Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Response to the LifeSite News declaration ("Bethlehem Declaration")

 Hi, Will –

 RE: Bethlehem Declaration

I have had an interesting exchange with Patrick Delaney, from LifeSite News, about the document that LifeSite News promotes, which they call the “Bethlehem Declaration.” Pope Francis has urged people to get vaccinated to fight the epidemic. The document is a response: it declares that people who get the vaccine are participating in abortion, and that the vaccine is worse than useless – that it does not protect, and in fact it kills vast numbers of people. Patrick Delaney asserted that no one has answered the challenge they pose. I thought I had. But let me answer again.

The Bethlehem Declaration from LifeSite News has problems from beginning to end. It abuses the teaching of the Catholic Church, misquoting Church documents repeatedly. The statistics that bulk large in the LifeSite document do not withstand scrutiny. The decision to focus on the alleged sins of the people who choose to be vaccinated is startling and obtuse. And the signers are not consistently thoughtful and scrupulous about issues linked to abortion.

The Declaration misquotes the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF).

The CDF published the “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” on December 21, 2020. That Note says that it is licit – moral, permitted – to use the Covid-19 vaccines that were already available then. The LifeSite document quotes the CDF Note in making their argument, but concludes that it is illicit to use these vaccines – without explaining that the Congregation’s Note flatly contradicts the LifeSite conclusion. If you quote a Church document to substantiate your claims, it’s probably best to say up front that CDF considered your arguments and discarded them. Anyway: CDF says licit, and LifeSite says illicit.

The CDF Note makes a careful distinction between developing the vaccine using fetal tissue from two aborted babies on one hand, and using the vaccine on the other hand. For Americans, this kind of distinction is not complicated. For example, some years after the war in Vietnam, the nation decided – as a nation – to express our gratitude for the courage of our brothers and sisters in the military who risked their lives for freedom, regardless of what we think about the decisions of the politicians who led us into war. So also here: the use of fetal tissue derived from dead babies in the 1980s was wrong; it was callous; we want to avoid repeating that evil. But, says the CDF, the people using vaccines developed using a cell line derived from that tissue in the 1980s are not complicit in that evil. LifeSite insists: “it remains objectively morally illicit for a person to accept these shots.” And this is their central conclusion, when they finish up with all their whereas clauses and state ! The individuals who use the vaccine are sinning! They assert some corollary conclusions, but their first and fundamental declaration is about the users, not the developers or promoters.

The Vatican note – the CDF Note – distinguishes between abortion, which is non-negotiable, and the abuse of bodies, which is definitely problematic but is nonetheless subject to some balancing, some negotiation. The Note doesn’t use that language; it uses Vaticanese jargon. But is speaks with unswerving clarity about the evil of abortion, and then states that the use of these vaccines does not constitute a legitimation of abortion. LifeSite, in direct opposition, insists that there is a moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation in the crime of abortion by the use of said injection.

The CDF note states that it is licit to use the vaccine because the abortion-vaccine link is “remote.” LifeSite states, wrongly, that the CDF Note says that using the vaccine is permitted only if three conditions are met – and then works to prove that these conditions are not met. The three conditions that the LifeSite paper discusses are indeed in the CDF Note, but they are not the core issue. The CDF note splits the issue of abortion away from the issue of vaccines because the connection is remote.

The LifeSite Declaration also misquotes the CDF document “Dignitas Personae.”

The Bethlehem Declaration seeks to apply the teaching about genetic manipulation in the CDF document “Dignitas Personae,” but does so in a completely mistaken way. The error seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the term “genetic.” The Church supports genetic testing and manipulation – unless it’s destructive of human life. The genetic manipulation in the development of the vaccine was not destructive of human life. Addressing this error in the Declaration may require a bit of a detour.

Every human body is host to billions of living organisms that are in or on the body but not part of the body. We can, for example, have parasites in our intestines, worms that eat our food. Those worms have their own DNA that is not the same as ours. If a worm lives in me, that does not make me part-worm. This is not complicated at all. We also have colonies of living bacteria all over us, inside and on the surface. In fact, we have billions of bacteria swarming in and on us; there are about as many living organisms living in and on us as the world has humans. These colonies include some bacteria that are benign, and some that will attack us and weaken us or even kill us, given the opportunity. Some of the benign bacteria fight the malign bacteria; there are epic wars going on all over our bodies all the time. All these bacteria, both the malign and the benign, have their own DNA, which is not our DNA. We are not bacteria, nor even part-bacteria. We have bacteria in and on us. We live in-the-world but are not of-the-world; the bacteria similarly are in-our-bodies but not of-our-bodies

There’s a specific and dramatic example of life within a human that is not the same life as that of the human host. That’s pregnancy. A pregnant mother carries a child within her body. The child’s DNA is derived in part from her, and part from the father; but the child’s DNA is unique, and different from hers (and his). The placenta is a part of the child’s body, although at birth the child leaves it behind. The child’s placenta interacts with the mother’s uterus, with a fantastically extensive boundary where the child takes nourishment from the mother through the walls of adjacent cells. The boundary of the placenta is far more twisty and intertwined than the borders of the Chesapeake Bay. But along that boundary, cell by cell, it’s possible to check the DNA of any cell and identify whose it is – baby’s or mom’s. None of the cells have any ambiguity: each cell has the DNA of one person or the other. This example of a living creature living inside another human – inside but still separate – is of course fundamental to the thinking of the whole pro-life movement.

