Clarifying Catholic Teaching on Vaccines re: Fr. Michael Copenhagen

Clarifying Catholic Teaching on Vaccines re: Fr. Michael Copenhagen October 14, 2020

Several times people have sent me talks or writings by Fr. Michael Copenhagen claiming that he explains the actual Catholic teaching on vaccines. This is despite the fact that he disagrees with the overwhelming majority of bishops and theologians, as well as official Vatican statements. I maintain the position of the Vatican and the majority of theologians. I have responded in personal correspondence or in general terms before.

However, as Fr. Michael has decided to speak at a national anti-vax conference next weekend, I feel obliged to offer a fuller critique. I ask him to withdraw his speaking engagement at this conference or to change his views from those expressed previously.

Girl happy after getting vaccinated
Girl happy after getting vaccinated (CC0 CDC)

Sharing the stage with the likes of Andrew Wakefield, Sherri Tenpenny, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Del Bigtree, who have all repeatedly made false claims, may give a false impression regarding Catholic teaching on vaccines. The Catholic Church has generally promoted the use of vaccines. In fact, Pope Francis helped launch a polio vaccine campaign, giving the oral vaccine to a child, and thanked the Rotary club for promoting vaccines.

Fr. Micahel has argued Catholics must reject certain vaccines. The Church has given some warnings when fetal stem cells were used but has judged that using such vaccines is morally acceptable if no other option is available.  Catholics can reject these vaccines as a prophetic stance against abortion, but we can also use them, and in most cases, I would recommend the latter. I support Fr. Michael and others if they want to take a prophetic stance but saying such a stance is obligatory is incorrect.

I will mainly take up a 2019 speech Fr. Michael gave as it is the most popular and a good summary.

What Authority?

On November 14, 2019, Fr. Michael Copenhagen spoke at an event on the National Mall. He states (transcript, Facebook video, YouTube):

Let’s set the record straight: the closest thing we have to actual public teaching is an officially endorsed ethical reflection from 2005.

Dignitatis Personae

Although the 2005 letter is the most commonly cited source, Dignitatis Personae #35d (2008) is a higher level of teaching and authority than the letter. I will quote that whole paragraph to avoid anyone claiming I cherry-picked:

Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material.” Thus, 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. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.

Thus, if we express our disagreement with fetal stem cell research, and the only option was grown on fetal stem cells, we can vaccinate. Two additional things are obvious. First, we should move away from using fetal stem cells in vaccines. Second, those making such vaccines have far more moral responsibility.

2017 Clarification

Furthermore, in 2017, the Vatican Academy for Life, which issued the 2005 letter, issued a note of clarification. (The note and letter would be about an equal level of authority. But as the note specifically notes it is clarifying/updating the 2005 letter, it would be improper to read the 2005 letter contrary to the 2017 document.) The note moves in the opposite direction from Fr. Michael regarding fetal stem cells used in vaccines. Again, I will quote a significant portion to be clear I am not cherry-picking.

As for the question of the vaccines that used or may have used cells coming from voluntarily aborted fetuses in their preparation, it must be specified that the “wrong” in the moral sense lies in the actions, not in the vaccines or the material itself.

The technical characteristics of the production of the vaccines most commonly used in childhood lead us to exclude that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice of voluntary abortion. Hence, we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.

The judgment seems to have moved away from emphasizing the remote cooperation in evil. At a certain degree of remoteness, the very remote cooperation in evil is no longer morally relevant. It seems that the Church is moving in that direction regarding receiving such vaccines. It is still morally relevant for those preparing or selling such vaccines. If you want to find out all the reasons for this judgment, you can read the whole note.

Extrema Ratio or Last Resort

Despite it being supplanted by the 2008 instruction and clarified in 2017, the 2005 letter is still relevant. Fr. Michael, however, cherry-picks it, after accusing others of doing the same. We can begin with his misinterpretation of such vaccines as a “last resort.”

The use of these products must be ONLY as an “extrema ratio,” an extreme means or last resort, where there is a genuine need, an actual emergency… which means that if my well-informed prudential judgement says there is no imminent risk, as a Catholic I should refuse the vaccine. Where is the emergency?  Is there really a perpetual health crisis everywhere which justifies their imposition everywhere? Is it really necessary to sacrifice one human life to save another.

The 2005 Letter

Let’s examine what the letter actually says about it. First, here’s the line with “extrema ratio”:

The lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women).

Interestingly, you will note that the line directly includes that providing for the health of children in what would be ordinary circumstances. The Vatican indicates that viral illnesses are a real threat is sufficient justification, we do not need a “health emergency” as Fr. Michael claims. Also, “last resort” makes far more sense as a translation of extrema ratio here than “extreme means.” It is clearly a last resort as we should always encourage the production of vaccines without fetal stem cells and choose them if they are an option. However, given the letter recommends vaccines for most people, the idea of it being extreme or exceptional means does not make sense.

