Do vaccine mandates violate or support our freedom? Avoid anyone who thinks this question is easy – The Dallas Morning News

The whole world, its like its Ghostbusters II.

Everyones miserable and angry, like theres something in the sewers, some sludge underneath us making us mad at each other. You could be forgiven for thinking it a little supernatural, although it isnt. Its all too human. This time, however, its not Vigo the Carpathian but wherever we are on all these pandemic rules and regs about masks and vaccines.

How one behaves at the store or at church or at school or work, its all confused. Different rules, or the absence of any, in different places, all of it together day after day, wears on body and mind. Nearly two years in, it makes sense were all a bit worn out, many on edge.

Me, running a large church, I take it in the shorts daily from both sides. Some days Ive about had it with all of them. It has got a little better, though, and I think Ive chilled out a bit. But I am exhausted, like Ive been in the middle of some drawn-out family fight. Perhaps you understand me, especially if you run any sort of organization.

And it all comes to a head it seems, the tension most acute, when we start talking about vaccine mandates. All over the country, fights have broken out about it, from Maine to New York City to Alabama and beyond. Its an emotional, moral and complex fight, and one for which we are, I suggest, quite ill-equipped. Not only psychologically are we ill-equipped, worn out as we all are, but philosophically so. The problem, you see, is that not only are we tired, were also lost.

Heres what I mean: After these long, tired pandemic days, were now confronted by a first-order problem about freedom, and we dont know what to think or do. Can a COVID-19 vaccine be required by legitimate authority, or does that violate an individuals freedom? This isnt an easy question to answer; avoid, please, those who think it is.

Rather, underneath the specific question about vaccine mandates, at its root, its a riddled and ancient question about freedom; which, I am convinced, we as a society will not be able to answer any more clearly than our ancestors. Freedom either as detachment or domination, the ancients wrestled with the idea of freedom, too, and with equally limited success. At issue is not our philosophically degraded modernity; this is just a very difficult question. Again, steer clear of those who dont think so.

By one account, admittedly Christian, a person is truly free only when she freely acts according to her undeceived intellect and well-formed will. To choose something foolish or contrary to truth, by this line of thought, is but some form of ignorant enslavement. This, applied to our present predicament, becomes a question about the vaccine itself. Is it moral, and is it good for physical and public health?

On this, outside the fantasies of social media, the Catholic Church (to which Im obedient) is clear: Yes, it is. But can it then be required? To this, the Church hasnt said yes. Rather, I assume, both out of pastoral wisdom and solicitude and because of what Catholics believe about conscience, the Church here is rightfully reticent.

What this means for the many other mandates the Church accepts for example, the many other vaccines required in Catholic schools well, thats a big question. It cant be the case that vaccines, like many other things in the public interest, may never be required. To suggest that would be to step away from Catholic moral thought and, to say the least, public health. As I said, this isnt an easy question.

Henning Jacobson famously took his case against a smallpox vaccine requirement to the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1904. At some level, I appreciate his hesitancy; rolling out vaccines in his day wasnt like waiting in line at CVS. Vaccinations sometimes were exercises in brutal coercion for frightened immigrants and people of color. Philosophically, Jacobson thought mandating a vaccine was a violation of his freedom. But the Supreme Court, ruling in 1905, disagreed.

The court likened smallpox to an invading army; as in times of war, the state could compel a person to serve in the military and risk bodily health and even life, so too when fighting disease, the state does have interest in mandating vaccines. This, aside from our nice impotent theological and philosophical discussion, is the real question.

Will the heirs of Henning Jacobson be denied again? And if so, is it a violation of their freedom? But what if, like other sometimes necessary coercive measures, its in the public interest? Again, would that all people saw the good of vaccinations and willfully and joyfully rolled up their sleeves, but what if they dont? Is freedom at stake?

Again, not an easy question. Aristotle said that freedom does not mean doing what a man likes. That superficial notion is all wrong, he said. Freedom is not free will; thats a dangerous, socially destructive idea and one shared by plainly too many people across the political spectrum. But how do we think all this through when were so worn out and angry, when the body politic and the social imaginary are so degraded and sick?

Honestly, I dont know. Which is why Ive personally decided to get vaccinated, to adapt myself to the comfort of others, to love gently, and to be willfully friendly to the vaccinated like me and the unvaccinated, too. Especially them. Because this isnt an easy question.

Yet no matter how confused I am, I can at least still love the other.

Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News. Email:

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Do vaccine mandates violate or support our freedom? Avoid anyone who thinks this question is easy - The Dallas Morning News

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