“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others,” said Groucho Marx. In the land down under, many are wishing the Catholic Church would be so flexible, especially as it relates to a recent ecumenical ethical development. Australian Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox archbishops authored a joint letter on August 20 petitioning the Australian government to carefully consider a coronavirus vaccine deal. Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, and Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia Makarios Griniezakis urged the ruling center-right Liberal Party to reconsider an agreement with British-based AstraZeneca that would make Australia one of the first nations to receive an Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine, albeit one that relies on “ethically tainted” research.
The controversy stems from the fact that the cell line for the research was originally derived from cells grown in tissue culture taken from an electively aborted female fetus in the 1970s. The ecumenical letter thus demanded the Australian government refrain from making the Oxford vaccine mandatory or punishing those who decline it on religious grounds, and ensure a different, “ethically uncontroversial” vaccine also be made available. The bishops clearly stated, “Please be assured that our churches are not opposed to vaccination: as we have said, we are praying that one may be found. But we also pray that it be one that is not ethically tainted.”
Responses to this ecclesial request accused church leaders of irresponsibility. Monash University head of microbiology Professor Stephen Turner told the Sydney Morning Herald that the human embryonic kidney 293 cells used in the Oxford vaccine research had been widely used in research for decades. “They’re not collecting recent fetal tissue and using those. These are cell lines that have been around for years,” he said. In other words, don’t worry, the female baby was killed a long time ago, and we’ve normalized using her biological remains for science, so no big deal. In a similar vein, Peter Doherty, Nobel laureate and professor of immunology, said that “scientifically there’s no issue…. It’s our perfect right to take absolutely no intelligence of him” (Archbishop Fisher, that is). Because scientific progress is de facto synonymous with ethics?
Deputy chief medical officer Dr. Nick Coatsworth in turn downplayed the concerns of the episcopal leaders. “This is a very professional, highly powered research unit at Oxford University, one of the world’s leading universities, so I think we can have every faith that the way they have manufactured the vaccine has been against the highest of ethical standards internationally,” he noted. Ah yes, because secular international health organizations (the same ones that patronizingly push sterilization, abortions, and contraception on impoverished developing nations) always employ the highest ethical standards.
Some even falsely accused the Catholic archbishop of endorsing a boycott of the vaccine. “I have not, nor would I, call for Catholics to boycott the vaccine if it became available,” Archbishop Fisher responded in a statement on Facebook. “It is in all our interests that a vaccine is widely taken up, and so it is deeply disappointing that my words weren’t reported accurately or fairly.” This is disappointing but sadly common, perhaps especially in a country whose media engaged in a vindictive, evidence-less witch hunt against one of its most senior, well-regarded, orthodox prelates, Cardinal George Pell (whose conviction was later overturned).
The problem with all of this, I would argue, is ignorance. (For some, admittedly, malice is also likely in play.) In particular, it is ignorance of Catholic teaching on ethics. The Catholic Church, outsiders may be surprised to learn, has a robust, two-millennia history in regards to medical ethics. Abortion is condemned in the first- or second-century Didache and in second-century Church Fathers like Athenagoras of Athens and Tertullian. Contraception and sterilization are condemned by Saint Clement of Alexandria (c. 197) and Saint Hippolytus of Rome (c. 227). And, in perhaps the earliest Christian condemnation of ends-justify-the-means ethics, Saint Paul writes in Romans 3:8: “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”
As it pertains to the particular dilemmas surrounding reception of a vaccine based on the cell line of an aborted little girl, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement in 2005 that offers an excellent summation of Catholic church teaching. In that document, the Church explains the distinctions between formal and material cooperation (the former is when an actor shares in another’s evil intention, the latter when the actor does not); proximate and remote cooperation; and active and passive cooperation. The document further explains that “there are three categories of people who are involved in the cooperation in evil, evil which is obviously represented by the action of a voluntary abortion performed by others: a) those who prepare the vaccines using human cell lines coming from voluntary abortions; b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines; c) those who need to use them for health reasons.”
The process of the “preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted” is morally illicit, because it directly contributes to the encouragement of performing voluntary abortions for the purpose of vaccine production. By contrast, those who require the vaccines for grave health reasons “carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation.” When there is no recourse to an alternative vaccine, such Catholics may in good conscience use such a vaccine for the sake of their own health or that of their children, because their cooperation in the original evil act is material, remote, and passive.
Thus, Archbishop Fisher exhorted Australians “not to benefit in any way from the death of the little girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be trivialising that death, and not to be encouraging the fetal tissue industry.” Nor is he unique—the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued similar cautions. All of them want to avoid normalizing a medical practice that is categorically immoral.
Unfortunately, these ethical nuances are lost on those who see the world through utilitarian glasses. The Catholic Church, they absurdly claim, is irresponsibly encouraging the anti-vaxxers. Less absurdly, they accuse us of caring more about adhering to cumbersome, esoteric ethical principles than about the “greater good.” We are guilty as charged. It is wrong to commit immoral actions for the sake of some utilitarian calculus, regardless of the “good” achieved. Period. That aborted little girl’s life had essential value that should not be exploited, even fifty years later. For those who pretend otherwise, I’d ask, who’s the one being irresponsible here?
[Photo credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images]