The Vatican also stated in the 2017 note that there is a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.”

Temporary

Fr. Michael also argues that we cannot keep using vaccines as their use can only be temporary.

The use of these vaccines can only be temporary… as a Catholic I can’t cooperate with their indefinite use or treat them as a fixed solution.

The 2005 letter does indicate that these vaccines should only be used temporarily. But the context makes it clear that this would be over decades while we encourage vaccines developed not using human fetal stem cells, not a sense of temporary, ending this year.

On this point, the quoted paragraphs from the 2017 clarification would support the removal of the “temporary” as a condition for receiving a vaccine. A large concern the Church has with not making this permanent is if vaccines require new elective abortions. So far, all vaccines are using fetal stem cells from abortions that happened before 1980. No vaccines use cells originating with new elective abortions.

Furthermore, the 2017 note indicates that the fetal stem cells are not evil, only the prior act of abortion is. Although it still needs to be temporary in the laboratory, by the point we are dealing with taking a vaccine or not, the Academy for Life judges that this quite remote cooperation is no longer relevant. It seems that in response to the concerns of Catholics and others, scientists are generally using other types of cells when creating new cell lines rather than relying on aborted fetal stem cells.

Theft and Desecration

Fr. Michael further claims, in the 2005 letter,

There is still no word on an aspect of the issue which some Catholic ethicists have raised, that the use of these lines is a form of theft and desecration of human remains which must not be used at all, but respectfully reposed instead of endlessly exploited.

There was definitely an act of theft and desecration in taking the original cells that started the stem cell line. However, I was unable to find which “Catholic ethicists” he was referring to regarding taking a vaccine. I searched a variety of search terms and domains to no avail. The only source I found in my research was an article he himself wrote, but he cites no other Catholic ethicists.

Conscientious Objection

Fr. Michael continues his claims.

It even says that we must reasonably resort to conscientious objection by refusing them.

The only thing I have seen written by a Catholic ethicist of any stature or bishop is what Viganò wrote in August, which I analyzed then. The Church supports those who want to take a prophetic stance against abortion and not use a vaccine connected to fetal stem cells. However, the line in the 2005 letter saying we should have conscientious objections is about taking the option that does not involve fetal stem cells if there is an option, not about an absolute refusal.

In statehouse testimony, Fr. Michael Copenhagen even admits he is at odds with almost every Catholic bishop and theologian. Then he argues for a Catholic right to a sure conscience. Catholicism does teach the duty to follow the conscience, but a duty of conscience is to inform it as much as reasonably possible, especially if one’s judgment of conscience is at odds with the Church.

Moral Absolutism

Fr. Michael  begins his conclusion, “To everyone I say: It is not good, it is not right, it is not conscionable to participate in so clear an evil.” Abortion is a clear evil, but the use of a vaccine very remotely related to an abortion is not a clear evil. What level of separation do we need? In 2017, the Vatican said that the current fetal stem cells used in vaccines “exclude that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice of voluntary abortion.” So, they think this is now far enough separate to be of any moral significance.

The view that it is remote enough to no longer be morally relevant is not universal. I think other Catholic ethicists view it as still morally relevant, but not sufficient to avoid the vaccine. However, The Vatican (a 2nd time [#35d], & a 3rd time), the English Bishops, the National Catholic Bioethics CenterCatholic Medical Associationan Archbishop with a bioethics doctoratea priest with doctoral degrees in both moral theology and microbiology, and most Catholic moral theologians and bioethicists all agree that it is permissible to get such vaccines.

Further, he adds, “Not for the empty promise of a scientific utopia; especially not for the dystopia we see emerging all around us.” The idea that vaccines make the world a dystopia is contrary to the overwhelming majority of medical evidence. No vaccine currently approved has even 1/1000th the risk of the disease, and most are significantly safer than that. Nobody claims vaccines are perfect: they have serious but very rare negative side effects. But seeing them as creating a dystopia is contrary to the overwhelming weight of available evidence.

Giving Consent

Fr. Michael ends:

To my fellow Catholics, I say: the one who is silent gives consent: wake up and fight for the truth. Stop rolling over and fight for moral medical practices across the board.

I demand the best medical practices, including vaccines. Medical practices should be questioned. However, after looking at the evidence, I think the value of the currently recommended vaccines is clear. Fr. Michael notes, “the one who is silent gives consent.” For a while, I was silent about anti-vax misinformation I saw online in Catholic circles, but now I am speaking up.

Let’s fight for the truth as the truth will set us free. The truth seems to support vaccinations in a large majority of cases.

Conclusion

I repeat my suggestion that Fr. Michael changes his views from those expressed elsewhere, or at least doesn’t share the stage with people known for their misinformation. I support those who want to take a prophetic stance against abortion but please don’t say that is the only option.

Notes: Please support me via Patreon so I can keep writing things like this which take a Catholic view on faith and science.


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