But the Bethlehem Declaration mangles this teaching, with impressive ignorance. It quotes “Dignitas Personae,” noting that the document discusses genetic manipulation. Some forms of genetic manipulation of human cells are flatly immoral, and other forms of manipulation of human cells are permissible but require careful thought. Throughout, the document is focused exclusively on the manipulation of human cells. It discusses engineering different kinds of cells – somatic cells and germ cells; but in both cases, it’s about human cells. It says nothing whatsoever about the genetic manipulation of any of the wide variety of non-human creatures living within. The complex makeup of the Covid virus, and the amazing responses within our bodies to that virus, involve battles within our bodies. Those battles affect our bodies; the wrong side could win and kill us. But the genetically manipulated vaccine is a foreign substance that we place within our bodies to trigger a response that resists the Covid virus. It doesn’t alter our DNA is any way.

At a grocery store today, some foods are labeled “non-GMO.” If you wish, you can choose to avoid foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The discussion of the moral issues surrounding GMOs is extensive, but none of that discussion is about whether ingesting GMOs alters our own genetic makeup: it doesn’t. “Dignitas Personae” is about genetically modifying human bodies; it has nothing whatsoever to say about ingesting GMOs. The moral issues it discusses arise with procedures that alter human genetic makeup. The vaccines are genetically modified material, but they don’t genetically modify humans. The vaccines are not about a genetically modified human being; they’re about a modified virus. And in fact, it’s not even a full virus that’s modified; it’s a genetically modified scrap of a virus.

Stated simply: the discussion of the morality of genetic modification in the “Bethlehem Declaration” is completely irrelevant, based entirely on a misunderstanding.


In defending the Bethlehem Declaration, Patrick Delaney wrote to me that the teaching of Pope Francis is not formal, not binding. By contrast, he said, the LifeSite declaration is based on formal documents like these two CDF documents. I’m not sure what to say! The CDF documents are his teaching. The authority of the Vatican is in no way separable from his authority. Pope Francis signed off on the CDF Note, which explicitly uses the teaching from “Dignitas Personae.” Their teaching is his teaching. So the LifeSite declaration rejects the repeated and urgent but perhaps informal exhortations from the Pope – and also rejects his formal teaching. The Pope and the CDF, working for him, say the same thing.

The LifeSite stats are not credible

The argument presented in the LifeSite declaration is based largely on statistical studies of Covid and various responses. The declaration offers studies that are – at first glance, from a non-expert’s perspective – credible. On the other hand, the LifeSite stats contradict the conclusions reached the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other credible bodies. The Bethlehem Declaration does not respond to the data from apparently credible sources, except to say that they all have conflicts of interest. But the CDF asserts firmly that their moral judgment about whether it is licit to use the vaccine does not depend on sorting out the competing stats. Regardless of the statistics, the vaccine-abortion link is far-fetched; it is morally permissible to make your decision about whether to get a vaccination without settling the arguments among the experts.

I will follow the lead of the CDF, and let the medical and public health experts battle it out – with one exception. Amidst the claims made by LifeSite, there’s one that doesn’t require expertise to evaluate. The Bethlehem Declaration urges paranoia about the entire profession of forensic pathology. In the whereas clause #20 (of 28), beginning “by means of comparison,” the Declaration discusses “under-reported adverse events,” making three separate impressive errors.


Error #1. Post hoc propter hoc.

In the United States, when a new medication is made available, Federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) watch for any pattern of complications. And there’s a whole separate Federal program to track complications from vaccines. It’s called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. And VAERS has, of course, been tracking the Covid vaccines.

The LifeSite declaration asserts that VAERS reported over 20,244 deaths as of December 2021 that were “due to these injections.” That’s nonsense. It’s an error in logic that everyone who touches logic learns to identify – the “post hoc propter hoc” error, the assertion that because event A happened after event B, B caused A. VAERS collects data about all deaths after taking the vaccine – including car accidents on the way home. This 20,244 is all deaths after vaccination, not because of the vaccination. The number of post-vaccination deaths is preliminary data, undigested. It contains no assertion of causality at all, none whatsoever.


