COVID-19 Vaccine Ethics: Sorting Out the Statements

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FDA’s emergency approval of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine prompts disputes between Church authorities, scholars and activists, stirring controversy and confusion.

A nurse administers a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic for Catholic school education workers including elementary school teachers and staff at a vaccination site at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) on March 8, 2021 in Los Angeles, Calif.
A nurse administers a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic for Catholic school education workers including elementary school teachers and staff at a vaccination site at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) on March 8, 2021 in Los Angeles, Calif. (photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP/Getty)

SAN FRANCISCO — Dominican Father Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco, has firsthand experience with the escalating controversy over the ethics of receiving one of the three vaccines approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for emergency use to immunize Americans against the novel coronavirus.

As Father Hurley tells it, most of his flock in this diverse urban parish accepts the long-standing teaching of the Vatican on receiving morally controversial vaccines, partly summarized in a December 2020 instruction issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“[W]hen ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available,” stated the congregation, “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” 

The CDF said the “use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells” were derived.

When the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech two-shot vaccines, which used abortion-tainted cell lines to test for efficacy, entered the market late last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the Vatican’s guidance. And when Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was approved in late February, the conference registered more serious reservations, noting that it “was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines, raising additional moral concerns.”

“[I]f one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s,” stated the USCCB March 2 statement.

But if the majority of Father Hurley’s flock accept the nuances of official Church guidance on vaccines, some contend that it doesn’t go far enough.

“There are those who think if you don’t get vaccinated you are violating the principle of charity and it should be compulsory,” Father Hurley told the Register.

Conversely, the pastor has received pushback from other groups of parishioners, some of them staunchly pro-life.

“They told me, ‘We don’t question your faithfulness to the Church, but the bishops are being misled,’” he said.

“They quote contrary sources that say it is immoral to receive the vaccine, that the vaccine is untested,” or that it is part of some larger conspiracy, described as a “reset.”

In fact, the Vatican’s position is not new or unique to COVID-19 vaccinations. Two CDF instructions issued in 2008 and 2017 concluded that receiving problematic vaccines did not entail morally culpable cooperation with voluntary abortion, if grave reason required their use. But they also said that Catholics must assure that opposition to the evil of abortion is known and that the use of the vaccine does not suggest acceptance of or contribute to indifference to immoral methods of research. The 2008 instruction addressed the use of vaccines that safeguard the health of children and stated that the faithful had a “duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

The CDF has confirmed repeatedly that Catholics are not morally obligated to receive vaccines and that inoculation must be voluntary. Yet the 2020 instruction also emphasized that a concern for the common good must inform any moral evaluation, so Catholics should consider whether vaccination may be the surest means to stem an epidemic and thus protect “the weakest and most exposed.”

Father Hurley, for his part, believes that some of the current skepticism he has witnessed arises from an understandable climate of fear, clouding public debate during the pandemic. And he has encouraged parishioners to trust the Church’s official teaching.

“The Church has thought about these principles,” he said. “There is a rich tradition of prudential judgment.”


Prudential Judgment

Across the U.S., bishops, pastors and lay experts are facing similar concerns as they seek to clarify the nuances of the Church’s teaching that defies the 147-character limits of tweets and requires careful discernment and the engagement of individual consciences. 

In the face of these challenges, Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises the U.S. bishops and many Church-affiliated institutions on a range of issues, told the Register that Catholic leaders and experts must educate the faithful and take part in the broader debate sparked by ethically problematic vaccines. 

The National Catholic Bioethics Center outlined points to consider on the use of COVID-19 vaccines on its website last December and again in March, noting that Catholics could receive problematic vaccines “under protest,” recognizing the initial abortion from which the cell lines originated. The materials note that the 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.”

An act of conscience, said Meaney, “is a rational judgment where you decide whether something is good or evil. It is very objective.”

But what’s unusual and confusing in the discussion over the ethics of receiving these vaccines, he added, is that “we are not talking about an intrinsic evil,” in which a moral absolute is directly violated by the recipient. And yet the recipient is “benefiting from a terrible evil that happened in the past. You have to go through the work” and grapple with all the issues.

