The Vaccines: You Probably Have Questions

The following appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Marian Helper magazine. Order a free copy.

To control the spread of COVID-19, nations around the world are now in the midst of the largest vaccination effort in history.

As is the case with many widely used vaccines — and many widely used pharmaceuticals, for that matter — we cannot positively say that any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines are entirely free from any connection to abortion. (The two vaccines approved so far in the United States, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, did not use fetal cells in their production. However, to validate the effectiveness of the vaccines, both reportedly were tested using fetal cell lines from decades ago.)

For Catholics — we who give preeminent priority to defending innocent human life, especially the lives of children in the womb — this can be a complex and confusing topic.

The following is a crash course on the COVID-19 vaccines and the Church’s stance on their use. We ask that you give this a careful read and take it all to prayer.

Are you morally obligated to receive a COVID-19 vaccination?

No, you are not. In a Dec. 8 statement, the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) wrote: “The Catholic Church neither requires nor forbids the use of ethically problematic vaccines, but instead urges people to discern what decision to make after having carefully formed their consciences about the moral and prudential issues surrounding the vaccines that become available.”

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) underscored this point in a Dec. 21 statement on the morality of COVID-19 vaccines, saying vaccination “must be voluntary.”

The Vatican hastens to add the following:

Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.

But the Church approves use of the COVID-19 vaccines, correct?

Not only that, but the Church is encouraging coronavirus vaccinations. The CDF, in its Dec. 21 statement, says, “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), too, is encouraging Catholics to receive the vaccination. In a statement released on Dec. 14, the USCCB referred to coronavirus vaccination as a “moral responsibility for the common good.”

This stance is in accord with previous statements from the Church, most notably the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 statement titled “Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human fetuses” and the CDF’s 2008 bioethics document Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of a Person), considered the most authoritative magisterial teaching on the topic. Both conclude that, in the absence of alternatives, Catholics can, in good conscience, receive vaccines made or tested using human fetal cell lines.

The CDF again reaffirmed this position with its Dec. 21 statement, referring to the COVID-19 vaccines as “morally acceptable.”

But wait a minute: The Church says it’s wrong to create abortion-derived cell lines, correct?

Absolutely correct.

But the Church judges that receiving vaccinations related to these wrongly created cell lines is remote material cooperation with evil, permitted in order to secure the common good in the face of historic threats to innocent human life and well-being.

The Church faced similar deliberations in decades past, notably with the rubella virus (also known as German measles), which reached epidemic proportions and has resulted in miscarriages and severe birth defects. The only available rubella vaccine, licensed in 1969, was developed using aborted fetal cell lines from two abortions in the 1960s. Those cell lines have been replicated to this day for use in rubella vaccines.

The Church has stated that parents are justified in having their offspring vaccinated against rubella, not only to protect their offspring, but also to prevent their children from becoming carriers of rubella and thereby possibly infecting pregnant women and endangering the lives of unborn children.

Not all bishops agree with the Church’s stance on vaccines that have a connection with abortion, correct?

Correct. Perhaps most notably, the Most Rev. Athanasius Schneider, an auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, and the Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, joined other Catholic clerics in signing a Dec. 12 statement declaring it immoral to use vaccines with any connection to abortion.

“Any link to the abortion process, even the most remote and implicit, will cast a shadow over the Church’s duty to bear unwavering witness to the truth that abortion must be utterly rejected,” the statement said. “The ends cannot justify the means.”

Their position holds that abortion is so heinous that even remote cooperation cannot be permitted.

Aren’t they correct? Wouldn’t the use of vaccines with a connection to abortion make us complicit with evil?

Not according to the Holy See. In circumstances in which cells from aborted fetuses are used to create cell lines for use in scientific research and development, Dignitas Personae states “there exist differing degrees of responsibility”:

Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision. (35)

In 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life reconfirmed this position. The CDF’s Dec. 21 statement also reconfirmed this position and emphasized “that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.” That statement continues:

It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.

For its part, the USCCB in its Dec. 14 statement, likened the dangers of the coronavirus to that of rubella, stating that vaccination can be considered “an act of self-love and of charity toward others”:

First, at least at present, there is no available alternative vaccine that has absolutely no connection to abortion. Second, the risk to public health is very serious, as evidenced by the millions of infections worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States of America alone. Third, in many cases the most important effect of vaccination may not be the protection it offers to the person who receives the vaccination, who may be of relatively robust health and unlikely to be seriously affected by the disease. Rather, the more important effect may be the protection it offers to those who are much more likely to be seriously stricken by the disease if they were to contract it through exposure to those infected.

But couldn’t such reasoning also lead to complacency with regards to the evil of abortion?

Absolutely. The USCCB, in its Dec. 14 statement, warns against this.

The NCBC, an agency that promotes and safeguards the dignity of the human person in medicine and the life sciences, urges Catholics who take an abortion-linked vaccine to do so “under protest.”

“A person who discerns in conscience that he or she can take such a vaccine has an obligation to make known his or her opposition to abortion and the use of abortion derived cell lines,” the organization said in a Dec. 7 statement.

Calling the matter an “existential challenge,” the NCBC noted that we live in a time that holds “potential for real scientific progress.”

In light of that, “we should redouble our efforts to create alternatives to vaccines that utilize abortion-derived cell lines. Together, with courageous witness and hard work, we can help build a culture of life,” the statement concluded.

What do we know about the COVID-19 vaccines currently in use?

While many companies around the world are developing COVID-19 vaccines, as of our publication date, only two vaccines have been given an emergency authorization for use in the United States: those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

Both vaccines are said to be about 94 percent effective.

Unlike the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford/AstraZeneca, in use elsewhere in the world, neither the Pfizer-BioNTech nor the Moderna vaccines were designed, developed, and produced using abortion-derived cell lines.

However, as we already mentioned, to validate the effectiveness of the vaccines, both reportedly were tested using fetal cell lines from decades ago.

The USCCB considers the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna options less directly linked with abortion than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

As more vaccines are approved, will we be able to choose the least morally compromised?

We hope and pray that it would be possible. The distribution of vaccines is still in its early stages. This is a matter we all must pay close attention to.

Should we be concerned about the vaccines’ safety considering how rapidly they have been developed?

No, says Alan Taege, MD, assistant professor of medicine and staff physician for the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Diseases. He has spoken at healthcare conferences sponsored by Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy. He told us this:

What we have seen in the trials is that there have been no unexpected long-term side-effects … . The short-term side-effects are pretty much what you could expect with a lot of vaccines. … What we know, historically, for the majority of people who have taken vaccines: If you don’t see [side-effects] in the first two or three months, it is quite uncommon to see long-term side effects thereafter.

For anyone with concerns about the vaccines’ safety with regards to fertility and pregnancy, Dr. Taege said the vaccines “should not have any effect on fertility at all.” He said:

The anticipation is it should be safe for everyone. But when you don’t have a fully functional immune system, you may not develop as good antibody levels. But that would be true of any vaccine.

Where do the Marian Fathers stand on this issue?

The Marians faithfully follow the directives of the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church, which provide sound moral guidance. Thus, the reason for this article. We hope that by careful and prayerful reading of it, each member of our Marian family will greatly benefit from the scope of its research and come to an informed decision on this critical topic. To review: The Church does not command that we receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but it allows us to receive it. With so many factors involved, there is no “black or white” answer. Be informed. As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, follow your well-informed conscience.


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