Error #2. About under-reporting

It is true that adverse events are often under-reported, sometimes vastly under-reported. Take Vioxx, for example, just to understand the problem of under-reporting. Vioxx (that’s a brand name for Rofecoxib) was a painkiller that was marketed in 1999, after approval by the FDA. Over the next five years, about 80 million people used it – and over 80 thousand users developed serious heart disease. That’s one case of heart disease per thousand Vioxx users. Is that enough to say that there might be a connection between Vioxx and heart disease? Heart disease is the number one killer in the nation; did Vioxx really change anything? It’s not possible to collect data about every death from heart disease between 1999 and 2004, checking to see whether each of the deceased ever took Vioxx. To measure the impact of Vioxx, you have to use samples; you have to find your way around the inevitable problem of under-reporting. (The FDA made its way systematically and took the killer drug off the market.) But tracking a new vaccine is very different. From day one, VAERS was determined to track outcomes from the Covid vaccine, and required that every – every! – death from any cause whatsoever after a Covid vaccine be reported. This requirement led to a great deal of misunderstanding and paranoia: all across the country, people fussed because of incidents like a death from a gunshot showed up in the vaccine stats. Because of this stringent requirement, the stats have to be used with caution; there is substantial over-reporting. There’s nothing shady going on; it’s all in the open; but to use the stats, you have to understand how they were collected. This is a challenge. But it has an upside: the stats on deaths from the Covid vaccine are not under-reported.


Error #3. Wild extrapolation invites paranoia.

The errors above led LifeSite to make an assertion that deaths from the vaccine could be in the hundreds of thousands for the USA. Hundreds, plural, of thousands: that’s at least 200,000. One would expect that pathologists would notice 200,000 deaths from a new cause.

The Declaration seems to imply that these deaths from the vaccine are being under-counted because they are reported as deaths from Covid. The Declaration asserts that Covid deaths are wildly over-counted and deaths from the vaccine are (probably) wildly under-counted. This is not well informed. There is no reason whatsoever to assume that vaccine complications would resemble Covid.

Some history may help. Two and a half centuries ago, when George Washington ordered that all his army be vaccinated against smallpox, the vaccine was crude. The physician (or whoever) would cut the patient, and put blood and pus from someone else’s live infection into the cut, deliberately causing a new infection, hoping it would be mild. It was dangerous, but it worked well enough that smart people kept doing it. But today, we don’t do anything like that. The Covid vaccines are not from a live infection. And so you can’t get Covid from the vaccine. The vaccine is not a thriving virus; it’s dead. In fact, it’s a dead fragment of a dead virus, a spiky knobby piece off the side. So when medical professionals watch for any adverse effect from the vaccine, they aren’t looking for a viral infection resembling Covid. The most common problem with a new vaccine shows up promptly – an allergic reaction within minutes after the injection.

There is zero reason to expect that any complications from the Covid vaccine would resemble Covid. So the 200,000 deaths that the Declaration warns of – if they occurred – would be something new and different. There were about 3.4 million deaths in the USA in 2020, from all causes. If there were 200,000 deaths from some new cause, that’s a sizable fraction of all deaths – one in 17. A new killer that big can’t get lost in the shuffle. Folks would notice 200,000 deaths from something new. For sure.


The document does not offer responsible pro-life leadership.

The document seems to offer itself as the thoughtful and courageous declaration of truly committed pro-lifers, as opposed to the weaklings who are quick to compromise. I cannot let that go by unchallenged. The authors and the signers of the declaration do NOT exhibit a thoughtful and consistent concern about abortion, despite all the huffing and puffing. To take one prominent example: Archbishop Schneider, the principal signer of the Declaration, dismisses the duty of Europe and America to welcome and protect refugees as propaganda. This is a problem for pro-lifers, because it’s nearly impossible to construct an argument for stringent regulation of immigration that is not also an argument for population control. That is, in brief: if it’s necessary to keep new immigrants out of the wealthy and relatively depopulated continent of North America because the influx is more than we can care for, then the world as a whole must – all the more – be unable to care for a far greater influx of new babies. So Archbishop Schneider’s position against welcoming refugees is not only opposed to the teaching about immigration from every pope since 1914; it’s also pro-abortion. He insists on asserting a link between abortion and vaccines in a way that the CDF calls far-fetched (“remote”); he should be able to notice the much tighter, much more obvious, ongoing link between abortion and population control.


The LifeSite declaration is just division

In his exchange with me, Patrick Delaney denies that the document is divisive. He insists that his document reflects the true teaching of the Church, and the casual ramblings of Pope Francis do not. But the declaration mangles the formal documents it quotes, which are solid and thoughtful and balanced – and authoritative – and the key document that LifeSite uses belongs to Francis. The Bethlehem document, despite its claims, is not the teaching of the Church.

Who speaks for the Church? Is this complicated for a Catholic?

   – John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

   – January 25, 2022