What about abortion?
Catholics mistakenly object to the vaccines on the grounds that they are
connected to abortion. Now, some uninformed
people think that the vaccines actually contain fetal parts, or that they were
manufactured using fetal parts. That is
not true. What is true is that cells that
are descended from cells taken from
an unborn child aborted fifty years ago were used in testing but not in manufacturing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines
(as they are used in testing all sorts of vaccines, food products, etc.). (In the case of the Johnson and Johnson
vaccine, these descendent cells are
used in manufacturing the vaccine.)
it would be better if there were not even this very remote material connection
to an abortion. But the connection is merely material and very remote
rather than formal or direct, and it is a longstanding and well-known principle
of Catholic moral theology that an action can be justifiable in the case of a
merely remote material connection to wrongdoing, if there is a proportional
reason for taking that action. In
particular, it is a longstanding position among orthodox Catholic moral
theologians that use of vaccines developed in the manner in question can, for
this reason, be morally justifiable when there are no alternative vaccines
position was officially endorsed by the Church in connection with other
vaccines having a remote connection to abortion, in a document prepared during
the pontificate of There is no novel moral principle involved,
and nothing special about the Covid-19 vaccines compared to the other vaccines
the use of which the Church has permitted.
understandably troubled by the sometimes imprecise and misleading remarks made
by Pope Francis on other topics, seem to think that they cast doubt on the
reliability of the CDF document on the Covid-19 vaccines. But that is a red herring. Again, the latest document merely reiterates
and applies official Church teaching that was already in place under John Paul
II and Benedict XVI, and has long been defended by orthodox Catholic moral
theologians. Whatever one thinks of Pope
Francis’s statements on other matters, they are completely irrelevant here.
would respond that the documents in question, including those associated with
the two previous popes, are not infallible proclamations. That is true, but also irrelevant. If the Church officially determines that some
action is morally permissible, then Catholics do not sin in carrying out that
action, even if the decision is not infallible.
A theologian in criticism of the
decision if he thinks the Church ought to reconsider it, but he has no right to
accuse fellow Catholics of sin if they decide to follow the Church’s
pronouncement rather than his personal theological opinion.
I don’t have
anything to add to this particular issue beyond what many others have already
said about it. Readers interested in a
detailed discussion of the rationale behind the Church’s position on the
Covid-19 vaccines (including the question of the relative moral status of the
Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines) should read the on the issue signed by Ryan T. Anderson,
Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, Maureen Condic, Fr. Kevin Flannery, Robert P. George,
Carter Snead, Christopher Tollefsen, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White (who are
well-known for their firm opposition to abortion).
think that the Covid-19 vaccines are somehow uniquely problematic from an
anti-abortion point of view should read Fr. Matthew Schneider’s responses to
that claim ( Those who think that traditionalists ought to
oppose the vaccines should read Prof. Roberto de Mattei’s articles on the
subject ( ,
and the comments of . The Pillar
has of the reasons for the moral
justifiability of the vaccines and responses to objections to them.
This is in
no way to deny that Catholics ought to oppose, and try to end, any medical research
with even a very remote material connection to abortion. On the contrary, the Vatican documents cited
above emphasize this. But similarly
remote connections to abortion or other forms of wrongdoing (and in many cases closer, if still remote, connections)
are entailed by countless other medicines, products, and services of various
kinds that are licit and that the vaccine critics have not objected to. (These include certain vaccines for rubella
and chicken pox, Tylenol, Advil, aspirin, Benadryl, Maalox, various foods and
cosmetics, and so on – all of which have been tested the same way the Covid-19
vaccines were – not to mention corporate donations to Planned Parenthood, immoral
labor practices, etc. See Fr.
Schneider’s articles for more detailed discussion of these examples.) Given how economically interconnected the
world is, some remote connection to
wrongdoing is unavoidable, and not something for which we are morally culpable
(as orthodox Catholic moralists, and the Church, have long acknowledged, long
before the Covid-19 situation). There is
nothing special about the Covid-19 vaccines in this regard, and thus no reason
to be alarmed about them,
sources cited indicate, this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue, or even a
conservative vs. traditionalist issue.
It is, again, simply an application of principles that were already
widely accepted by conservative and traditionalist Catholics before Covid-19 or
Pope Francis came on the scene. Hence,
Catholics who attempt to make a “pro-life” cause out of opposition to the
Covid-19 vaccines do not, in my opinion, have any reasonable basis for doing
so. Though well-meaning, they are muddying
the waters and taking precious time and energy away from dealing with the many
genuine and very serious problems currently facing the world and the Church.
What about mandates?
None of that
entails that a Catholic must take any
of the vaccines. In my opinion (and that
of the CDF), there is no general moral obligation to do so (though a particular
person’s special circumstances could generate such an obligation for him).
And as I say, I think the CDF is correct to hold that it is better that
Covid-19 vaccination be kept voluntary rather than made mandatory, certainly as
far as general government policy is concerned (though the military, schools,
and the like may have their own special reasons for a mandate, as they do with
other vaccines). Unfortunately, some
governments, like the California state government and now the Los Angeles city
government, have moved to impose Covid-19 vaccination mandates. How should a Catholic react to such policies?
thing to note is that a vaccine mandate, even if ill-advised in some cases, is
not per se or intrinsically
immoral. Most Catholics acknowledge this
in the case of other vaccines. For
example, few complain about the fact that schools have long required measles,
mumps, and rubella vaccines as a condition for attendance. Whether or not it is a good idea for a
school, a government, a business corporation, or any other authority to impose
some particular vaccine mandate is a matter of prudential judgment. Hence, the Covid-19 vaccine mandates cannot
reasonably be objected to simply on
the grounds that they are mandates. A
reasonable objection would have to be based instead on the judgment that they
involve a failure of prudence.
prudent or imprudent a policy is is a matter of degree. A certain tax policy, for example, might be
extremely wise, merely defensible, merely ill-advised, outright foolish, or
extremely foolish. The same thing can be
true of a vaccine mandate. In my
opinion, Covid-19 vaccine mandates of the kind now in play in California are
somewhere between ill-advised and foolish.
