In the light of the rapidly escalating pressures and requirements placed on individuals to receive the Covid19 vaccine in order to carry out essential tasks of community life, especially to maintain employment, these points for consideration are offered. It should be noted at the outset that this is a complex ethical issue that straddles the long-standing tension of the need to promote overall public good along with the need to protect the rights of individual conscience. As such it defies simple answers or resolutions.
Further complicating the situation are the specific circumstances surrounding Covid19 and the measures that have been used in response to it. These circumstances make this a question less about religious beliefs regarding vaccines in general and more about acknowledging attitudes of suspicion that are not easily or quickly dispelled as each individual takes time to come to terms with what this means for their life circumstances. As a matter of personal conscience it is most fundamentally a human rights issue, and only by extension is it a religious issue in light of Christian revelation that shows forth the truth of human nature.
These points are in two sections. The first is an offering and summary of some recent Church statements on the topic, including a form letter of religious exemption that is written for use in the State of Colorado. The second is a commentary that attempts to show the limits of these same teachings due to the particular circumstances of Covid19.
Recent Catholic Statements of Note
The following brief statements from the Holy See and of some Catholic bishops are helpful and are worthy of a careful read.
Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-Covid19 Vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 2020. The text may be accessed at this link: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20201221_nota-vaccini-anticovid_en.html
Answers to Key Ethical Questions About Covid-19 Vaccines, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 2021.
A Letter from the Bishops of Colorado on Covid19 Vaccine Mandates, Colorado Catholic Conference, August 6, 2021. The text may be accessed at this link: https://denvercatholic.org/a-letter-from-the-bishops-of-colorado-on-covid-19-vaccine-mandates/
The Colorado Catholic Conference also made a letter template available for Catholics in their dioceses. It is made available in this piece because it offers a clear articulation of grounds for religious exemption based on Catholic teachings. It may be found here: https://cocatholicconference.org/template-for-religious-exemption-from-covid-19-vaccines/
Among other key points that may be distilled from these statements are the fact that the Catholic Church is not doctrinally opposed to vaccines provided that they are produced in a manner that is morally acceptable. At the same time, while we recognize the critically important public health benefit to the overall common good that comes from large scale use of vaccines, the Catholic Church does not teach that people are morally obligated to be vaccinated. Forcing or pressuring individuals to be vaccinated against their personal objections raises legitimate questions about the protection of one’s conscience. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect that members of a society take important health precautions to protect the safety of others, provided that those same precautions are known not to cause harm.
In short, from a Catholic perspective, there is room for reasonable people to be personally in favor of, and also personally opposed to, the taking of vaccines to promote personal or public health.
The Connection to Abortion
It is also worth noting that these same documents address the question of the connection of the use of aborted fetal tissue to produce some or all of the Covid19 Vaccines. Long-standing tenets of Catholic moral theology show that the connection between those originally intrinsically evil acts of abortion and the present-day act of taking one of the major lines of Covid19 Vaccines that may have come from those same acts places a very remote level of blame on a vaccine recipient.
It would be tantamount to saying that no individual may ever purchase a product made in China because the entire Chinese industrial and economic production system relies on a nation-wide policy of forced abortions of its citizens. An individual may choose to avoid a Covid19 vaccine out of a desire to avoid even the remotest connection to abortion, and similarly one may choose to never buy Chinese manufactured goods for the same reason, but doing so lands one in a moral category of choice or burden that goes beyond what we deem essential for maintaining a clean conscience due to the other overriding considerations of personal and public safety if no other options are available.
It is tragic and lamentable that any proposed medical remedy has even the remotest connection to an abortion, nonetheless the major Covid19 vaccines are allowed for a Catholic to use due to an unfortunate lack of available and effective alternatives.
The Specific Difficulties of the Covid19 Vaccine Situation: A Commentary
Much of the above is helpful if one is speaking about the moral liceity of vaccines in general when it comes to Catholic teaching. However, in the current situation of vaccinations as a response to Covid19, other factors are at work that are impacting the question of whether or not an individual, Catholic or non, should be pressured into taking the vaccine.
Covid19 Responses To-Date Have Not Inspired Confidence
One major difficulty is the rapid speed at which the development of the Covid19 vaccine has moved, along with the rapid speed of the decisions to impose its use on the global population as a remedy for this virus. An individual has good reason to be weary of being injected with any substance that has not undergone rigorous, long-term medical trials and tests. For some people these risks are viewed with minimal concern, which is their choice. However, for others, there are a host of reasonable questions that swirl around this new vaccine, and all the decision making about it, that lead them to prefer the risk of contracting Covid itself over the risk of ingesting a substance they view as a long-term threat to their health.
