Vaccinations: A ‘common good’

One year ago, bishops across the United States began suspending public Masses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first death from the coronavirus was actually reported on Feb. 29, 2020, near Seattle. Today, the death toll from the deadly virus has surpassed 500,000.

Joe Heller | For The Compass

Who could have imagined what would take place in a year? The loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of social interaction and, for some, the loss of faith will always be hallmarks of 2020. As we journey into a new springtime in just a few weeks, we know there is hope for tomorrow.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state reported its fewest COVID-19 cases (308) in six months on March 1, along with a second consecutive day without a death from the virus.

While signs continue pointing in a positive direction, we know that vigilance and continued safety precautions (face masks and social distancing) are the keys to defeating this pandemic. And so is the need to vaccinate as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, rumors and concerns about the vaccine’s safety and its morality have caused confusion and doubt.

On Jan. 22, The Compass published a news release by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the Wisconsin Catholic bishops. Its headline, in part, read: “Use of current COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible, say bishops.”

Perhaps it is time to review that statement once more.

Dated Jan. 13 and signed by all five of Wisconsin’s bishops, the statement offers guidance from Catholic moral theologians.

“The challenge before us as Christians is that modern vaccines are sometimes manufactured or tested using cell lines from aborted children. This fact presents a significant moral dilemma, since a good end can never justify an evil means,” the bishops’ statement says. “Abortion is gravely wrong and every Christian must avoid participation in this evil.”

The bishops point out that the two earliest COVID-19 vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, do not use a cell line derived from an abortion in their manufacturing. Taking the COVID-19 vaccine is not a “morally compromised” act, they say.

“Formal cooperation with a moral evil such as abortion is always sinful,” they said. “An example of this kind of cooperation might be the doctor or nurse who directly assists with, and intends, the abortion itself.

“Material cooperation can be different in that it does not intend the evil act and is often more distant or remote from the act itself. For example, one might patronize a store to buy laundry detergent, knowing that the parent company of the store sometimes donates to an entity which in turn performs abortions. In this particular example, the cooperation with any potential evil is quite remote and not in itself sinful,” the bishops wrote.

“Taking all of this into account, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has recently stated that the use of current COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible because of the remoteness of material cooperation,” they added.

The Wisconsin bishops note that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the National Catholic Bioethics Center take the same position as the USCCB.

“If a choice of vaccine is possible, the ones that are the least morally compromised should always be requested. However, when there is no choice, the church teaches that it is morally permissible to receive the vaccine,” state the bishops.

The latest vaccine, by Johnson & Johnson, uses the abortion derived cell line in its manufacturing process. If possible, Catholics can choose to receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. If not possible, the Vatican has said that the use of these vaccines “does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.”

While all people have a right to act in conscience, according to the bishops, there is also the need to follow the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (CC1906).

Ending this pandemic through vaccinations is surely a common good and one that all people of faith should happily embrace.