For one thing, I do not believe it has been shown that such mandates (as
opposed to voluntary compliance) are necessary
in order effectively to deal with the virus.
That suffices to make them a bad idea, because imposing a vaccine mandate
is a significant enough infringement on personal liberty that the authority
imposing it faces a high burden of proof.
thing, when citizens are highly polarized about some policy that has merely
prudential considerations in its favor, that is itself a serious reason for a
public authority not to impose it, especially if the skeptical part of the
population is already distrustful of the authority and sees the policy (whether
correctly or not) as a crisis of conscience.
This is just basic statesmanship.
When polarization and distrust are already very high, the aim should be
to reduce them, and to try as far as possible to accommodate those who have
reservations. Heavy-handed policies like
vaccine mandates will inevitably have the opposite effect.
Are the reservations
people have about the mandate reasonable ones?
Some are, and some are not. On
the one hand, some people have certainly said some very stupid things about the
vaccines – that they amount to the “mark of the Beast” from Revelation, that
they contain tracking devices, and other such idiocies. Others have less bizarre but still unfounded
medical concerns of one kind or another, due to rumors spread on social media. (Here is a useful video
by Catholic physician Dr. Paul Carson on myths surrounding the vaccines.)
On the other
hand, it is perfectly reasonable for someone who has already had Covid-19 and
thus has natural immunity to wonder why it is imperative that he be vaccinated
– as It is
perfectly reasonable for someone simply to prefer to wait as long as possible
before taking some novel vaccine, just to be certain that there are no
unforeseen bad side effects. It is
perfectly reasonable for those who are not particularly vulnerable to the virus
(which is most people) to prefer not to get vaccinated, and to wonder why it is
not sufficient that people who are
vulnerable can get the vaccine if they want to.
to this last point would be that the vaccines are not a magic bullet, and that
they don’t guarantee that a person
will not get the virus. Rather, they
make it less likely that one will get
it, and less likely that one will get seriously ill if he does get it. At the same time, though, if everyone got the
vaccine, then the overall incidence of infection and serious illness would be
greatly reduced. In this indirect way,
vaccinating those who are not at high risk from the virus contributes to protecting
those who are at high risk from it.
an unreasonable argument. Still, since ,
reasonable doubts about whether there is any point to vaccinating those who
have already been infected, and significant social unrest over the issue, one
must weigh benefits against costs. It’s
a judgment call, and since the
burden of proof is on those who would impose burdens, the wiser decision in
my view would be to refrain from imposing mandates, and instead encourage
voluntary compliance while trying respectfully and patiently to address the
concerns of the doubters.
It is also
perfectly understandable that many citizens doubt the judgment of the governing
authorities on this matter. Many of these
authorities have approached the pandemic in a nakedly politicized and cynical
way – questioning the vaccines when Trump was in office, then encouraging them
after Biden took office; condemning right-wing public protests as
super-spreader events, then encouraging left-wing public protests (which were,
into the bargain, often violent); insisting on masks for everyone else while
personally not bothering with them; and so on.
Some of these public officials have also proven themselves foolish or
malign in other respects – supporting pointless
and destructive lockdowns, lunatic policies like
defunding the police, and
so on. And there are among them many
whose enthusiasm for vaccine mandates is of a piece with a general desire to
increase the power of the state and a disdain for subsidiarity. Then there is the fact that there is no
better way to increase skepticism than to shout down and censor
those who express it, rather than responding to their arguments in a calm
and civil way. As
I have argued before, many of the authorities and experts who have shaped
policy during the pandemic have themselves generated the resistance they complain
At the same
time, it is possible to react foolishly to these very real and grave problems,
and too many right-wingers and faithful Catholics have done so. As Prof. de Mattei has lamented, some have
let themselves become so rattled by the social, political, and ecclesiastical crises
of recent years that they have fallen into subjectivist
“narrative” thinking and crackpot conspiracy theorizing. Some flirt with schism in a manner that . They insist on treating an extreme
anti-vaccine position as a mark of true orthodoxy, regardless of what the
Church herself has taught. And some have
worked themselves into such a lather over the vaccines during the last several
months that, now that mandates are on the horizon, they have boxed themselves
in psychologically. They fear that to
get vaccinated at this point would be on a par with offering a pinch of incense
to an idol – and thus judge that they are obligated to give up their jobs, pull
their children out of school, etc. rather than do so.
This is all melodramatic, theologically unsound, and self-destructive. It is perfectly reasonable to object to the more draconian mandates and to work to get them reversed. But they are a matter of bad public policy at worst, not a crisis of faith. As with any bad public policy, those who put themselves at professional or financial risk in fighting it deserve our respect. But it is wrong to pretend that such resistance is analogous to that of the martyrs of the Church, or a general moral obligation on Catholics as such. The way our culture and politics are going, there will in future be no shortage of hills for Catholics to die on. This is not one of them.