The Fallacy of Moral Equivalence: Is Rendering to Caesar the Same as Taking the Vaccine?

The Roman denarius, coin of tribute, with the image of Tiberius on the obverse.

It has always been a hallmark of moral theology to distinguish between apparently similar situations that, when closely examined, manifest very different aspects of timeless principles.  Moreover, often two or more principles are involved in a specific situation. Because moral theology may seem daunting to some, it is frequently considered the provenance of trained individuals.  However, such individuals, to win the argument of the day, may resort to sophistry or logical fallacies that, when resisted with proper reason and logic, cause the faulty arguments to be easily countered — even by those relatively untrained in formal courses in moral theology.

Unfortunately, one of the favorite tactics used by many people, including those who are trained in moral theology, is the fallacy of moral equivalence, or attempting to convince their interlocutor that there is a close moral comparison between two evils — the matter being objected to and something the objector already accepts, the evil of which may not be as obvious.  Our logic manual describes the fallacy of moral or false equivalence as a logical fallacy in which an equivalent comparison is drawn between two subjects based on flawed or false reasoning. This fallacy really falls into the category of the fallacy of inconsistency. Sometimes, a false moral equivalence is often called “comparing apples and oranges.”  If, for example, one objects to the prevalence of items made in Chinese slave-labor sweat shops, one might resolve to avoid purchasing any products made in China.  An opponent of that position, however, will point out that the objector occasionally shops at Wal-Mart, where there is an inordinate amount of goods made in China.  Therefore, the argument is made that the objector is patronizing a company that will use part of their profits to purchase more products using forced and child labor.  Morally, the argument goes, these are really the same.

  This is what happened when we first raised our concerns with a traditional priest regarding his order’s early qualified acceptance of the COVID19 vaccine.  We told him that it was our contention that what have come to be called abortion-tainted vaccines are morally illicit due to being tested or developed with (and often, like the varicella and rubella vaccines, containing) stem cells taken from babies who had been victims of abortion.  Predictably, this priest decided to start with a two-pronged approach, initially using the justification (in fact, the myth) that, after all, it was only one baby back in the 70s.  “It is simply remote material cooperation in evil,” he tried to explain to us.  He then attempted the classic sidetrack by pointing out that if we pay taxes, we are certainly contributing to government-funded abortions.  “How is that really any different?” he asked.  Ah, there it is — the faulty appeal to moral equivalence.

  Well, it is different — vastly different!  And we can easily show this by starting with the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It is where Fr. Dominic Prümmer, O.P. starts in his Handbook of Moral Theology.  The specific episode (Matt. 22:16-21) begins with St. Matthew relating that the Pharisees and Herodians plotted together to trap Our Lord.  They approach Christ, patronizing Him with fake sycophantic accolades, then attempt to move in for the kill: “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Our Lord calls them hypocrites and then demands to see “the coin of the tribute”. He then responds with His own question: “Whose image and inscription is this?” When, with some surprise (as Monsignor Giuseppe Ricciotti surmises in his book, The Life of Christ, regarding this incident), Our Lord’s opponents reply that the denarius is “Caesar’s”.  Then, to their wonderment, Christ provides us with those famous words that we all know by heart: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

  As various Doctors and Fathers of the Church (as well as countless moral theologians) have pointed out regarding this passage, Our Lord did not say, “Well, first, determine to what use the tribute (tax funds) will be put, then if you deem it immoral, don’t pay it.”  The Jews knew well that Rome was using the tribute collected in Palestine and other far-flung provinces of the Empire for the funding of many immoral activities, including the building of temples to the Roman “gods” and the striking of idolatrous images.  As Monsignor Ricciotti explained, “. . . let them render it to Caesar, for the simple fact that they accepted and used the coin showed that they also accepted the sovereignty of the one who had issued it. . . Jesus adds the injunction to render also to God, not only to make his answer complete but also to emphasize the first injunction to render to Caesar.”