This prudential judgment, he added, must also be based on other relevant factors, such as the risks that COVID-19 infection poses to the health of loved ones and the broader community, the presence of informed consent, and the vaccines’ efficacy and potential side effects. The latter concern gained urgency this month as a slew of European countries paused distribution of Oxford University’s AstraZeneca vaccine, amid reports of blood clotting in some recipients.


Mixed Messages

Mainstream media outlets, along with local bishops, have taken up this matter from various sides, but the resulting news stories and multiplying diocesan statements have failed to dispel the fog of confusion and unease and may have made things worse. 

“The secular media wants something that is black and white, but there is a nuance to the Catholic view,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. He noted that when the Archdiocese of New Orleans warned that the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been produced with tainted cell lines and encouraged Catholics to get a different vaccine, if they had a choice, some news reports incorrectly framed this guidance as an outright ban on the new vaccine.

The ensuing furor sparked additional statements from various dioceses, with some backing the USCCB’s position, while a few either opposed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine altogether or encouraged the faithful to receive it without hesitation or distinction.

Catholic activists and commentators released their own statements, many of them critical of the USCCB.

“The statements come together in a particular context,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference and the author, most recently, of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

“In this country, we are suffering from an all-embracing crisis of confidence in the government, the media and in the experts.”

“And relevant to our present issue, nobody believes the Church or least not the leadership, after all we have been through,” he told the Register, noting that many Catholics, like most Americans, turn to an array of media outlets and social-media feeds for their information, with local chanceries and the USCCB playing a diminished role in the vetting of Church news.

Further, Shaw observed that “the left’s” critique of Church teaching on vaccines — characterized in some liberal Catholic periodicals as a sign of conservatives’ near obsession over abortion — has put “good-hearted people” on their guard, and some pro-life Catholics worry that any ethical tolerance of these tainted vaccines will foster acceptance of more problematic practices down the road.

In an attempt to clarify the issues in play and reassure pro-life Catholics, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a conservative, Washington, D.C.-based think tank, organized a high-level review of the relevant science and moral arguments by scientists, philosophers and theologians.

The resulting assessment, summarized in a March 5 statement, addressed the most controversial aspect of the major COVID-19 vaccines: their connection to the HEK-293 cell line derived from a baby aborted in the 1970s, which is widely used in vaccine production and testing, especially in common vaccines such as those for measles and rubella. 

“While there is a technical causal linkage between each of the current vaccines and prior abortions of human persons, we are all agreed, that connection does not mean that vaccine use contributes to the evil of abortion or shows disrespect for the remains of unborn human beings,” read the statement signed by EPPC President Ryan Anderson; Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University; and O. Carter Snead, the director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. 

The scholars backed official Church teaching on vaccines. 

But, in contrast to the moral analysis of the U.S. bishops and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the EPPC statement made no ethical distinctions between specific vaccines approved for use. “There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago,” reads the statement, “and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.”


Catholics Disunited

In an email to the Register, Anderson explained why EPPC’s contribution was important.

“[T]here has been a lot of misinformation and confusion on the ethics of receiving a COVID vaccine, and we wanted to help pro-life Americans better understand the ethical issues involved,” he wrote, while noting that the scholars who studied this matter are “all completely faithful to the magisterium and solidly pro-life.”

Despite these bona fides, the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s statement has received a mixed reception from the pro-life quarter. 

Several bishops contacted by the Register said they had referred Catholics to the EPPC statement, but some pro-life activists both in the U.S. and abroad have continued to push back.

On March 8, 86 Catholic women from 25 countries issued a letter arguing that Church statements approving their use rely on “an incomplete assessment of the science of vaccination and immunology” and noted among their concerns the commercialization of aborted children, the potential for acceptance of the vaccine to be perceived as an incentive for creating new cell lines in the same manner, and the “experimental nature” of the FDA-approved vaccines. The signatories of the letter included pro-life activist Abby Johnson, a Catholic convert, and Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a surgeon.

