Science and the Franciscan Spirit

Science and the Franciscan Spirit

Joachim Ostermann O.F.M.


A Dominican friend once explained to me that the difference between our Orders is that Dominicans are guided by their statutes, but Franciscans are guided by the life of St. Francis. I thought that this was very well put. As much as we need statutes and regulations in life—of course, Franciscans also have them—they are not sufficient by themselves when making judgment calls in balancing different priorities. There is no formula that lets you calculate cost and benefit in ethical decision making. Making good decisions is an art, not an engineering task, and the art is learned in living life well. And for this, Franciscans will always turn to the life of St. Francis.

Living in Times of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be with us, and it seems that we will be talking about the experience and its consequences for the rest of our days. Clearly, this has become the challenge of our time, and like any challenge, there are important learning opportunities to be found.

One of them is the newfound prominence of science in public decision making. Science showed its value right from the outset, by providing us with reliable tests to detect infected individuals, effective methods to reduce spread of the virus, vaccines to protect individuals from infection, and drugs and treatment protocols to safe lives when the infection turned deadly. For scientists, this is a proud moment to show their skills. But I am now a Franciscan. What can I learn from the life of St. Francis to navigate the new conflicts that are before us? Two conflicts stand out. First, is it legitimate to take a vaccine if it is at all linked to research that disregards the inviolable dignity of human life? Second, is it legitimate to make vaccination mandatory? The challenge is to approach these conflicts while remaining at peace.


15 years ago, when I was first told that vaccine production had something to do with abortion because of the use of this tissue cell line, I was surprised. It was obviously an extremely remote link if a link at all. There was no causal connection that said that an abortion was necessary or helpful for vaccine research and production. How did this become an issue? I was mystified.

I had always looked to the Catholic Church for guidance in bioethics and protection of human life, even at times when there was nothing else in the Church to which I paid attention. It always seemed evident to me that an individual human life that has its own past, present, and future has a right not to be terminated. At the same time, I also always knew that not everybody saw it this way, and while I considered opposing arguments refutable with minimal effort, I could not help but notice that those who presented them were motivated by good intentions. Therefore, I spent a considerable amount of time studying how different philosophical strategies might lead from similar starting points to entirely different conclusions.

It seemed to me that the problem was the science has obscured our understanding of human life being a body, rather than a quality. Those who considered abortion legitimate seemed to think that a human body early in development was not quite real. It was a potential child, but if something was wrong, then a “do-over” might be the right choice as it would give their child a second and better chance in life. This did not convince me at all but be this as it may. For now, I have no choice but to deal with the fact that what I consider to be evidently true is considered not true by many others. Rather than pretending otherwise, I must figure out how to live with this.

The HEK293 cell line was derived from a human fetus that died, and it is possible that it was killed by an induced abortion. It was in 1973, and back then, precise record keeping regarding the circumstances of donation of human tissue was not considered necessary. We do not know the exact circumstances of this individual, but we know that many abortions were performed at the same time in the same hospital. When arriving in the lab, it had become an anonymous tissue sample to be used for research instead of being incinerated. Today, we pay more attention to the rights of tissue donors, but back then, we did not.

Would it now be wrong for me to use HEK293 cells? It would certainly be wrong to seek a benefit that can only be had by a wrong done by another. But an induced abortion was not necessary to obtain this cell line, even if it may have resulted from an induced abortion. I am not benefiting from an abortion in using these cells. It is only associated with abortion, on account of the circumstances of the human body that was donated to research. Must the past work on which I rely must be pure and stainless so that I am not sullied by association with faithless sinners?

What preposterous nonsense! I am already stained by sin, and should I refuse to associate with sinners and the consequences of their work, I could not even live with myself. When it comes at any cost to another, then refusing to use this cell line is an act of self-righteousness. Of course, an investigator could and sometimes should choose to work with another cell line to make a point and use it as an opportunity to educate others. But perfection in my moral life cannot be had by keeping complete separation from other sinners and imposing burdens in their life that are unnecessary and incomprehensible to them. Rejecting the HEK293 cell line and making it an issue in talking about vaccines was dangerous, and it caused divisions where healing was possible and necessary. We see this quite clearly when we apply the rules not as theoretical abstractions but in the way our application of them has consequences in the lives of individuals and the community.

Vaccine Mandates

Respect for free will and individual decision making is a very important value much respected in Franciscan life. A brother is not normally expected to follow instructions to which he objects from the bottom of his heart. Mandates, however, are not the same as enforced measures. Mandates can tolerate disobedience but impose tolerable burdens on the disobedient. We deal with mandates like this every day in community life, in matters small and large.

An infectious disease is a communicable disease, and you might just as well think of it as a disease of the whole community. It is simply not just a personal decision whether I protect myself during a pandemic. The usual presupposition of individual decision making in health care—my body, my choice—is not applicable. Normally, the social circumstances in which we exercise libertarian freedoms suffice as a restraint. But in a pandemic, it is evidently not just your body, but my body, too, whom you put at risk when refusing a vaccine that would protect both of us.

Clearly, mandates are necessary and legitimate, and the only way to reject them is to deny the right of a community to make decisions together. When you understand your dependence on the community, you will see the legitimacy of mandates in health care. It is not just your body, but your body in community.

St. Francis

When we study the life of St. Francis, his devotion to prayer and seclusion stands out. He does not come across as a community guy who thrives best when having a large audience. The brothers seem to have been a trial for him. Most friars will know the feeling. But it is meant to be this way, as community life is meant to form us for good decision making in our own personal choices. Scientific knowledge, however, is always abstracted from life, rather than life itself. It is objective, which makes it very useful, but living beings are not just objects. We cannot get clear rules from science alone, but we can integrate scientific understanding in knowledge of life. There is no better way to know human life than by studying what makes the individual prosper in community. When applied in this context, then science is easily integrated into the lives of the disciples of Christ.


Joachim Ostermann, OFM, holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Munich. After a career in universities and biotechnology companies in the US and Canada, he changed course and became a Franciscan Friar. His scientific research interests were the mechanism of intracellular protein transport and the use of proteomics to understand disease mechanisms. Now they are the relationships between modern science, the Franciscan view of nature, and Christian faith. He lives in Montreal as a member of the Canadian Province of the Order of Friars Minor.