Recent statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (PDF) and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Holy See (link) have abundantly demonstrated, following traditional moral principles, that the COVID-19 vaccines currently on the market or nearing release may be licitly taken. To be clear, the two that are most morally acceptable are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The third one, made by AstraZeneca, has far greater moral problems and should be avoided as much as possible. UPDATE: A Johnson & Johnson vaccine has now been approved in the US as well, but for reasons summarized in this article it should also be avoided as much as possible. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines remain the best choices, morally speaking.
Notwithstanding these clarifications, there has arisen a great deal of controversy surrounding these vaccines; such discussions are not just among Catholics, but across large swaths of society. One major point of contention involves the question of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses used in the production of these and many other vaccines. In the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, no such cell lines were relied upon in their development and production, but they were used for a confirmatory test. For Catholics, who understand well the gravity of abortion, this fact is very offensive and cannot be lightly set aside.
However, a cursory glance at modern daily life in the western world will reveal that we tolerate the evil of abortion in many other areas of life, often without even thinking about it. Many of the companies whose products we use nowadays directly support this moral evil in various ways – especially by donating to Planned Parenthood, which is the largest provider of abortion in the United States. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to exist in the modern world without having to tolerate some remote cooperation or affiliation with evil. A popular priest-commentator, Fr. Matthew Schneider, recently published an article that thoroughly illustrates this quandary (here).
Yes, traditional moral analysis shows us that we may indeed take the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines (and even, in the absence of better alternatives, the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines), if we so choose. We rightly find abortion offensive; we might be upset that these giant companies with vast resources do not find more ethical ways to do their work; we might even lament that our Church leaders have not fought this evil more vigorously in the past. But none of these or similar feelings and frustrations can change the fact that a rigorous and traditional evaluation shows that these vaccines may licitly be sought out.
Indeed, it is often convenient to point fingers and express disdain about others, even as seemingly few people heed the fact that in every traditional presentation of this Church teaching – and it is not a new teaching at all – there is a condition placed on those who choose to avail themselves of one of these less-than-morally-perfect vaccines: namely, the Church instructs us to protest them. The last major statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on life issues, Dignitas personae, sets forth that condition as follows: “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” (no. 35, emphasis added). In other words, we have an obligation to protest any and all morally-compromised vaccines if we choose to take them. Please see below for some sample protest letters (in Word/.doc format).
The more recent CDF statement also explains that vaccination is not, in principle, a moral obligation. It is a prudential decision – one that must necessarily look beyond one’s personal good to the common good, as well. It remains up to each individual (and to parents, on behalf of their minor children) to determine whether taking a COVID-19 vaccine is the best decision for them and their community. Let us make every effort to avoid vilifying those who, for any number of reasons, may reach a different prudential decision than we concerning the COVID-19 vaccine.
A prudential decision is not a gut feeling or a hunch; it is an informed, reasonable conclusion reached through a process of evaluation and analysis of the available data and one’s personal situation. In making a prudential decision, we must also strive to set aside party affiliations, peer pressure/human respect, and other factors that could substitute for the work of informing ourselves and considering before God what is best for us and our families in a particular situation. Therefore, in addition to the articles or resources linked above, all are encouraged to seek additional information from legitimate authorities, to include the disclosure statements of the pharmaceutical companies and the opinions of medical experts.
Above all, we are Catholic and we have a spiritual outlook. From the beginning of this pandemic we have prayed in various ways that the Lord may deliver us from it. That must still be our prayer. What role vaccines might have in our eventual deliverance is still not entirely clear to us. In any case, we should not expect supernatural graces from God if we do not also take advantage of the natural means we have at our disposal. In other words, it is not enough just to pray; we must also consider the available remedies and make responsible decisions about them. But let’s not forget to pray!
Here are sample “protest letters” for Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson (in .doc format):
(AstraZeneca is based in the UK and their vaccine is currently only authorized there, so a letter is not provided for them.)
Very Rev. Bryan W. Jerabek, J.C.L.
Pastor & Rector
January 1, 2021
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Updated March 2, 2021