How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

The centuries-old question is often used to parody circular debates over things that mean little while far more pressing matters demand our immediate attention.

To wit: Last week’s tap dancing by Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, along with many of his peers nationwide, around the relative morality of various COVID-19 vaccines.

“When it is your turn to receive a vaccine, you can receive the one that is offered to you without moral reservation,” Deeley advised Maine’s estimated 250,000 Catholics in a statement Thursday.

Pause for other shoe to drop.

“However,” Deeley cautioned in the next paragraph, “if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

In other words, stay away from that syringe full of Johnson & Johnson’s new vaccine if you can. But if you can’t, take the shot and don’t worry about it.

Talk about spiritual guidance in search of a moral dilemma.

Two things about the Catholic flap over vaccines bear a moment of reflection.

The first is the church’s myopic focus on cells derived decades ago from fetal tissue to develop the COVID-19 vaccines. In the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the cells were used in the manufacturing process. Pfizer and Moderna, meanwhile, used the cells for vaccine testing.

To be clear, we’re not talking about fetal tissue here. We’re talking about human cells, useful for their ability to be genetically altered, that have been reproduced countless times around the world since they were first obtained from aborted fetuses as far back as the late 1970s.

No doubt, a woman’s right to an abortion remains a hot-button issue in these polarized times. But is it truly necessary to shoehorn it into the battle against the coronavirus, especially when the speed with which the human race gets vaccinated has real life-or-death consequences?

Not all Catholics think so.

In a statement released Friday by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., seven conservative Catholic scholars strongly rebutted Catholic bishops who suggest that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is somehow morally inferior to the other two in circulation. At the same time, they noted, the use of fetus-derived cells throughout modern society is by no means a new phenomenon.

“They are commonly used for testing processed foods produced by companies such as Kraft, Nestlé, Cadbury and others. Indeed, the great majority of processed/packaged food products available for sale in the United States are likely to contain ingredients produced or tested in (fetus-derived) cells,” the scholars wrote.

They continued, “It thus seems fair to say that … nearly every person in the modern world has consumed food products, taken medications or used cosmetics/personal care products that were developed through the use of (fetus-derived) cells in the food, biomedical and cosmetic industries.”

As for the notion that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more tainted because the fetus-derived cells were used in its actual production, the scholars pointed out that it also has the potential to save more lives: It requires only one dose and doesn’t need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures, making it far more practical for people in hard-to-reach places.

Their conclusion: “We think it a mistake to say both that these vaccines are morally permissible to use and yet that some ought to be preferred to others. There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago, and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.”

Hear, hear! Common sense when it’s needed most from deep within the Roman Catholic intelligentsia.

Which brings us to our second topic: When a Roman Catholic bishop speaks these days, how many in his flock still listen?

Much has changed in my lifetime as a Catholic. Back when I was an altar boy, the mere presence of a bishop or cardinal made me quake. And when one spoke, I harbored no doubt that every word came directly from on high.

Then things changed.

For some of us, it was the scandal of child sexual abuse that first rocked the church 20 years ago and reverberates to this day. On the rare occasion that I now attend a Catholic Mass, I can’t help but wonder what atrocities may have taken place in this sacristy or that nearby rectory.

For others, particularly women, the disaffection goes back all the way to the 1968 Vatican encyclical “Humanae vitae,” in which Pope Paul VI condemned all forms of artificial contraception. It remains official church doctrine to this day.

Yet in a 2017 survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 1,500 American women who self-identified as Catholic were asked if they’ve ever followed the church’s “natural family planning” mandate, meaning no external means of birth control. Seventy-eight percent said no.

Bottom line, this is not the Roman Catholic congregation of yesteryear. For many, what was once ironclad edict is now simple advice – to be followed or ignored as one sees fit.

Bishop Deeley clearly understood that last week as he tried to balance the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic with the church’s longstanding opposition to all things abortion. To his credit, he also observed that receiving a vaccine “is not just for one’s own health, but for the health and safety of those around you.”

Still, by clouding the vaccine rollout with the issue – or is it a non-issue? – of fetal-cell derivatives at this critical moment in the pandemic, Deeley and his fellow bishops stirred controversy where there should be none. They added another layer of anxiety to a period when patience and composure are already in short supply.

So, fellow Catholics, when your long-awaited appointment arrives, roll up your sleeve and gratefully accept whatever vaccine is in the vial. Don’t get hung up with where it registers on the scale of moral purity, or what it will do to your eternal soul, or what kind of slippery slope these vaccine makers have put us on.

Those angels on the pinhead have better things to do.

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