Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Is it moral to receive a COVID-19 vaccine made with a cell line from an abortion? The short answer to that question is yes, in certain circumstances.

If that qualified answer — yes, in certain circumstances — raises more questions in your mind, that’s good! Moral questions often involve a variety of factors that must be taken into consideration. I realize that not everyone is comfortable navigating these complexities, however.

When I was studying for my master’s degree in business administration at the Mendoza College of Business of the University of Notre Dame, for example, there were two distinct categories of thinkers in my cohort of 62 classmates. I would call those with more mathematical minds “quantitative thinkers,” while those of us with backgrounds in subjects with more abstract concepts like philosophy, theology, and law would be considered “qualitative thinkers.” The quantitative thinkers loved to crunch numbers and arrive at an answer that was clearly correct or incorrect. On the other hand, in courses like business ethics when there was a question of whether a given business practice was ethical or not, the quantitative thinkers would get very frustrated when the answer would be qualified as: “It depends.” They wanted a clear yes or no to the question of whether something is right or wrong.

As much as all of us would like straightforward clarity in matters of right and wrong, the complexity of the human situation often makes such clear-cut lucidity elusive. Yes, there are intrinsic evils that are always wrong, such as abortion, murder, adultery, and theft. Yet, Catholic moral theology has provided that some things that are objectively bad may be allowed in certain circumstances. For example, taking another person’s life is an evil to be avoided, but may be regretfully tolerated for a justifiable reason, such as killing someone in self-defense when attacked with lethal force.

It is also true that God can bring good even out of sinful situations. Think of Solomon, for example, acclaimed in the Bible for his wisdom and recognized as one of the greatest kings of Israel. His father, King David, was also extolled in the Bible for defeating the Philistines by slaying Goliath. Yet Solomon was conceived in King David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. David then compounded his sin by having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed. Despite David’s sins and crimes of adultery and murder, God did not reject Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba (whom David eventually married), but brought good out of these evils by giving Solomon the graces to be a wise and peaceful king responsible for the building of the temple in Jerusalem.

These things should be kept in mind when answering the question about whether it is moral to receive a COVID-19 vaccine made with a cell line from an abortion. The Catholic Church answers questions like these with moral principles such as the principle of cooperation. Formal cooperation is when a person has the intent to do wrong. Thus, it is gravely immoral to abort babies with the intent to use their cells to develop a vaccine. Since there is much evil in the world due to the free will God has given people to choose between right and wrong, there are many situations in life when a person is brought into a situation of cooperating with evil without intending to do anything immoral. The question in such cases is how immediate or mediate the cooperation is and to what degree any mediate cooperation may be proximate or remote.

An example is paying taxes in a state like Illinois which uses taxpayer funds to pay for abortions. In a sense, all Illinois taxpayers are cooperating in the evil of abortion simply by paying state taxes. That payment of taxes would be formal and therefore immoral if the taxpayer had the intent of paying taxes in order to help fund abortions. But the payment of state taxes is mediate cooperation that is remote from the actual performance of abortions and therefore is not morally culpable for those paying taxes who object to their tax payments being used for immoral purposes that are intrinsically evil. However, even in such circumstances, the taxpayer has an obligation to continue to oppose abortion and work for the repeal of laws that provide for taxpayer funding of abortion.

It is with these principles of moral theology in mind that Catholics should read and understand the statement on the new COVID-19 vaccines issued on Dec. 14 by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities. In their statement, Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines, the bishops said, “In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.”

With regard to the AstraZeneca vaccine, the bishops found it to be “more morally compromised” and consequently concluded that this vaccine “should be avoided” if there are alternatives available. “It may turn out, however, that one does not really have a choice of vaccine, at least, not without a lengthy delay in immunization that may have serious consequences for one’s health and the health of others,” the bishop chairmen stated. “In such a case … it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

This line of reasoning was affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in their Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, issued on Dec. 21 with the explicit approval of Pope Francis. The Congregation stated that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process” because the kind of cooperation in evil is “passive material cooperation” that is “remote” on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines.

At the same time, the Congregation said that “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” Those who, however, refuse vaccines for reasons of conscience “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”

Noting that “the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses,” the Congregation urged pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies “to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.”

I support the moral analysis and conclusions of the Holy Father and my brother bishops. We pray for an end to this global health crisis and for all affected by it, be it from the death of a loved one, illness from the virus, financial hardship or isolation from families and friends.

May God give us this grace. Amen