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Father Brad Jantz, S.T.D. | Photo: COVID-19 ethical tier graph. Photo illustration by Mary D. Dillard

Prudence Will Watch Over You – Part 2

Welcome back to our on-going moral discernment of COVID vaccination. This week, we will address the major bioethical question about receiving these vaccines by applying the wisdom of Scripture and Tradition. Since vaccines have only been invented in the last 150 years, the morality of vaccination is not something directly mentioned in Scripture, which means we will turn to magisterial teaching and the Church’s tradition for assistance. Fortunately, the Church has been reflecting on vaccinations in general over the last few decades. In this article, I am drawing upon guidance from the Vatican, the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center in the United States.

To begin, we should clear the air about some misinformation that has been circulating. The approved vaccines have been through rigorous, public, scientific investigations, designed to verify their safety and effectiveness as best as humanly possible. They do not “change your DNA” in some nefarious way, and they are not a sinister conspiracy or the mark of the Beast. Rumors like these are expressions of the fear we have all been feeling over the last year—but as Catholics, we are a people of hope, not fear. The calm and peace that come from hope can help us overcome those fears.

There is, however, one important issue related to the science of these vaccines. Specifically, many of them have used fetus-derived stem cells in research and production. These stem cell lines are derived from a child aborted in the 1960s, so our Christian respect for human life and dignity invites us to moral reflection. As always, our goal is to follow Jesus’ teaching of imitating God’s holiness: “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Cooperation with Evil?

The main bioethical issue with the vaccines is best addressed through the thought of a famous Doctor of the Church from the 1700s: St. Alphonsus Liguori. He wrote about situations where a morally good or neutral action has some relationship with evil, which he calls “cooperation.” For example, there is nothing wrong with driving a car, but if someone drives the bank robber away from the scene of their crime, they are cooperating with robbery. However, the moral responsibility of the driver depends on their circumstances and intentions. If they knowingly chose to aid the robber, they would be an accomplice to a violation of the 7th Commandment (“You shall not steal,” Deuteronomy 5:19). A driver-accomplice “formally cooperates” with the robber by choosing to share the robber’s goal of stealing money. Formal cooperation with evil—directly helping someone do wrong—is never justifiable.

On the other hand, we can imagine more complicated versions of this situation. Say that after robbing the bank, the robber jumps into someone’s car, waves a gun around, and demands that the car’s owner drive him away. In this case, the driver “materially cooperates” with the robber by driving the car, but they are obviously not an accomplice! They do not share the thief’s criminal intent, and the crime would have still happened even if the driver had not coincidentally parked in front of the bank. This is “remote material cooperation”: the driver did nothing inherently sinful, they did not freely cooperate with the wrong, and the evil would have happened regardless. It is not a sin when someone, through no fault of their own, has no feasible choice other than remote material cooperation with evil.

A classic case of this is the situation of taxpayers. As good citizens, we are required (legally and morally) to contribute to having an orderly society, which requires paying for a justice system, the protection of human rights, national defense, and so on. We cooperate in this effort by paying taxes to support our government. Yet we know from experience that sometimes governments do bad things: applying laws unfairly, or using their powers unjustly. In other words, every taxpayer “cooperates” with evil to some degree—but because the cooperation is so incredibly remote, and because an orderly society is so important, paying taxes is morally justified and required. Jesus Himself paid taxes to the unjust Roman government and taught His followers to do the same (Mark 12:17). Tax season involves only “remote material cooperation” with evil, and a greater good outweighs the incidental cooperation.

Remote Material Cooperation

With that in mind, let’s think about these vaccines. First, the COVID vaccines do not involve formal cooperation with evil—receiving them is not morally equal to abortion. Their purpose is to promote individual and public health, which is a good thing. Second, receiving vaccination does not involve close material cooperation with evil: the stem cells in question were derived decades ago, and taking these vaccines does not encourage future abortions. This is why the Pontifical Academy for Life and the National Catholic Bioethics Center have classified the vaccinations as only “remote material cooperation” with abortion.

Just to be clear, when we say that receiving certain vaccines is “remote material cooperation” with evil, we are not saying that we are only encouraging abortion a little bit. It means that the connection is so distant that it does not reflect on the individual receiving a vaccination. In the absence of other vaccination options, personal health and public safety far outweigh the minimal connection with disrespect for human life. Morally speaking, getting vaccinated against COVID is like being a taxpayer, who responsibly contributes to society despite objecting to some of the things their government does.

Moral Tiers of Vaccines

All that said, some of the vaccines are morally preferable to others. Ideally, we would have access to vaccines that make no use of fetus-derived stem cells at any point in their development or production. Morally, these would be “Tier 1,” without any degree of connection with abortion. Unfortunately, no such vaccine is currently available.

At the moral “Tier 2,” there are vaccines that do not use fetus-derived stem cells in development or production, but have used these cell lines in late-stage confirmation tests. This category includes Pfizer and Moderna. There is no intrinsic link to abortion in the manufacture of these vaccines. All else being equal, we would prefer a Tier 1 vaccine, but in the meanwhile, we can certainly receive these vaccines in good conscience.

Some of the vaccines that may soon become available fall into “Tier 3”: they have used ethically problematic stem cell lines as part of their development and production processes. The best-known Tier 3 vaccines are those from AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson. While the Church objects to the way they are manufactured, the Vatican and National Catholic Bioethics Center have stated that we can still receive them with clear conscience if we do so “under protest,” just as a taxpayer contributes to the common good but speaks out against unjust laws.

For these lower ethical tier vaccines, receiving them “under protest” does not mean we should make life more difficult for our hard-working and stressed-out health care workers. Instead, as individuals, we should “vote with our feet” by seeking out the morally preferable vaccines first, but it is OK to get the Tier 3 vaccines if they are the only ones offered to us. Another appropriate means of protest would be writing to the pharmaceutical company that produced a Tier 2 or 3 vaccine you received, politely expressing your ethical opposition to the use of these cell lines. As a Catholic community, we can encourage the pharmaceutical industry to move away from the practice of using fetal-derived stem cells in their research and production.

(This article first appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021 issue of the One Voice newspaper.)