Is the Decision to Receive COVID-19 Vaccination for Each Person’s Conscience to Judge?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS

Some are concerned with the safety of the new mRNA vaccines.
Some are concerned with the safety of the new mRNA vaccines. (photo: Unsplash)

Q. The Archbishop of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada recently instituted a policy requiring anyone who attends Mass to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Several days later he retracted the policy. I don’t live in NB, I’m in Ontario but I’m afraid of such a restricted policy in all of Canada. Presently, we can attend Mass as long as we use a mask. I agree with this and other protective measures, but I thought “mandating” vaccination was against Catholic moral teaching as it impinges on our free will. Please explain. — Maria

A. I am pleased that your bishop backtracked on his decision, but other bishops have introduced similar mandates. So the question is worth exploring.

We know that most Catholics have concluded that they should receive the COVID 19 vaccination. 

But some have concluded they shouldn’t. They are frequently treated as unreasonable, suspected of magical thinking or conspiracy mindedness and treated as irresponsible. They are in danger of losing their jobs, being refused religious exemptions by Church leaders, and now being threatened with banishment from the sacraments. I can’t think of any group of Catholics, neither heretics nor the manifestly notorious, that have been treated so severely in recent memory.

Whether or not to receive the vaccination for COVID is for each man’s conscience to judge. Unfortunately, the concept of conscience is badly misunderstood. 

St. Thomas Aquinas and the Second Vatican Council teach that conscience is the end point of a process of deliberation over some alternative, call it x. I want to know whether x is morally permissible, morally required or morally prohibited. I inquire, seek counsel and pray for guidance, and in the end, I come to a judgment, a moral conclusion that x is permissible, prohibited, or required for me here and now. That conclusion, that judgment, IS conscience. 

When we say that conscience must be properly formed, we mean that our moral knowledge must be true, we must be rightly educated, so that when we deliberate, we are capable of judging evil to be evil and good to be good. This doesn’t guarantee that we’ll make good decisions, since decision-making frequently involves more than moving from simple moral premises to certain conclusions. But if our moral knowledge is erroneous or skewed or deficient, we are much less likely to make good judgments. Our deliberation must be adequately thorough that we may see as widely as possible the goods promised and the goods threated by some alternative under consideration. 

With respect to the COVID-19 vaccine, some people’s moral knowledge is erroneous. Some wrongly believe that vaccination is intrinsically evil, while others insist that it’s morally required of everyone. The truth, affirmed in both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Note and the USCCB document “Moral Considerations,” is that receiving a COVID vaccination is permissible, but not morally required. 

The reason it’s not morally required is that there can be good reasons for refusing. What are some of those reasons? 

Some are concerned with the safety of the new mRNA vaccines. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the action of the experimental serums, the most obvious of which is their medium- and long-term effects on human health. 

Vaccine dissenters read that large numbers of health-care workers, especially those closest to patients, are refusing the jab. They learn that the vaccines can act differently from what we originally projected, and that they pose risks we didn’t anticipate. So wishing to avoid the possible harms that could arise from receiving an experimental drug, they conclude they shouldn’t take the shot.  

Other dissenters learned early on that in the process of bringing to market the three most commonly used vaccines in the U.S., researchers relied on a cell line that in its origins was created using fetal tissue from a little unborn girl who was killed by abortion in the 1970s. They have considered the widely repeated argument that given the bad consequences of not being vaccinated, and in the absence of viable alternatives, and if they register their moral objections on the vaccine’s reliance on abortion-tainted cell lines, it need not be evil to receive one of the three available vaccines. They assent to all this, but still judge that they shouldn’t be vaccinated. They believe that Jesus is calling them to conscientiously object in order to bear special witness to the evil of abortion, both abortion in general, and the wickedness of the ongoing use of fetal tissue in scientific research.

The vaccination question is a difficult matter of balancing benefits to be gained from taking the jab versus risks accepted. Nobody should treat the question as if it’s a simple black-and-white Yes or No. 

Our public officials and the mainstream media have used every means possible to communicate the urgency and necessity of vaccination against COVID. Many people have expressed the feeling that such a vast vaccine public relations campaign is a form of manipulation that is bad for our country. There is no moral high ground here. If after responsible deliberation, someone judges that the reasons for refusing the vaccination are stronger than for taking it, then their conclusion should be respected. 

They may be reminded of their social responsibility, that vaccination, as many believe, is in the interests of the common good, and that sometimes we are called to do what we’d rather not in order to benefit others. Dissenters like Maria agree and take due precautions to protect their neighbors.

But what everyone needs to understand is that if someone is dissenting for one or both of the two reasons mentioned above, his moral judgment is grounded in respect for human goods: human health on the one hand and witness to the Gospel of life on the other. And although these reasons do not amount to an absolute prohibition against vaccination, one that binds everyone everywhere, they are sufficient to ground particular negative conscience judgments. 

Making such judgments is the business of being a morally mature adult. And so the judgments shouldn’t be subject to coercion.

Speaking on freedom of conscience in religious matters, Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae teaches:

“This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

Does this mean that Church and state leaders may never attach incentives to particular alternatives that in leaders’ judgments are most in their constituency’s interests? Of course not. Only the most unreasonable have opposed every public restriction during the COVID era. 

But imposing a punitive one-size-fits-all policy that leads to the forcible stripping of a man’s livelihood or enforced prevention of a woman from attending Holy Mass, this is despicable and unjust.

Leaders from the beginning should have taken a staggered approach. People over 70, especially who suffer comorbidities, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and its variants. Those in their 30s and 40s seem less so. And many doctors are opposed to child COVID vaccination altogether. 

“There is no room,” wrote 93 Israelis doctors, “to vaccinate children at this time. … There is currently no ‘altruistic’ justification for vaccinating children to protect at-risk populations.”

The Church’s pastors should be helping the faithful to make good decisions, not to make the decision that the pastor wants. 

But to do this, we need access to the best information available, information both defending and criticizing the mRNA vaccines. The censorship on vaccine criticism by mainstream media and social networks has been chilling. 

The public vaccine hype in the foreground and disturbing evidence of risk in the background is causing national disunity. The same in the Church. Censorship is eliciting and giving false credibility to extremism on both sides. Uncritical defenders are treating carefully reasoned vaccine dissenters like heretics. 

If people decide that they’d rather suffer COVID than risk being vaccinated, they shouldn’t be reprimanded. Pastors may ask them to continue social distancing, wear a mask, receive Communion in the hand, be vigilant to minimize interactions with others, etc. But ban them from Mass? 

Gratefully, most attempts to do so have been stopped as overreach. Yet the tensions have caused considerable anxiety. 

Clearly, pastors need to be urging the faithful to intelligently inform their consciences. And no one should punish those with whom they disagree on COVID vaccination.

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