The moral responsibility to be vaccinated

By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

Our world has faced a health crisis for more than a year now, unprecedented in modern times. More than 4.3 million people have died from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, and we have seen a resurgence in cases in our diocese this summer. We are all feeling fatigue and anxiety, especially over how this lingering pandemic will impact the learning environment of our students returning to school.

According to our national and state authorities, the most efficient way of stopping the spread of the virus is for enough people to be vaccinated. Both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and both President Donald Trump and President Joseph Biden, have been vaccinated and encouraged all of us who are eligible to do so as well.

I am concerned about the reports I am receiving from our healthcare professionals and our pastors, and I am troubled that allowing the virus to spread further will cause great harm to our communities.

I write again, this time with urgency, to encourage each person who can get vaccinated to do so. Doing your part and accepting your responsibility is the quickest way to stop the suffering and return to our usual activities.

The moral aspects of the vaccine have been thoroughly examined by the Catholic Church. I want to state clearly the outcome of the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral reflection on this matter: It is morally permissible and morally responsible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines currently available.

Pope Francis approved a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which declared it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines, even those that are remotely connected with the grave sin of abortion. The Congregation states: “[W]hen ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available (e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients, or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions, or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated) it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

Likewise, the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and its Committee on Pro-Life Activities have written: “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.”

I am aware there are other opinions being presented, including by some priests, ethicists, and politicians. Nevertheless, all voices are not equal when it comes to matters of faith and morals. As Catholics, we must hold the authoritative voice of our chief shepherds, the pope and bishops, to a higher level of consideration over other voices. As Catholics, we are required to intensely scrutinize any opinion, using both reason and faith, that appear to be in opposition to official Church teaching or that undermine the common good and the unity of the Church. I would hold that with respect to any moral or doctrinal issue.

With respect to the issue of the COVID-19 vaccines, the chairs of the USCCB committees on Doctrine and Pro-Life Activities explain, in their rationale for approval of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, that the Church has accepted for many years the use of the rubella (German measles) vaccine.

“It is important to note that the making of the rubella vaccine (or that of the new COVID-19 vaccines) does not involve cells taken directly from the body of an aborted child,” the archbishop-chairs wrote. “Cells taken from two abortions in the 1960s were replicated in a laboratory to produce two cell lines that can be reproduced again and again, indefinitely. To make the rubella vaccine, cells from these cell lines are stimulated to produce the chemicals necessary for the vaccine. It is not as if the making of the vaccine required ever more cells from ever more abortions.”

The Church not only gives us permission to receive these vaccines, but she informs us that we have a moral responsibility to receive the vaccines when we are able to do so.

This is because each one of us is responsible for the common good, that is, for our good and the good of others. We are especially concerned for the vulnerable members of our communities, such as children, for whom the vaccine is not yet readily available, and those with certain medical conditions which render them medically unfit for the vaccine. Every person who becomes extremely ill with COVID-19 (the vast number of whom are unvaccinated) places an additional burden on the health care system, which in certain cities, states and nations remains at or near critical levels of overload, and an additional burden on health care personnel who are valiantly confronting this crisis. It is socially irresponsible not to consider this fact when making the decision about getting the vaccine.

Further consideration must also be given to our children who desire to be educated in-person. The spiritual, emotional, and mental health of illness and repeated periods of quarantine and lockdown should not be overlooked. For the sake of our youth and their education and formation, again, I urge you to accept your responsibility and to act for the common good.

However, no one should conclude that the Church is turning a blind eye to the evil of abortion. Church teaching on the matter is crystal clear. We can never compromise our principle that all human life is precious and to be protected. The US bishops directly address the concern of some that acceptance of the vaccine is not pro-life. “Our love of neighbor should lead us to avoid giving scandal,” the bishops state, “but we cannot omit fulfilling serious obligations such as the prevention of deadly infection and the spread of contagion among those who are vulnerable just to avoid the appearance of scandal.”

Even while we know it is morally permissible and responsible to be vaccinated against the coronavirus for the protection of the vulnerable and the common good, we must always be on guard so that the new COVID-19 vaccines, just like the rubella vaccine, do not desensitize us or weaken our determination to oppose the evil of abortion itself and the subsequent use of fetal cells in research. I join the Holy See and my brother bishops in begging biomedical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to redouble their efforts to create vaccines with no connection to abortion whatsoever.

For those who, after prayerfully and thoughtfully considering the Church’s teaching in this matter, still determine they must decline the vaccine in conscience, I ask that they show respect for the guidance of Church authorities and that they discuss with their pastors how to speak prudentially about the matter for the sake of the common good and unity within our communities.

Furthermore, the Holy See states clearly that these individuals “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.”

Because of the confusion regarding vaccines, and out of the need for a consistent practice throughout the diocese, I have therefore issued a general decree which reserves to myself as the diocesan bishop the decision of whether or not to grant requests from Catholics who seek support for a religious exemption from vaccinations when they are mandated by legitimate authorities. Pastors who receive such requests from their parishioners are directed to refer them to the Office of the Bishop.

May St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church and Protector of the Holy Family, pray for us throughout this Holy Year.