The Ultimate Coronavirus Vaccine Morality Explainer

Published March 1, 2021
Tags: Pandemic

Michael Deem has done a crackerjack job of cutting through the nonsense of combox Catholicism, right wing lies, paranoid conspiracy theory, and sheer quackery to lay out the actual teaching of the Church concerning COVID vaccination (spoiler alert: get vaccinated as soon as you can unless you have some medical condition that prohibits it. There is no teaching of the Church that forbids a healthy person to get vaccinated and there is, in fact, a moral imperative of love of neighbor that requires it barring medical peril to oneself).

The CDF’s Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-COVID-19 Vaccines and the USCCB’s Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines align in the guidance they provide to Catholics.

In sum:

Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines developed, researched, or tested utilizing fetal cell lines is morally permissible when no alternative COVID-19 vaccine is available or accessible.

Acceptance of these COVID-19 vaccine involves very remote material cooperation in the twofold evils of the abortions of the fetuses from whom tissue was posthumously taken to derive cell strains for medical research.

An action that involves remote cooperation in evil is permissible, or even encouraged, when there are grave moral reasons that are proportional to or outweigh moral badness of this cooperation.

The proportional moral reasons for acceptance of the vaccine are the promotion of community health and prevention of serious risk of harm, which are grounded in the fundamental moral and social principle of the common good. 

It is permissible to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, but those who refuse should perform additional actions that promote community health and prevention of serious harm.

While accepting the vaccine is a morally responsible action, recipients nonetheless have an obligation to protest the use of fetal cell lines in vaccine development.

“But what about the fifty million things I have read on comboxes and from Right Wing Catholic Folk Heroes calling me a babykilling fiend, or warning that I am cooperating with evil or telling me this is all part of a plot or otherwise filling me with fear that I am somehow sinning or something?

That is precisely what this article, which you should read in its entirety, discusses in detail, and brings great peace as it does. Be not afraid. Learn the Faith and do not let the enemy fill you with fear over nothing. The fruit of the Spirit is peace. Be at peace and get your vaccination.

24 Responses

  1. Anybody that has vaccinated their child(ren) has had to deal with this issue already. Decades ago.

    I suppose the purists that chose not to vaccinate their kids will do what they have always done–shelter under the umbrella of you and me, and everybody else that took one for the team.

    Which reminds me of some old friends from TAC who road tripped to World Youth Day in Denver with 10 kids who were succumbing one by one to Pertussis.

    On the other side of the spectrum, there is THIS 🙁 https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/vaccine-access-codes-California-Marin-Los-Angeles-15973557.php

    Selfish is as selfish does…

  2. This whole mess just exposed anti-choice extremism for what it is. I can respect any sincere religious belief but when your quackery endangers others who have never done harm to you, you’ve crossed a line. Take your vaccine and shut up before the 99%
    of us smart enough to do so have
    you tied down and forcibly injected for your good and the good of all!

      1. I agree Mark. Total hypocrisy. But grandma, you see, is burning through their inheritance! Unborn babies are supposed to finance their social security.

        What do you make of the story making the rounds in the right wing catholic blogosphere about “Label Pin Nuns being killed off by the DeathVax in Kentucky”. This is the first time I’ve heard them give a darn about sisters who weren’t SSPX

      2. I haven’t heard of this. But since the MAGA cult are People of the Lie and I don’t waste me time listening to liars, it is unsurprising that I have not heard this latest lie from the cult.

      3. Cybel, I had to search fairly hard to even find the story you brought up. The title you offered resulted in no relevant hits from either Google or Bing. I started modifying the search to fit a little better with how search engines work, and eventually traced down the local news story:
        https://local12.com/news/local/two-sisters-at-villa-hills-monastery-die-from-covid-19-after-28-test-positive-cincinnati

        So there are some factually correct elements to the story: two nuns died and several dozen more fell ill in an outbreak that started 2 days after they received their vaccine.