Fr. Prümmer comments on this incident in his Handbook of Moral Theology in Article 9, Civil Law and its Obligations, Section 131, II “Civil Law Relating to Taxes”. “The payment of taxes is binding in conscience,” writes Fr. Prümmer, “This is the teaching of all Catholic theologians and is clearly based on Scripture.” He then cites the incident described above from St. Matthew’s Gospel and then quotes St. Paul: “Pay every man, then, his dues; taxes, if it be taxes, customs, if it be customs” (Rom. 8:7).  Some Catholics point out that Fr. Prümmer then provides a discussion of “just taxes”; however, nowhere does he indicate that if a taxpayer does not like a specifically funded item, he can withhold his requisite taxes. 

  Which brings us back to our priest’s allegation that there is no difference between paying taxes and accepting abortion-tainted vaccines.  When we recognize that the simple argument used by our priest has to do with “co-operation in evil,” we can turn to the above-mentioned Handbook of Moral Theology to understand the Church’s mind on these matters.  Fr. Prümmer begins with a simple definition of co-operation in evil, defining it as “concurrence in another’s sinful act”.  He then goes on to discuss immediate and mediate acts before breaking down the latter into proximate and remote co-operation and defining these as well.  “Co-operation is immediate,” he writes, “if it is co-operation in the actual sinful act of another, while it is mediate if it provides other acts or objects which are not so intimately connected with the sin of the agent.”  The reader is asked to take note of the fact that immediate co-operation is “co-operation in the actual sinful act of another.”  This is quite serious, and we should remember this distinction when we come back to evaluating the grievousness of the two actions being compared by our priest.  Fr. Prümmer provides details and examples:

Mediate co-operation is proximate if the help given is immediately connected with the sin of another, such as selling poison to a murderer; it is remote when the help is not so immediately connected with the other’s act, such as selling a field to a Jew who may build a synagogue in it. Co-operation is formal if help is given to another to commit sin as a sin; it is material if one co-operates in the physical action only. Consequently formal co-operation is an act which is evil in itself both because of its object and because of the intention of the agent.  Material co-operation is in itself a good act which is abused by another through his own malice.”

Once we understand what Fr. Prümmer has written — by which he simply reiterates the principles that are part of the constant teaching of the Church — we are able to judge that paying taxes is a “good act which is abused by another through his own malice”.  We can therefore see that taxpayer-funded abortions are,  at worst, mediate, remote, and material co-operation in evil. 

    On the other hand, how do we assess our co-operation in evil if we accept abortion-tainted vaccines? Now, we have another concern, as articulated by Bishop Athanasius Schneider and four other prelates who co-authored a letter on the matter on December 12, 2020.  The striking words that we must bear in mind are those of the bishops and cardinal who signed the letter, calling the acceptance of abortion-tainted vaccines a “concatenation” in evil.  Now, some Catholics — clergy and laity — have tried to explain this as an over-zealous condemnation of any linkage to abortion and raise the issue of (you guessed it) tax-funded abortions.  This, in spite of the fact that in the same letter the prelate authors are very clear that taxes fall into the “remote material” category which they recognize as a legitimate assessment for immoral use of tax monies:

“The theological principle of material cooperation is certainly valid and may be applied to a whole host of cases (e.g. in paying taxes, the use of products made from slave labor, and so on). However, this principle can hardly be applied to the case of vaccines made from fetal cell lines, because those who knowingly and voluntarily receive such vaccines enter into a kind of concatenation, albeit very remote, with the process of the abortion industry. The crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one, is immoral and cannot be accepted under any circumstances by a Catholic once he has become fully aware of it.”

But a “concatenation” is not just a linkage.  A complete dictionary will give the definition as “an interdependent link.”  In other words, say the prelates, when we accept immoral vaccines, we are encouraging the medical and pharmaceutical researchers to continue to use the stem cells of murdered babies, often still alive at the time of stem cell and organ harvesting.  And in fact, that is what is indeed being described by the prelates in the letter quoted above.  What we have then is a situation in which those who accept abortion-tainted vaccines are “partaking” of the ill-gotten goods of medical researchers, who are then encouraged to continue their macabre use of murdered babies.  This is referred to in moral theology as being “an accessory to another’s sin.”

