of the Covid19 Vaccine
There has been a lot of discussion in the media and in Catholic circles regarding the morality of the Covid-19 vaccines that have been developed. The main reason for the confusion and concern for Catholics is that some of those who developed the vaccines used stem cell lines that were developed from aborted fetuses back in the 60’s and 70’s.
The Holy Father and Church officials have come out publicly stating it is morally permissible to receive these vaccines. Why? Doesn’t this seem like a contradiction in our Catholic beliefs about the sanctity of human life? What we need to look at is the guiding principles of Catholic morality. And the main principles are what is called “formal and informal cooperation.”
Humans work together to achieve common goals. But cooperation is not always good, particularly when the goals being pursued or the means used to achieve them are evil. It is tempting to take a strict and rigid position and simply declare that all cooperation with evil is sinful, but further reflection reveals problems with this position.
Sometimes our own actions may be entirely innocent, yet they may be part of a chain of events that results in evil. For example, if you work in a bookstore you might sell someone an ink pen, an action innocent in and of itself, and be totally unaware that the person is planning use the pen to harm someone. By selling him the pen, you cooperated with and enabled the action of the attacker. Yet a well-formed conscience would not say that you did something wrong by selling him the pen. Therefore, some forms of cooperation with evil in some circumstances are not sinful.
Ignorance of the evil is not the only excuse here. Sometimes force is. Suppose you are in a convenience store when you encounter a man waving a gun. He points the gun at you and tells you to load up a bag with the money from the cash register. Doing so would involve cooperating with evil; the robbery of a convenience store, but is it licit to do so with a gun pointed at your head? Yes. The Catholic Church places a high value on private property, but the Church would never say that a few hundred dollars are worth your life and that you must refuse to put the loot in the bag. This same principle is applied when someone kills someone in self defense. You have a moral right to defend yourself and your family.
So with this moral teaching, the Church divides moral cooperation into two categories. Formal and Remote. Formal cooperation is when we assent to the act with which we are cooperating. For example, going back to the example of robbing a convenience store; If we help the thief, knowing that we will share in the ill gotten gains, then we are formally cooperating with evil. This is also true with abortion, for example. To procure and abortion or assist or encourage someone to get an abortion means we incur the sin, just as if we ourselves had the abortion. We could never morally justify formally cooperating in evil.
Remote Material Cooperation
This is when we do something that is not sinful in and of itself and when we do not endorse the evil. This is why the Church says it is permissible to take a vaccine which was developed from a stem cell line back in the 60’s and 70’s in order to create the Covid vaccine. We did not will the abortion, nor did we commit or participate in the crime of abortion to obtain the material used in developing the vaccine. And even though the abortions that created these stem cell lines were wrong and evil, we did not formally cooperate in the death of these unborn children. The connection to the development of the Covid vaccine is “remote.”
Traditional Catholic moral theology teaches that remote material cooperation with an evil action may be justifiable in certain circumstances.
Some may find this difficult to accept, but traditional Catholic moral theology is firm on the point. Consider a parallel: God permits us to commit sins. He does not will it, however, He gives us life, free will and the ability to act. But we do know that God is justified in all that He does. Catholic Moral teaching is on firm ground in acknowledging that remote material cooperation with an evil can be justified when there are appropriate reasons.
How do these principles apply to the Covid-19 vaccine?
The Catholic Church’s teaching says that abortion is a grave sin as we mentioned before. However, the Church states that even though it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses, 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 Vatican also noted that while various vaccines might be distributed in a country, “health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated.”
In the United States, the National Catholic Bioethics center states that we should choose ethical vaccines when they are available. The NCBC’s “FAQ on the Use of Vaccines” was most recently updated in 2019, and is frequently cited by U.S. bishops. Hence, Catholics are called to make ethical vaccine brand choices.
While it is a personal decision of conscience as to whether or not to accept a vaccine, it is important to be clear that the Church, for her part, does not require us to decline it on such grounds in the face of serious reasons, as in the situation of an elderly person or someone with multiple health issues who faces significant risks if they were to contract COVID-19. This fact, of course, in no way absolves or diminishes the serious wrongdoing of those who used cell lines from abortions to make vaccines in the first place.
Any time we decide to receive an unethically produced vaccine, moreover, we should push back. We need to do our part in applying pressure on the manufacturer, perhaps by sending an e-mail indicating our objection to the fact that their vaccine was produced using ethically controversial cell sources, and requesting that they reformulate it using alternative, non-abortion-related cell sources.
I hope this has been helpful in allowing you to reflect upon this very difficult situation we find ourselves as Christians in, and to make an informed decision about the Covid-19 vaccine.