Catholicism and the COVID-19 Vaccine

By Melinda Ribnek, 25 January 2021


As the world witnesses the long-awaited rollout of new, promising COVID-19 vaccines, most of us are thankful and rejoicing that we are one enormous step closer to the end of this pandemic. Managing this rollout will be an enormous challenge, and we still face many questions about access and priority. It is possible that some people might be denied access to the vaccine, or that certain countries or the rich and powerful will hoard the supply. Back in September, Pope Francis expressed his concerns about access to COVID-19 vaccines, saying, “It would be sad if, in providing the vaccine, priority was given to the wealthiest, or if this vaccine became the property of this or that country, and was no longer for everyone. It must be universal, for all.”

And yet, for many Catholics, the debate has nothing to do with the just and efficient distribution of the vaccine. They are grappling with the fact that the development of these vaccines may be remotely connected to cell lines originally derived from aborted children. On December 11, the US bishops issued a document reiterating the Catholic Church’s position that this constitutes remote material cooperation with the evil of abortion, but that “having ourselves and our families immunized against COVID-19 with the new vaccines is morally permissible and can be an act of self-love and of charity toward others.” The bishops reiterated that we must not become complacent about the fact that morally illicit means were used, and remind us that “we must not allow the gravely immoral nature of abortion to be obscured.” But they also emphasized, “It is true that one can receive benefits from an evil action in the past without intending that action or approving of it.” It is well worth your time to read this document in its entirety, especially if you are confused about the moral reasoning behind the Church’s position.

On December 21, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) weighed in and reaffirmed these principles, stating that receiving these vaccines is “passive material cooperation” with the evil of abortion, and does not suggest approval of abortion. They were explicit on this point:

All vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive. It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.

It is important to understand what the Church means by cooperation. Fr. Dylan Schrader, a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City and a Latinist, posted a thread on Twitter explaining that in moral theology, the word “cooperation” does not suggest complicity. He writes,

“By itself ‘cooperation’ does not include or exclude whether the cooperator knows about, agrees with, disagrees with, etc., the action in which he cooperates. It only means that the cooperator does something that combines in some way with the action of another.”

He explains that the word is formed by adding the prefix co- to the root word operatioOperatio, he explains, “is a general word for ‘working,’ ‘doing,’ ‘acting,’ or ‘action.’” Co- simply means “with,” and often in a subordinate manner. Fr. Schrader explains, “Like a co-pilot is subordinate to the pilot, or Mary as co-Redemptrix is subordinate to Christ, the Redeemer.” Though the word “cooperate” in English typically connotes some degree of agreement or at least a desire to not work against an action, the theological definition simply means “working with.” The word itself does not suggest complicity or agreement or the desire to cooperate with someone else’s act. The reality is that we live in a world so interconnected that countless choices, actions, and decisions not to act constitute cooperation with evil in some way.

This is why the term must be qualified further. For example, Formal cooperation with evil is when one intends to participate in committing the immoral act. Intending to abort a child in order to develop a vaccine would be formal cooperation. It is only material cooperation when someone who does not condone the abortion (and desires that the research used to develop the vaccine had been morally licit) receives a vaccine that was developed illicitly. Additionally, we must consider whether cooperation with evil is immediate or mediate. If we are the one directly committing the evil action, it is immediate. If we deliberately created the conditions so that someone else could commit an evil act, our cooperation is mediate. There is also active and passive cooperation, based on whether we cooperated with the evil through a positive action, or whether we simply did not try to stop the evil from happening. Cooperation can also be qualified according to whether it is proximate or remote, based on the “distance” or degree (in space or time) from the evil act.

While several prominent Catholic figures have claimed that any cooperation with abortion is illicit, the moral doctrine of the Church considers all of these components and any proportionate good that may come from an action. To deduce complex moral questions as a binary choice without considering each of these qualities does a great injustice to the depth of Catholic moral theology and thought.

A 2005 letter from the Pontifical Academy for Life (written at the behest of the CDF) regarding the Rubella vaccine, asserts that receiving the vaccine is lawful “insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole.” Furthermore, the use of such a vaccine “should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use.” The document concludes “such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”

Fr. Joseph Koopman, a moral theologian at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio, in a paper entitled “Moral Guidance regarding Vaccines and COVID-19” puts it this way:

A critical question is: “Are Catholics always forbidden to perform an action if it touches upon evil, or cooperates, somehow, with the evil action of another?” The answer is “no.” There certainly are instances when Catholics must refrain from immoral cooperation. However, Catholic teaching on moral cooperation makes critical distinctions (formal/material, mediate/immediate, proximate/remote, etc.) to determine the degree or level to which one cooperates in evil. In some cases, some forms of cooperation, while unfortunate, can be allowed in certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world. Dig deep enough, and one finds that many of our actions touch upon evil and the evil actions of others. While the Church draws a firm line in delineating certain acts of cooperation as immoral, it does not condemn all actions of cooperation as such. It challenges us to be aware of evil around us, to always choose the option that involves less evil (or no evil), and to speak and challenge others to desist from evil. It is for this reason that the Church, in the early months of vaccine development for COVID-19, boldly challenged (and continues to challenge) researchers and the medical industry to seek moral means of vaccine production (and to reject the use of material of illicit origin that involved the destruction of unborn life).”