        This is not really surprising. I reviewed the FDA summaries for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (50+ pages each, dense with data). The clinical trials showed, as expected, that immunity is not instantaneous. Infection rates in the vaccine trial group and the control group were almost identical for the first week after receiving the first dose. At that point, the vaccine group showed a tapering off of infections. By about 2 weeks, the rate appeared almost in line with its final trend. Conservatively counting from the 2nd dose onward, the vaccine group experienced infections at only about 1/20th the rate of the control group.

        So it was already expected before trials even began, and confirmed in trial, that some infections of vaccinated persons would occur, and they would be more common the shorter the time of exposure after vaccination.

        Anybody suggesting their deaths are some sort of evidence against the wisdom of getting vaccinated is either grossly ignorant of or misportraying how the outbreak at the Saint Walburg Monastery fits into what is known about efficacy and safety of the vaccines.

        I checked a few right wing sites I know of, and they have nothing about it. It appears to me you have to go to the very dark recesses of the right wing corners of the internet to find such misportrayals.

  3. “An action that involves remote cooperation in evil is permissible, or even encouraged, when there are grave moral reasons that are proportional to or outweigh moral badness of this cooperation.”

    So moral relativism is now a moral absolute?

    1. Agreed, Ben. I always find Catholicism’s application of “Do not do evil in order that good may come” to be… inconsistent. However, this is a good thing. The challenge for Noncatholics is to try to nudge the Magisterium into ironing out these inconsistencies in the direction of uniformly sensible answers rather than uniformly pharisaic ones – in the direction of “it’s not really ‘theft’ if you temporarily borrow food from a rich man to avoid starving” and away from “It’s not really ‘artificial contraception’ if you deliberately time your sexual intercourse, guided by advances in modern science, for periods of minimum fertility”.
      The downside is that just as science advances by funerals, the small-R reformation of Catholic teaching proceeds by papal conclaves and these are on average two decades apart.

      1. I initially thought the story about the nuns dying from the vaccine was worthy of investigation because their 11 month lockdown was the closest they’ve been to living in cloister since the reform of their orders. However, the story never made the national news, so I’m suspicious.
        https://healthimpactnews.com/2021/two-nuns-dead-28-covid-positive-2-days-after-experimental-covid-mrna-injections/
        That said, my aunt is a Franciscan and her order is very frightened of the Covid19 to the point that some (not her) would take the vaccine if they had to harvest the fetal cells themselves. She took it out of obedience to her religious superior, her bishop, and Francis l.

        Any of the anti-vaxers I’ve known in the church have headed big , no TV families. They’re generally anti-NFP (sorry Tom) and they look down their noses at parents who don’t homeschool.

        They’re bluffers and , in the end, they’ll quietly take the vaccine like their hero Donald Trump.

      2. I agree with you 100%. I would like to see much more in the way of “here is a consistent set of moral principles“ and much less of “do what we tell you to do because we told you to do it.”

        And extremely much less of “do what we tell you to but don’t look at what we’re doing.”

    2. This is not moral relativism, where right and wrong are matters of personal perspective. This is a moral analysis founded on considering the links between two acts. One (abortion) is intrinsically wrong. The other (vaccination) is intrinsically neutral but can be good or bad depending on the circumstances, and is commonly good.

      I think a lot of people struggle with moral theology due to a specific interpretation of the word “cooperation.” The way we use the word cooperation in every day English is typically what in moral theology is termed, depending on the circumstance, either formal cooperation, or immediate material cooperation: in the first case, the person cooperating intends for the wrong to happen. In the second case, they participate in the wrong, even though they don’t intend it (such as if they believe the ends justify the means, or that they are only a circumstantial participant).

