problems that I have also encountered in other areas more closely related to the defence of human rights.

In conclusion, I would like to stress once again how, paradoxically, the very concept of ‘proximity’ seems to be disappearing nowadays. This happens both from a spatial and temporal point of view, despite the development of increasingly advanced means of communication that are increasingly difficult to use due to an inextricabilis silva of prescriptions and despite the illusion of proximity provided by the Internet, and from a moral point of view, with the climate of suspicion and delation that has been created. A climate that is probably also leading to the collapse of another founding element of civil societies which, having studied as an archivist, I have had the opportunity to consider with particular attention. I am referring to the value of officialdom in verifying the reliability of a piece of news, which has been profoundly undermined by the series of contradictory, ill-founded or blatantly false communications provided by the institutions, which obviously irreparably undermines the remaining authority and credibility of the institutions themselves in the short, medium and long term. 

It would be a good thing, therefore, if each of us at the end of this conference did not simply wait for events to unfold, but rather became convinced of the need to act to change them, since, as St Augustine said, ‘we are the times; such as we are, such are the times’.  

Thank you.

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