The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

While the government doesn’t face a religious boycott of its so-far fictional COVID-19 vaccine, it’s increasingly clear that its smart-arse announcement of a “vaccine deal” last week was more trouble than it was worth.

While most of the press gallery cheered on cue for a deal that didn’t exist to make a vaccine that didn’t yet exist in Australian facilities that couldn’t make it if it did exist, Morrison then blundered by talking about the vaccine being as mandatory as possible.

He then had to backflip on that, using his friends at 2GB to assure Australians “there are no compulsory vaccines in Australia”.

Now it has bought a potential argument with religious conservatives, with Catholic archbishop Anthony Fisher, Anglican archbishop Glenn Davies and Greek Orthodox archbishop Makarios Griniezakis signing their own letter of intent expressing concern about the vaccine Morrison has a letter of intent for, given it is derived from a cell line from an aborted foetus.

Fisher has since made clearer exactly what his concerns are. There’s no talk of Catholic boycotts or campaigns against the vaccine. “Many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes,” Fisher says. “Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.”

But some, he says, won’t want anything to do with it. “I, for one, don’t think it would be unethical to use this vaccine if there is no alternative available,” Fisher says. “But I am deeply troubled by it.” And particularly troubled by any mandatory aspect to the vaccine.

It’s pretty rich for a senior figure in an institution that engaged in industrial-scale child abuse and covered it up to claim concern for the unborn. But the concerns expressed by the religious leaders take their place in a spectrum of opinion, ranging from lunatic conspiracy theories and vaccination denialism to wholly legitimate ones about the safety and efficacy of a vaccine that, if it ever arrives, will have been rushed into mass production, and continuing mysteries about COVID-19 itself.

It is Morrison’s blundering on compulsion that will continue to fuel this issue. The conspiracy theory fringe will continue to make hay with the idea that the government will compel people to get a jab. And the entry of religious conservatives into the debate complicates things immensely.

A pro-government outlet like The Australian, which has been backing Morrison and business leaders in criticisms of state leaders who insist on keeping borders closed, is also the platform of reactionary Catholics for whom Fisher’s “troubles” would not just be issues to be taken seriously, but the stuff of potential culture wars. Female journalists at News Corp tabloids, on the other hand, have been a strong force against anti-vax lunatics in recent years.

Morrison himself, unsurprisingly given his ardent Pentecostal faith, says that he has conservative issues on abortion but has indicated he’d prefer to leave the issue alone. Except, he now can’t leave it alone because he’s the one who insisted on hyping the vaccine announcement as some sort of Liberal triumph.

Still, it’s all hypothetical at the moment. It’ll be a nice problem to have if it ever becomes reality.

Peter Fray

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