      Most medical research conducted on aborted fetal tissue or cell lines derived from them falls under what moral theologians would call mediate (indirect) cooperation. We don’t usually use the word “cooperation” to describe these scenarios in ordinary English, although I have seen it done from time to time: for example having an account at a bank that will lend money to any legal business may be described as cooperating with mining if a mining company takes a loan out from that bank. The cooperation here is that there is some mutual benefit from the situation, but the account holder is not a participant in the acts of the mining company, where as an accountant for the mining company arranging the loan would be.

      Continuing the analogy, while it might be determined that the mining company is operating in a morally illicit manner, it may not be morally illicit to have an account at a bank involved indirectly with mining, as it allows the good of keeping the account holder’s labor earnings safe for future use. This would in particular be true if no other banks were identified where similar cooperation does not occur.

      With the COVID-19 vaccines, there is not yet such a bank. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have pretty minimal link, though, like a bank that conducts other business with the bank the mining company uses (the analogy is limping a little bit here). The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, expected to be approved soon, is more like the bank the mining company uses.

      While supply is constrained, it might be permissible (frankly, I’d like to see some commentary from others with more expertise on the matter) to receive the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but if given the choice, I’m pretty comfortable saying the Catholic position should be to request one of the other two vaccines, and preferably, to explain that your motive is the less direct ties to abortion.

  4. For those who would like to get into the weeds a little more, the Lozier Institute has compiled a really detailed list of vaccine candidates and their usage of abortion-derived cell lines.
    https://lozierinstitute.org/update-covid-19-vaccine-candidates-and-abortion-derived-cell-lines/

    The quick summary is that the just-approved Johnson and Johnson vaccine presents more proximate concerns than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. I recommend preferentially seeking either of the latter, and being prepared to explain very briefly to your healthcare provider why you want those vaccines. This supports what Dignitas Personae describes as a need to “mobilize consciences in favour of life.”

    One thing worth clarifying from Mark’s post:

    “there is, in fact, a moral imperative of love of neighbor that requires it (vaccination) barring medical peril to oneself”

    The CDF actually acknowledges the legitimacy of concerns about the development of various vaccines, highlights that the basic obligation is to act in accordance with solicitude, not a specific manner of accomplishing it. For most of us, of course, getting vaccinated is going to be one the easiest ways to act on such solicitude:

    “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.

    1. I appreciate your sensitivity of soul and honest, ordered thoughts on the subject. It is obviously kindness that inspires the thought process.

      But sometimes I’m afraid Catholics like to do spiritual/mental Sudoku because it’s distracting/comforting. (How many angels can dance on the head of a pin??)

      At this point, if I was told that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was in any way superior to the others, wouldn’t I actually owe it to my family to do the best by *them* than protest the death of a human being whose death I had absolutely nothing to do with? What if for instance the child whose retina or lung tissue was used had anencephaly, (zero chance of life)? It wouldn’t have been an act of selfishness on the part of the mother. But even if it was, we had zero connection to what she or the doctor did. It should be a trillion times more important to us if for instance, Arizonans are removing water jugs from the Sonoran desert or we said curse words in the Church parking lot when someone cut us off.

      A guy on the internet actually once told me that I should have had a cesarean to baptize my dying child because a priest *had* to pour water over his forehead or he wouldn’t have a valid baptism (and would never see God.)

      It seems to me that one of the most deadly poisons in a life of faith is legalism. I have found that legalists tend to be the biggest jerks across the board, but religious ones can bring that fervor to a very bad place. Hellish even.

      1. I avoided using absolute terms in my post in part because of challenging questions like the one you raise. I’m not out to be legalistic, but to try to use the logical tools moral theologians have shared with us to help make the best decisions we can if we attempt to do so in good faith.

        Per my understanding of the Vatican’s writings on the matter, it appears even the Johnson and Johnson vaccine can be licitly be used, but based on the more proximate cooperation, I think it would be most appropriate for most individuals to hold out for a better option. Those who face circumstances like a job where it is not practical to maintain recommended preventative practices have better cause to prioritize whichever becomes available first.

