When the abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccines were first introduced, the initial question rightly raised by Catholics was, “Can I receive this vaccine?”; i.e., is it morally permissible? However, too few Catholics bothered to ask the second important moral question, “Should I receive this vaccine?” After all, we are not called to live a minimal life of the morally permissible; we are called to a life of holiness, which often includes sacrifice and prophetic witness to the world. Even if these vaccines are morally permissible, does taking them advance the common good of justice and holiness?
In December 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a statement which, based on previous Vatican instructions, noted that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” For many Catholics, including many in the hierarchy, that was the end of the debate, the only thing that mattered: it is morally acceptable, so there could be no argument against taking the vaccine.
Although certain prominent Catholics have put forward well-reasoned arguments that taking such vaccines is immoral (including in this magazine), for this article I presume the CDF is correct that receiving the vaccine is morally permissible. Even granting this, the second question still remains: Should a Catholic receive it?
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Based on their belief that vaccination serves the common good, most Catholic leaders have answered this question in the affirmative, and some have even taken this further, arguing or at least suggesting that taking the vaccine is a moral obligation for Catholics. For example, the bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, has been a vocal proponent of the vaccines, stating that they are not only “fully approved…by the teachings of our Church,” but also arguing they are “safe and effective.” He urges his flock to take the shot: “I pray that you will give this gift of healing for yourself, your families and to the healing of our world.” His diocesan website even has “CHURCH URGES VACCINATION” prominently displayed on its home page.
Advocacy for the vaccines isn’t limited to a single Left Coast bishop, either. A papal charity has orgainzed a vaccine drive for the poor, and Pope Francis tweeted, “All of us are called to combat the pandemic and vaccines are an essential tool in this fight.” There was even an announcement that Vatican employees would be required to receive the vaccine, although that has been backtracked a bit since it was first announced.
From this, it appears that the institutional Catholic response is that Catholics absolutely should receive a COVID-19 vaccine, even if it is abortion-tainted (all currently available ones are). For the average Catholic, there would seem to be no religious reason not to take the shot.
Yet a deeper look at what the Church has said previously on the morality of abortion-tainted vaccines paints a different picture.
Most Vatican statements—including the December 2020 CDF Note—base their argument for the moral permissibility of taking abortion-tainted vaccines on a 2005 instruction from the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL). Written under the direction of the CDF and in the context of certain child vaccines that used cell lines from aborted babies, this reflection was the first major Vatican statement on abortion-tainted vaccines (although the term “abortion-tainted” is a relatively new description)—it forms the foundation for the moral arguments for receiving such vaccines.
A careful reading of the statement reveals a far different emphasis versus what we now hear from our Church leaders, including those at the Vatican. After detailing the moral arguments regarding the degree of cooperation one might have when taking an abortion-tainted vaccine, the PAL states forcefully,
Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin. Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers. (emphasis added)
“They should oppose by all means…the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives”—do we see this happening today? Far from opposing “by all means” these vaccines, the Church rather is advocating for them, to the point of assisting in their promotion and even their distribution.
Further, the PAL statement goes on to say,
As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health.
This raises the important question of the actual dangers of COVID-19, especially among the young and the healthy. The vast majority of Church leaders have uncritically accepted the mainstream narrative; i.e., we are dealing with “an otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent” (in the words of the 2020 CDF Note), one that could wipe out large swathes of our population if we don’t take serious countermeasures, including mass vaccinations. Of course, the Church has no special charism regarding medical issues; her leaders’ ability to determine what constitutes a grave medical danger is no more reliable than anyone else’s.
Yet the issue of how dangerous this pandemic is has a great bearing on whether or not a Catholic should take the vaccine. It’s clear that the 2005 PAL instruction places its emphasis on the right not to receive such vaccines, instead of an obligation to receive them. Even the December 2020 CDF statement notes that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” (And “voluntary” means free from economic or social coercion, such as vaccine requirements for jobs or airline flights.) Further, the CDF states that taking such vaccines is only permissible if there is a “grave danger” posed by not taking the vaccine—and even then, it is still not obligatory.
Even if it is morally permissible to take an abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccine, the “default” position for the Catholic, based on the 2005 PAL instruction and even the 2020 CDF instruction, should be at least hesitancy toward taking such vaccines, especially those for whom COVID-19 is not particularly dangerous (i.e., the young and the healthy). As the 2005 PAL instruction notes, taking an abortion-tainted vaccine requires a “proportional reason” in order to take it. For most people, is taking an experimental vaccine that merely limits the symptoms of COVID-19 proportional to cooperation, even remote, in the great holocaust of our time?
Over the past 15 years, a shift in emphasis has occurred among the Church hierarchy and Catholic ethicists when it comes to abortion-tainted vaccines. Instead of emphasizing the right of conscientious objection, the Church is now emphasizing the supposed “common good” that comes from taking them, leading many Catholics to argue that one now has a duty, not to conscientious objection, but to cooperation with an abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccine. This shift has occurred without Church leaders technically changing any moral teaching on the subject.
Abortion is the grave evil of our time. Millions upon millions of innocent babies have been brutally—and legally—murdered around the world in the past 50+ years. The Catholic Church has been the primary defender of life amidst this sea of blood. Yet when many Church leaders turn a blind eye to this horror by refusing to stand as a prophetic witness for unborn life, it’s hard not to believe that this sea of blood has begun to engulf even the Church.
[Photo Credit: Pope Francis greets volunteers and doctors at the Paul VI Hall Vatican Vaccination Centre (Vatican Pool/Getty Images)]