What about abortion?
Some 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.)
Naturally, 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 available.
This 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. and in another document issued under (cf. sec. 35). What the Church has done in the more recent document is simply to apply the preexisting principles set out in those earlier documents to the case of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Some Catholics, 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.
Some Catholics 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).
Those who 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 ), and the comments of . The Pillar has of the reasons for the moral justifiability of the vaccines and responses to objections to them. and ).
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, specifically.
As the 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?
The first 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.
But how 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.
For another 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. .
A response 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.
That’s not 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 about.
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.