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Peter Stockland: Individual conscience a COVID casualty

  • October 29, 2021

At the end of a recent long run during which the state of the world is a staple of the conversational smorgasbord, my running partner asked a pressing perspicacious question: When, exactly, was conscience transferred from individual to collective ownership?

I had too little oxygenated blood sugar in my brain at the time to even attempt an adequate answer but did have enough mental wherewithal to agree that conscience, by its nature, belongs to the individual, not the group.

“Adultery is still a violation of conscience even if it takes place at an orgy,” I ventured.

Thinking about it since, it strikes me that carbon dating of what might be called the conscience evolution could pin it pretty precisely to a few days on either side of March 20, 2020 when the world as we knew it was transformed by a mysterious virus. We began at that moment the turn away from being our brothers’ keepers out of conscientious charity. We lurched toward becoming hive-mind pandemic proctors of other people’s mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and all the other ritual obligations of COVID combat.

Lost in the switcheroo was the discernment the Church teaches between being governed as a child of God by properly formed individual conscience and acting in solidarity with the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Curiouser and curiouser: The very vaccines created to reinstate conscience as a crucial element of agency — i.e., to restore individual freedom — have become the primary means to reinforce as paramount what my running partner called collective conscience. The gifts of science transmuted into social salvation by Pfizer, Moderna, et al have also turned a medical pandemic into a moral panic.

Objectors to vaccination have become, as Charles Eisenberg has written, scapegoats for all the fear, frustration, anger and cognitive dissonance of the past 19 months. Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, for example, has condemned as a “menace” newly elected MPs who refuse to submit to vaccination. He has called for them to immediately resign. The Speaker of the Commons concurred last week that such refuseniks must be forbidden entrance to the chamber.

The federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion has just announced that those fired for being vaccine objectors will be disqualified from receiving Employment Insurance benefits. You know a moral panic is developing when the minister overseeing Canada’s workforce prefers disabling poverty to assertion of conscience in a matter of personal health. Whatever happened to “nothing about us without us”?

In fairness, two respective possessors of a very fine Catholic mind, and an incisive Protestant acuity, recently made the same point to me. Strategically and rhetorically, they said, vaccine objectors err by making the issue conscience rather than coercion. Vaccine coercion is outwardly vivid, each argued. Conscience claims, being internalized, are moral intangibles.  “Saying ‘I don’t want to do it’ is neither a moral position nor a statement of conscience,” one noted.

True, at least part way. But doesn’t it not still lead back to the question my running partner posed? Does it not sustain the presumption that individual consciences must now submit proof of validity to the hive-mind for ratification according to whatever the collective conscience affirms?

If so, then this COVID moment is truly revolutionary. For almost three generations we have been taught that not only conscience, but extreme bodily autonomy is the sine qua non of social and political life. The result? Thirty years of aborted children and a growing body count from medically-assisted death. The Church has consistently urged the contrary: clear distinction between spirit and flesh, between obedience and orgy.

Yet now it appears the two are fused. Your body must abide by the collective, ergo so must your conscience. Where, it must be asked, will that lead in the long run?

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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