“The letter was written because it is time to say ‘enough is enough,’” Sister Dede told the Register.

Asked whether she had reviewed materials on this issue posted by organizations like the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Sister Dede said she had not done so. 

Rather, her deep commitment to the defense of the unborn and information provided on the Children of God for Life website inspired her to add her signature to the Catholic women’s letter.

Sister Dede is not alone. The Children of God website subsequently issued its own statement called “Awaken to Conscience” to protest what they perceive to be a growing “consensus” to present vaccination against COVID-19 as the morally responsible choice despite the conscience objections of many. 

The statement has garnered more than 2,500 signatures.

Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, says there is a reason why “Catholics are in disunity” on the ethics of vaccines.

Brugger told the Register that official Church statements on this issue “seem to do no more than establish that receiving these vaccines is not intrinsically evil.”

“What they haven’t done,” he added, “is to make clear why some people judge they should not receive the vaccine, even while acknowledging others may licitly receive it.”


Informed Decisions

But some diocesan statements are giving substantial weight to pro-life concerns while outlining the Church’s reasons for permitting Catholics to receive the vaccines.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, in his letter on COVID-19 vaccines, summarized three guiding principles of Church teaching on this issue.

“We may morally receive the currently available COVID-19 vaccines,” read the opening statement. “We are not morally obligated to take a COVID-19 vaccine,” and “[w]e should advocate for more ethical research and pharmaceutical development.”

“Bishop Daly wanted to provide guidance that acknowledged the moral nuances of the situation and highlighted aspects of the conversation that seemed to have been neglected, such as the importance of supporting research efforts that can replace the use of abortion-derived cell lines,” said Father Kyle Ratuiste, parochial vicar of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane and the diocese’s director of vocations. 

He worked with Bishop Daly on the letter. “In terms of messaging, there was one school of thought that insisted on simplicity, worrying that introducing nuance or even explicitly acknowledging the abortion issue would unnecessarily dissuade people from receiving the vaccine,” Father Ratuiste said. 

“However, Bishop Daly and I were aware that members of the lay faithful were already grappling with these questions, and there was truly an opportunity to teach.”

But while pro-life Catholics have one set of concerns, the internal Church debate also features another set of critics who contend that the Church’s moral witness on this issue is tragically misplaced. 

The USCCB statements, warns this group, could both discourage high-risk Americans from receiving a lifesaving vaccine and fuel the destructive politicization of a public-health crisis.

“The bishops are asking Catholics to risk human life and the common good for the sake of an irrational and unattainable notion of purity,” charged Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, in an opinion column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Catholics for Choice is a pro-abortion organization that has been denounced publicly by the U.S. bishops for misrepresenting itself as an authentically Catholic organization.

And Jesuit Father Sam Sawyer argued in the pages of America that the USCCB statements were “more focused on abortion as a front in the culture wars than they are on the common good during the pandemic.” 

However, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone rejected the claim that Church leaders put people at risk when they tackle ethical concerns posed by the vaccines.

“There is no basis for the statement that we are being irresponsible,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register. “We are encouraging people to get vaccinated in consultation with their physician.” 

And “reliable Catholic sources,” including the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the EPPC statement, provide “good information” to assist with that decision.

In a related matter, he noted that the San Francisco Archdiocese is working with local authorities to provide additional space for vaccination sites, in a bid to step up the pace of inoculations. 

At the same time, he confirmed plans to launch a letter-writing campaign to urge pharmaceutical giants to produce ethical vaccines. 

This multifaceted response to the ongoing health crisis, replicated in many dioceses across the nation, reveals that the demand for ethical COVID vaccines is part of the Church’s broad effort to advance the common good. It is not, as Archbishop Cordileone makes clear, an attempt to open a new “front in the culture wars.” 

“I hope these pharmaceutical companies realize that a lot of people have concerns” about the research, production and testing of these vaccines, said the archbishop.

“Science has to be guided by ethical considerations.”