The world received a much-desired Christmas present: Vaccines that promise to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. It is astonishing that they were developed, tested, and approved within just one year. The first vaccines were made with entirely new technology, never before used in clinical practice. The vaccines are safe and highly effective. I cannot think of any recent success in biomedical research that is as dramatic. It is a powerful sign of the progress that has been made in understanding human disease through the biomedical sciences. It is a wonderful gift to receive right now, and very much needed.
Of course, the first message of the pandemic, the reminder of our human frailty, remains. Many infectious diseases are without a vaccine, in spite of decades of research. Progress with HIV, TB and malaria vaccines is made at a glacially slow pace, and these diseases together take three million lives each year. The COVID-19 vaccine was easier to do, as we knew right away that our immune system can clear the virus. Still, the winning approach for the vaccine impresses by its simplicity and novelty. It uses lipid nanoparticles that include messenger RNA. This delivers the genetic information of the coronavirus most likely to trigger an effective immune response. A genetic message is sent to the immune system giving it advance warning to make the right antibodies to stop the virus.
The first of these vaccines was the work of scientists in Germany, by a company whose founders are a married couple of Turkish descent. His father worked in the automobile industry, and her father was a medical doctor in a small Catholic hospital. Growing up seeing her father at work, she learned the importance of dedicating her life to service, and she was especially inspired by the Catholic nuns working there. She even wanted to join them, but as a Muslim woman, this was not her vocation. Both would go to medical school and then begin careers in biomedical research and rational understanding of nature to find cures for diseases.
We often overlook the human stories behind scientific discoveries. There once was a heroic age of medical research, the early days of Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch when humanity discovered microbes and a rational understanding of human disease. Their work revolutionized medical care, and their names and stories were known by all. Today, we are more used to slow but steady progress, hardly ever spectacular enough to inspire the non-expert observer. The research enterprise feels like an impersonal machine, slowly moving forward. Normally, we do not notice the human persons who are behind it. However, the work towards COVID-19 vaccines has reminded us now of another basic truth. Progress is made by hard working individuals with individual stories and motivations.
Other than being grateful, we can learn something about our faith. It must also be reasonable, rational, and entirely true to our human nature, which we discover in such stories of actual people. With faith, we see in these stories that human nature is recognized as much more than what is seen by scientific investigation alone. The human person is more than what is measurable and impersonally objective. Human nature is the nature of personal being, the nature of the human person revealed in the story of each person’s life.
At Christmas time, we remember the moment when God became man, when the Word of God assumed human flesh and became one of us. We listen to the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Divine and human nature in one person, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the revelation of God, but also the revelation of humanity it its fullest perfection. Understanding him means understanding human nature.
The rationality of Christ revealed to us is the rationality of love, the rationality of love for God and all humanity. Understanding this love and living in this love requires our reason to be shaped by understanding of the story of Jesus’ life. We find it in the Gospels and the way they shaped the lives of Christ’s disciples throughout human history. It teaches us how distorted relationships are meant to be restored. It is acting out of this love that heals the wounds of division that keep us apart. It is a love that restores us to unity. It is the revelation of the divine love that reconciles humanity with God.