On August 5, the Bishops of Colorado issued a statement that although not technically wrong, was imprecise in ways that can easily mislead an average reader. I think these wordings are imprudent. Although it is right to note that in general COVID-19 vaccines are voluntary, in the opening line and two lines near the end, their wording likely has a reading other than Catholic teaching or reality for most people.
“Some”? in the Opening Line
The bishops open with, “We, the Catholic bishops of Colorado… affirm that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances.” This does not seem to follow the Vatican statement on COVID vaccines, supported by almost all moral theologians:
It is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process. […] All vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.
I think there may be a way to reconcile those statements, but it requires the Colorado bishops to be using words in ways other than the meaning most would come to on first reading. In this context “some” is quite confusing as every COVID-19 vaccine is morally acceptable under certain circumstances. When most hear / read “some” here, they probably put a definition like “being an unknown, undetermined, or unspecified unit or thing,” or “being of an unspecified amount or number.” Then the implication would be that some other COVID-19 vaccines are never morally acceptable. They could mean “some” in a more strictly logical definition: “being at least one —used to indicate that a logical proposition is asserted only of a subclass or certain members of the class denoted by the term which it modifies,” which would be true but not the definition an average reader would assume.
The reality is that some COVID-19 vaccines are morally acceptable under any circumstance where medically recommended. While others – of the three in use in the USA at the time, only the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – are acceptable if no other option is easily available but other vaccines should be preferred.
It would have been far better to flip the statement: “The use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally UNacceptable under certain circumstances.”
Forgetting the Main Two US Vaccines
Just over 96% of doses given so far in the USA have been Moderna or Pfizer with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine accounting for about 3.9% of doses. Thus, when dealing with COVID vaccination in the USA, we should generally note Moderna & Pfizer first, then mention Johnson & Johnson. However, in their bullet points on reasons why, the bishops mention a reality that only applies to Johnson & Johnson of the three but could easily be misread to apply to all three.
In their points, the bishops note: “There is a moral duty to refuse the use of medical products, including certain vaccines, that are created using human cells lines derived from abortion; however, it is permissible to use such vaccines only under case-specific conditions—if there are no other alternatives available and the intent is to preserve life.” Then don’t follow up noting that this does not apply to 96% of US vaccine doses. For this reason, the other two should be preferred over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if you have a reasonable option between vaccines. An overly cautious person could theoretically even say “no” based on this if Johnson & Johnson were the only locally available option.
They restate this line in the attached form letter for a vaccine exemption. Given that the letter is given as a form of exemption from all vaccines, not just those “created using human cells lines derived from abortion.” This is misleading.
This form letter seems to be based on an individual exemption letter from the National Catholic Bioethics Center made, although bishops are asking pastors to sign it.
Restricted vs Universal Mandate
In the statement last December, the Vatican noted, “Practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” I agree. This is against a universal mandate, but does not prohibit restricted mandates or universal encouragement to vaccinate.
The paragraph continues, “In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.” Following this, it seems well within the teaching of the document for a hospital or nursing home to require staff to be vaccinated due to their regular contact with higher-risk individuals.
This has long been the practice in nursing. The American Nurses Association says all nurses need to be up to date on immunization including annual flu vaccine, MMR, etc. Even Franciscan University of Steubenville requires normal immunizations to finish the nursing program: this would include the Rubella Vaccine and likely the Chickenpox vaccine for younger students now. Both of these vaccines are more connected to abortion (although still quite remote and are morally acceptable to receive) than the main US COVID vaccines, and the diseases are also less deadly than COVID. Many Catholic hospitals also require these vaccines and Catholic ethicists have long approved limited mandates like this covering hospital staff or similar.
Thus, it comes as a surprise that the Colorado bishops write, “We continue to support religious exemptions from any and all vaccine mandates,” and a “Person should follow their conscience [if it says not to take these vaccines], and they should not be penalized for doing so.” This makes sense if applied to a universal mandate But applying this line to a mandate for hospital or nursing home staff is contrary to the common good.
It is reasonable for someone to expect that if grandpa goes into the hospital with some breathing issue, the hospital goes above and beyond to ensure he doesn’t catch any respiratory diseases during his stay. The chance of death from catching COVID is astronomically higher for someone already hospitalized for pneumonia, for example, than for a random customer at a retail store. Part of that hospital’s prevention would be making sure all staff were vaccinated. Being fully vaccinated is a prerequisite for that job. If a person like that is given multiple chances but refuses to vaccinate, they could theoretically be fired.
The Catholic Medical Association (doctors) and the Catholic Health Association (hospitals) disagree on whether a COVID vaccine can be mandatory for medical staff. Doctors have been required to be vaccinated for rubella (usually in the MMR vaccine) for decades – which as noted above is less deadly than COVID & the vaccine is less-remotely connected to abortion – and the CMA has never issued any objection to this practice that I could find. They have made other statements on the fetal cell line used in Rubella vaccines in 2005, 2015, and 2020, so they are obviously aware of this, and they would be aware that many of them have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Their sudden objection to the COVID vaccines as a condition of employment seems inconsistent with their position on other vaccines.
I don’t think this same rule could be applied to all employers as the risks to others if you infect them are substantially less in other situations, as noted in the text above.
(Certain situations where one is getting some privilege in exchange [like entry into a country where one is not a citizen or a free donut], vaccination can also be required. You need to be vaccinated to get a green card [I had to get my second MMR shot as one was considered standard in Canada years ago]. Likewise, requiring vaccination of foreign visitors, as is being proposed, is within the realm of an ethical mandate. As another concrete example, someone I know wanted to go to a nice but isolated fishing lodge and due to their lack of medical facilities, the lodge required all arrivals vaccinated, but nobody needs to go up to such a lodge, it is a privilege.)
