Many people are conflicted about receiving one of the Covid-19 vaccines. I know Catholics and non-Catholics, political liberals and conservatives, medical and pharmaceutical professionals, etc. who refuse to take the vaccine and… others of the same background who insist everyone should receive it. While some are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines—which is not the Church’s competency; saving souls is—others are concerned that the vaccines were produced or tested using cell-lines derived from aborted babies, still others are concerned about how vaccines may affect fertility, etc.
In the early church, many Christians were also conflicted about a medical procedure, “teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). This controversy led to the first council in Jerusalem. St. Paul identifies the conflict:
What is the value of circumcision? Much in every way… [But God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus… [for] man is justified by faith apart from works of law [i.e. circumcision] (Romans 3:1,26,28).
Then he resolves it:
For freedom Christ has set us free… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:1,6; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 6:15; Colossians 3:11).
For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3; cf. Colossians 2:11-12).
Last December 21, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued their evaluation of receiving a vaccine produced or tested using illicit cell-lines. Based on the instruction Dignitas Personae (2008), approved by Pope Benedict XVI, this evaluation states that those receiving the Covid-19 vaccine “have no voice in such a decision” in using illicit cell-lines and any cooperation in evil would be merely passive and material, and “not in any way imply a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.” The document concludes:
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 must therefore be considered that, in such a case, 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.
So, that being said, the document—approved by the Pope—goes on to point out each one’s freedom in this matter:
[V]accination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation… 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.
So, we are free to receive or refuse any of the approved Covid-19 vaccines. This is a voluntary decision. Should one refuse the vaccine, one must use other appropriate means to mitigate health risks. This reflects the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that affirms:
The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. (Dignitas Humanae, 2)
All this fits what St. Paul said about circumcision: “For freedom Christ has set us free… For in Christ Jesus neither [vaccination] nor [unvaccination] is of any avail, but faith working through love.” In following our conscience, let’s freely put our faith in Jesus Christ—this can only lead to love.
Pope Francis has noted recently that receiving the vaccine can be an act of love—love for our family and friends… for all peoples—becoming a profound way of caring for one another—especially the most vulnerable—in pursuit of the common good, but only if the vaccine is made available for everyone so as to avoid any unjust discrimination. So too remaining unvaccinated can be an act of faith and love, if done to better serve others and our mission in Christ.
Yours In Christ,
Fr John Waiss
Quotations from this document were taken from the National Catholic Register, https://www.ncregister.com/news/vatican-issues-doctrinal-note-in-anti-covid-19-vaccines-full-text
Image Credit: The Citizens of Tournai, Belgium, Burying the Dead During the Black Death of 1347-52. Detail of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v.