In his statement, Fr. Koopman continues to apply the discussion of remote cooperation in explaining that not only are the vaccines licit, but they work toward the common good and protection of life—especially the most vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised health.

Fr. Matthew Schneider has written several good pieces on cooperation with evil and vaccines. In one essay, he discusses the difference between cooperation and appropriation:

Cooperation means we in some small way contributed to an otherwise preventable act. If a man delivers beer, he has remote material cooperation in the drunkenness of those who drink the beer he delivered. Appropriation is similar to cooperation and often is cooperation but is not necessarily so. Appropriation is where you take some good from some prior already completed evil act. This is cooperation if it contributes to the continuation of that act. For example, if I buy something made by slave labor in Africa, it’s appropriation but also cooperation as they are more likely to keep using slave labor to make that.

Fr. Schneider also cites an example of appropriation without cooperation in the using of data gained from the horrific human experiments in Nazi concentration camps. This data is unable to be replicated because of its evil nature but the use of the data already obtained is unlikely to cause to more of these evil experimentations.

Fr. Schneider says some may even argue that the continued use of these fetal cell lines for vaccine development is appropriation without cooperation, he believes continuing to use these lines does involve some remote cooperation with the evil of the original abortion. He suggests, however, that this is “triply or quadruply remote,” and explains the layers of removal from the original act to the vaccine research, saying:

First, the abortion or miscarriage was not done for the cell line, but was happening anyways. Second, the cells were not created for this experiment but already existed. Third, this was a test of the vaccine not the production of the vaccine. Fourth, in one test done by each company, the test didn’t even use HEK293 directly but used mice descendant from a mouse edited with HEK293 to produce human rather than mouse lung-lining proteins. So, yet another step removed.

Fr. Schneider lists 12 other acts that involve a higher degree of cooperation with evil than receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, including buying coffee, mobile phones, products from China, and even bananas.

In light of all of these principles, the USCCB document explains some of the reasoning behind the Church’s acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine:

First, at least at present, there is no available alternative vaccine that has absolutely no connection to abortion. Second, the risk to public health is very serious, as evidenced by the millions of infections worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States of America alone. Third, in many cases the most important effect of vaccination may not be the protection it offers to the person who receives the vaccination, who may be of relatively robust health and unlikely to be seriously affected by the disease. Rather, the more important effect may be the protection it offers to those who are much more likely to be seriously stricken by the disease if they were to contract it through exposure to those infected. 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.

In addition, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility.

In a footnote, the USCCB reminds us of how vaccination is not simply a matter of individual choice, but that it promotes the common good. It says, “We should keep in mind that some people cannot themselves be vaccinated; they must rely on the rest of the community’s becoming immune through vaccination so that the disease does not travel through the community and infect them. Every person who becomes ill with COVID-19 places an additional burden on the health care systems, which in certain cities, states, and nations have been in danger of being overwhelmed.”

The USCCB also warns us not to become complacent about the ethical production of vaccines, and to work towards vaccine development that does not involve the cells of aborted fetuses. But the moral questions surrounding vaccines with unethical origins cannot be reduced to a simple binary choice. The Church has made clear that it is morally licit to use vaccines for the protection of life, especially the vulnerable, while also continuing to advocate for alternative development processes that respect the life of the unborn. This reasonable approach shows respect for the value and dignity of both lives: those who receive the vaccine and the unborn. They are not mutually exclusive, and we must work towards the good of both.

The Vatican’s new document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was undersigned by Pope Francis and builds upon three prior Vatican statements reaffirming all of these points. This statement included no new teaching, but was issued in response to recent contrary statements from bishops and figures in the media who have caused confusion among the faithful. Among these figures causing confusion is Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. On the bright side, a second US bishop, Fresno’s Joseph Brennan, does seem to have had a change of heart after previously expressing doubts about the vaccine.

The document also asserts that severity of the current pandemic outweighs the passive material cooperation of the vaccine production when it states, “the moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent—in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.” It also affirms that the vaccine serves the common good, reminding us that, “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.”

This document, much like the one from the USCCB, is clear in its reasoning. It is worth noting that the document does respect individual consciences, saying, “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.”

The position of the Church is clear: the vaccines are not only morally licit, but serve the common good. But, as Pope Francis consistently reminds us, the Church’s role is to propose—not impose—its teachings and to inform—not replace—consciences. But if one’s conscience will not allow them to choose the vaccine, they must take responsibility and do whatever they can to avoid transmitting the virus. In our polarized climate, it is refreshing to see that the Vatican’s guidance is so reasonable and mindful of both common good and individual conscience. Unfortunately, some in the Catholic media persist in obscuring the clear principles articulated in the document.

While the leadership of the Church has been so clear, it is frustrating to observe many Catholics who are either unwilling to understand or who are deliberately dissenting from the Church’s magisterial teaching. While the Church does say that the vaccine is not mandatory, many of these voices are claiming that they are morally illicit. This is nothing short of dissent from the Church’s teaching and moral authority. Granted, while this is no surprise—as many of these same Catholics have long dissented in other areas and regularly disparage the pope and his teaching—it’s hard to imagine someone rejecting the well-reasoned points made by the Church here. We should be grateful for the wisdom of the pope and bishops in this matter, and pray that Catholics everywhere may also find solace in the Church that offers such graces and wisdom to navigate these difficult times.

Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California’s Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Melinda Ribnek, where this article originally appeared.


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