        Fortunately, in this case, we’re not pitting effectiveness against liceity. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is notably less effective than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine (about 66% effective during the trial period, compared to roughly 95% effective).

        “But sometimes I’m afraid Catholics like to do spiritual/mental Sudoku because it’s distracting/comforting.”

        I would say one motivation is because we seek certainty, especially about matters that are important to us. It is indeed comforting to know we did things right.

        Sometimes, however, we just don’t know. We make an honest effort to learn what the God asks of us through the commandments or the guidance we trust He gives His Church, and trust in His mercy and providential care for situations like losing a child to miscarriage. I’ve never seen any theologian or pastor recommend surgery specifically for baptism of a child in distress, and of course, historically it would have been impossible.

  5. @taco

    The story that you related about the guy on the Internet made me want to slap him silly.

    Even though I was trained as a sociologist, my interest is always been in psychology and social psychology. Therefore, I tend to think his problem was not so much legalism, as what I have labeled in many guises as “religious megalomania”.

    Basically, it boils down to “I am gods BFFF, and you are not.” It also translates variously as “God likes me so much that he confides in me”, “Look at how God like I am”, and “I am saved and you are not.”

    Or putting it in a more practical form, it’s not Jesus that is separating the sheep from the goats, but the butcher.

  6. “but the butcher”

    I laughed. But you are very right. (and it’s actually not funny, but you get an A+ for delivery)

    I remember when my spiritual director basically blew me out of the water– put all my neatly organized boxes of right and wrong, up and down, black and white, sheep and goats into a heap. It happened suddenly. I honestly vacillated and the thought came to me that he might be a mouthpiece for the devil himself. Half of me wanted the security and safety of the black and white world. But the other half of me instinctively knew that it was the world of Jesus that I needed to live in, and that I could be much happier and more faithful in it. I couldn’t see that we are all equally his beloved ones until I made that leap of faith. It is a much, much better and more beautiful world.

    I feel sorry for that guy that needs to be slapped–and all the ones that remind me of him. They live tightly wound up in a pretty dark and scary place. How terribly depressing.

    I’m sure a guy like that would say, “Oh, so Jesus didn’t mean it when he said that some of us are sheep and some of us are goats?” It would be impossible (scandalous!) to explain to him that people are a mixture of both, (and being right won’t get you in the door anyway!)

    1. @ taco

      Thanks for the compliment. In serious matters such as this, funny isn’t what i am going for. I generallyprefer to try to be witty. That way, almost no one gets to say, “that atheist!”.

      1. @Ben
        I have a kid in the hospital right now. It’s complicated. He is my second son. He has always been a few degrees different than the other kids. Brilliant guy–he has a fantastic job at a young age. He was born with the cord firmly wrapped around his neck and was so oxygen starved at birth that he was shaking all over and needed to be given sugar water after delivery.

        My fifth son was also distressed but so far hasn’t developed epilepsy like him. (He’s also a bit different than the others and is also brilliant). He’s a very serious Catholic. Sometimes he takes me to task.

        My second son can get very, very rude about religion. He’s a passionate guy. A couple of years ago when we asked him to go to mass, he was slightly belligerent and said some hurtful things. Some time later when I said “now that you are an atheist..” He was so offended by what I said that it shocked him. He said, “How. dare. you. I am a Catholic.”

        Like I said, boxes don’t work anymore. (Labels are so insufficient.) My second son was born and raised for many formative years before I had that epiphany I talked about.

      2. @ taco

        Good luck to you and your sons in dealing with a crisis. Sometime even youth isn’t a physic against the the body.

        Nor is it a physic against youth. I always like to say that when I was young, I thought my father knew everything. When I was a teenager, I thought he didn’t know anything. When I was a young man, I was surprised how much he had learned in the intervening years.

  7. @Lucky,
    Please don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that theologians do what they do. I know you are asking these questions in good faith.

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