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Catholics Debate the COVID Vaccines

Healthcare workers prepare Pfizer coronavirus vaccinations in Los Angeles, Calif., January 7, 2021. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Last week, I noted a statement from some prominent Catholic ethicists saying that pro-lifers need not have qualms about taking any of the four leading Covid vaccines. The use of the vaccines does not encourage abortion, disrespect the remains of unborn human beings unjustly killed in abortion, or implicate patients in wrongly benefiting from that injustice. I found, and find, that statement persuasive.

Now there’s a counter-statement saying that this and similar endorsements of the vaccines “run afoul of our rights of conscience to refuse such vaccines.” None of those endorsements say that anyone should be forced to receive one of the vaccines. The signatories’ objection appears to be that the endorsing statements say that there are sound moral reasons for taking the vaccines and that the other side of the ledger is not compelling. Thus these endorsements could be taken to suggest that the vaccines are morally obligatory, not just acceptable, and to provide part of a justification for pressuring or even coercing people into taking the vaccines.

The statement I commended, organized by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, applied traditional Catholic analysis to the question of how to respond to the present effects of past evils. That analysis turns on whether the action currently being contemplated requires willing that the evil have been committed, on how closely connected the current action is to the evil, and so forth. The EPPC statement concludes that taking the vaccines is acceptable in the same way that it is acceptable to use land that was stolen long ago. The counter-statement calls the conclusion “morally repugnant,” suggests these categories of analysis can be applied only in a Christian society, and advances a new way of understanding what counts as “remote cooperation with evil.” This is, I think, the weakest part of its argument.

The counter-statement accurately points out that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has defended the right to refrain from taking a COVID vaccine. Its full discussion of this matter is worth reading:

[P]ractical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. 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. 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. 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 (emphasis in original).

Neither this portion of the CDF document nor the document as a whole seems very different from the EPPC statement. But I agree with the new counter-statement that, as the CDF says, governments should not require that everyone take the vaccines and that Catholic bishops should not tell their flocks that it is morally obligatory to take them. Thankfully, both prospects seem, if I may, remote.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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