The ever-shifting recommendations about distance, sanitizing, masks, vaccines, and other proposed remedies for Covid19 have done little to instill confidence in the authorities that are advancing these measures. As has the arguable lack of established, solid data on nearly every aspect of the outbreak of Covid19. There is no question that every aspect of how Covid19 has been dealt with has become politicized on both sides of the situation. All of this leads to an understandable sense of hesitancy on the part of some about the nature of the vaccine itself, its effectiveness, and its necessity.
The Social Pathogen of Suspicion
Our era is now one of predominant suspicion toward institutions and people in authority, both in and out of the Church. No person and no entity is above scrutiny any longer by a population that actively seeks to identify exceptions to norms as a means to undermine confidence in those same norms.
It is tempting for institutions, employers, and authorities to seek to overcome the culture of suspicion by using their power to force individuals into behaviors with which they do not agree. More helpful would be efforts by these same institutions to be aware of the reasons for people’s suspicions and to take greater measures that attempt to address them by providing facts and transparent information, and to engage in reasonable dialogue with those who disagree. As time passes, if the vaccine continues to show itself to be an effective deterrent against Covid19, it will be easier to convince through argument, rather than through force, that being vaccinated is an intelligent choice. Forcing reluctant people only furthers the social pathogen of suspicion rather than healing it.
The Need For A Well-Articulated End Game
Additionally, the public authorities that have been responsible for orchestrating the communication about Covid19 as well as the proposed responses to it have not adequately articulated what the end-game is that we are all supposed to be striving to achieve. Do we want Covid19 eradicated completely? Do we want sickness itself to be eliminated? What measure of illness are we willing to live with? What sort of hardships can we as persons and as a culture learn to bear? These are complex questions that a purely secular viewpoint has difficulty answering and as such it erodes confidence in the authorities that are currently driving the discussion.
To a Christian who understands that our fallen world will always be imperfect, that this is not heaven, that suffering has redemptive value in the Cross of Christ, and that a cure cannot be worse than the disease itself, much of the Covid19 reality that we are dealing with strikes us as fundamentally unrealistic. Christians have always supported the gift of healing that medicine can offer, and we pray for cures, and we tend to the sick, but we always do so in the broader context and understanding of what is realistic in a fallen world in which we ourselves are not God.
Therefore, there is need for balance in our approaches to remedies for diseases, or for social ills in general. If there is not balance, then there arises the grave danger of the trampling of individual human rights by the hands of the powerful who, either for good or for bad intentions, seek to control far more than they should. In our haste, in our state of panic, and in our often well-intentioned desire to save lives, it is unfortunately the case that there is much about our reactions to Covid19 that have not been carefully thought through. In some ways our responses have already been shown to have done other types of harm, most especially in the realm of mental health.
A “Religious Exemption” Is An Unhelpful Label
Appealing to “religion” as reason for an exemption from the vaccine unfortunately obscures the fact that at the most basic level the issues at stake in the conversation and decision are about human nature in general, as human rights issues, prior to being a matter of faith. Appealing to a religious exemption for the Covid19 vaccine also might lead to the mistaken idea that observant Catholics are opposed to vaccinations in general by doctrinal necessity, which would be an inaccurate reading of our teachings.
However, where our Catholic religion is of great assistance in this situation is that it articulates for us in terms of ethics and moral theology precisely what might be making us uneasy about vaccine requirements if left otherwise to our own vocabulary we cannot find the words to express it. The Christian faith is fundamentally an articulation of the deepest truths of the human person. As such the language of Christian ethics that applies to matters of conscience, proportionate reasoning, certitude, and our need for truth in the face of questionable circumstances is extremely helpful and is binding on all of humanity. It must be understood that if a Catholic is seeking a religious exemption what they really mean is that they are seeking a human exemption that is owed to them by their created nature, not by their faith.
To the extent that vaccines do indeed promote overall better public health, the desire to encourage wide-spread vaccinations is understandable. In light of that one has sympathy for government, business, and employer policies that require vaccination for Covid19.
However, in the light of the established Catholic doctrines that articulate what is true about all of humanity, not merely Catholics, that seek to honor the inviolable zone of personal conscience, and in the light of the questions about all matters related to Covid19 right now, serious questions of human dignity are at stake if there is undue pressure on anyone to receive this vaccine rather than allowing them to come to that decision on their own.
My Personal Decision to Be Vaccinated
As an act of full disclosure, I wish to make it known that I am fully vaccinated with two doses of the Moderna Covid19 Vaccine that I received in April. I came to the decision to be vaccinated in prayerful consideration of all of the above teachings, based on the personal circumstances of my life, based on the information about the virus and vaccine available at the time, and for what I concluded to be for the sake of overall public health. No one forced me to be vaccinated, it was my free choice. I continue to believe that I made the correct choice for myself and for others, and that my vaccination came about in a manner the Church desires: in a prayerful, uncoerced manner.