  Recall that our priest assessed that acceptance of abortion-tainted vaccines as “remote material”; but he completely missed the application of the proper principle alluded to by the prelates in their letter: using immorally appropriated goods, contributes to the demand for those goods, and makes the individual accepting them (when he knows whence they come) complicit in immediate and proximate co-operation in evil.  Accordingly, there is a major chasm separating the two situations: paying taxes which end up in the hands of evildoers is far different from the acceptance of abortion-tainted vaccines and pharmaceuticals.  The two cannot even be compared once we understand the proper principles in play.  Furthermore, those clergy and laity who argue that Bishop Schneider and his four co-signers have “invented a whole new category of ‘monstrous’ sin” are being disingenuous, as the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 has this to say about being an “accomplice” to sin:

  “The necessity for a more and more powerful reason [to judge co-operation as material] is accentuated in proportion as there is

  • a greater likelihood that the sin would not be committed without the act of material cooperation;
  • a closer relationship between the two; and
  • a greater heinousness in the sin, especially in regard to harm done either to the common weal or some unoffending third party.”

  Who can honestly deny that acceptance of abortion-tainted vaccines does not contribute to “a greater likelihood” that more babies will be extracted ex utero and butchered alive for their stem cells and organs?  How is that not a “close relationship”? Is this not one of the most “heinous” acts any man has ever committed against the most defenseless of our human race?  And regarding third parties, how about the rights of the murdered child?  Here, again, is what the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 states:

“It is to be observed that, when damage has been done to a third person, the question is raised not only of the lawfulness of the cooperation, but also of restitution to be made for the violation of a strict right. Whether in that case the accomplice has shared in the perpetration of the injustice physically or morally (i.e. by giving a command, by persuasion, etc.) whether positively or negatively (i.e. by failing to prevent it) the obligation of restitution is determined in accordance with the following principle. All are bound to reparation who in any way are accounted to be the actual efficient causes of the injury wrought, or who, being obliged by contract, express or implied, to prevent it, have not done so.” 

Finally, many bishops — not just in the U.S. but around the world — have publicly expressed their erroneous judgment that it is morally permissible to accept the COVID19 vaccines.  However, not only are you not required to agree with your ordinary’s faulty assessment, but according to the Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, you may fraternally and charitably correct him. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas discusses in Question 33 the issue of Fraternal Correction.  Article 4 deals with the question: “Whether a Man is Bound to Correct His Prelate?”  First listing objections, he then quotes Augustine:

“Show mercy not only to yourselves, but also to him who, being in a higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger.  But fraternal correction is a work of mercy.  Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”

St. Thomas then answers:

“. . . the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction. . . when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect.”

Let us resolve to pray for our mistaken prelates and priests who spread faulty assessments of such grievous matters under the guise of spiritual direction.  Let us make it known that we will not accept the attempts of Catholic prelates, priests, and laymen to use the fallacy of moral equivalence. “Rendering to Caesar” is not the same thing as accepting abortion-tainted vaccines.  We must charitably correct our bishops especially, while asking Almighty God to show mercy on them when they come before Him, for while we are all sinners, those in a “higher position,” as St. Augustine says, will have much weightier judgment against them.  May God have mercy on all of us, for allowing the unspeakable crime of abortion to fester in our society and culture for so long.

4 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Moral Equivalence: Is Rendering to Caesar the Same as Taking the Vaccine?

  1. […] As various Doctors and Fathers of the Church (as well as countless moral theologians) have pointed out regarding this passage, Our Lord did not say, “Well, first, determine to what use the tribute (tax funds) will be put, then if you deem it immoral, don’t pay it.”  The Jews knew well that Rome was using the tribute collected in Palestine and other far-flung provinces of the Empire for the funding of many immoral activities, including the building of temples to the Roman “gods” and the striking of idolatrous images.  As Monsignor Ricciotti explained, “. . . let them render it to Caesar, for the simple fact that they accepted and used the coin showed that they also accepted the sovereignty of the one who had issued it. . . Jesus adds the injunction to render also to God, not only to make his answer complete but also to emphasize the first injunction to render to Caesar.” Read entire article here […]

  2. Many thanks for this excellent explanation showing the Church’s true moral teaching concerning abortion-tainted vaccines. It grieves me, however, that such writings are being ignored by those in authority, especially by those in Tradition whose support for these vaccines is truly shocking and inexplicable. This refusal to be corrected is the most worrying aspect of all since it indicates pride and a wilful attachment to serious moral error.

  3. This provides yet another reason why I’ve lost just about all of my trust in clerics, including those of the traditionalist bent. It seems we’re on our own now in just about every way.

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