Why Small Points?
These elements of language matter as they feed right into a false narrative pushed some. Many people have been led to believe that ALL the vaccines are made with HUNDREDS of babies aborted FOR THE PURPOSE OF getting these cells. The ones who believe this are the ones most likely to ask for an exemption – if this were the case, I’d be there with them, but it’s completely fictitious (all three all-caps and underlined phrases are incorrect). Unfortunately, the errors in the wording above – especially the first two – lend towards being misread along the lines of this fiction. This fails in the duty to form consciences. As a Church, we need to fight misinformation. We should not use statements where the most evident wording feeds right into this misinformation.
Let’s point out how remote this is: Moderna & Pfizer each did two experiments on the same HEK293 cell line that came from a single baby who died for reasons unrelated to the cell line (abortion or miscarriage). This cell line is referenced in 220,000 academic studies and is often used in unpublished experiments, testing cosmetics, making food flavorings, etc. The connection even in the vaccines grown on a fetal cell line is astronomically small but when it gets to merely tested on fetal cell lines, it is so astronomically infinitesimal that you would need to leave society to avoid that level of cooperation. If you consistently held the view to reject these vaccines over this remote cooperation, you could not buy groceries as US taxes fund immoral stuff, every grocery store sells items where the company gives money to planned parenthood, a lot of issues with remote cooperation in getting the raw materials such as for batteries, and most have some items made in China thus funding their forced abortions. To get the equivalent of contributing one abortion, we’d need to distribute 375,000,000,000,000 vaccines, or 47,770 times as many people as there are on earth or half a billion vaccines a day since Jesus was born with still another 25 years to exhaust the supply. On top of all this the experiments are already done, so 10 million not using these vaccines won’t add or remove anything from that.
Now, the evidence we have puts the vaccine at many many times safer than COVID. This is an undeniable fact at this point. However, as the bishops note in the form letter, the “therapeutic proportionality” of such an intervention needs to be judged by the patient, not the CDC or their doctor. Unfortunately, there is a lot of people who are misinformed on this point. We should try to inform people but the right to follow one’s conscience is true unless that would directly harm someone – like starving oneself or punching someone else – so that conscience should be respected.
The bishops call this “a religious exemption” but I think more accurately it can be called “a conscience objection.” Nothing in Catholic teaching obliges one to reject vaccines merely tested on fetal cell lines (or we’d be obliged to reject most modern medicine). Also, Catholics seem to be vaccinating (already or soon-to-be) at a higher rate than the general population. The Church supports the right of conscience, and it might be better to classify this that way. Even though “conscience exemption” is more accurate, some may argue that “religious exemption” fits legal categories better. This would make sense in some states. But in Colorado, the form says the exemption can be “based upon a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations or a personal belief that is opposed to immunizations.” Exempting oneself from vaccines only tested on a fetal cell line seems to fit the latter category more. The only reference to using vaccines that were tested, not produced, on fetal cell lines in official magisterial documents I have ever seen with extensive searching is proceeded by “it is morally acceptable,” and no magisterial document has indicated Catholics should avoid such vaccines. (Remember, these make up 96% of US vaccines so far.)
Hopefully, that was not too confusing. Let’s summarize. The two most common vaccines in the USA have no moral issues that should prevent any Catholic from receiving them. (They have a super remote link to abortion, but almost definitely how you’re reading this is remotely cooperating in grave evil at least as much as the vaccine and $15 spent on Chinese made goods contributes more to abortion than all the doses of Moderna and Pfizer combined [2 billion estimated].) We should prefer these over other vaccines like Johnson & Johnson or Astrazeneca. Nonetheless, if these are the only options, these other vaccines are also moral. Vaccines should not be mandatory for all, but it would appear acceptable for smaller mandates in higher-risk situations like hospital and nursing home staff. We need to be clear in our language and not imply vaccines have ethical problems they do not have.
The default for Catholics should be strongly in favor of getting vaccinated. Immunization is a good object as it is preventing disease. The end of such an action is the health of oneself and others, which is also good. (There can be an over-exultation of physical health to the detriment of spiritual health in our society, but vaccinating is far from this. Other preventative health measures like watching your eating and getting regular exercise should also be done, but are independent of vaccinating or not.) Circumstances are not perfect but overall good, and that is all we can get in most circumstances: our fallen and interconnected world makes it functionally impossible to avoid some degree of super-remote cooperation in evil in our external acts with the larger society beyond ones’ family (I know of no way I can get the food I need to survive without super-remote cooperation, for example). As it is good without imperfection in object and end, and overall good in circumstances, vaccination is a virtuous action.
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 It does not explicitly state restricted mandates are allowed but this seems the only logical reading of this paragraph: (1) it states this as a general, not absolute, rule, (2) both moral theology / bioethics and practical application in Catholic hospitals that have long included vaccine mandates for staff, (3) it only refers to vaccines produced on fetal cell line in this paragraph, not those that used fetal cell lines so refers to less than 4% of US COVID vaccinations, (4) we are talking about mandates for a job that constantly deals with high-risk individuals where most could find another job so it is not in the strict sense “mandatory,” and (5) it follows up with duties to protect the common good, particularly the common good of the health of the more vulnerable which is a larger concern in a hospital or nursing home.