By Mgr Anthony Figueiredo
The roll-out and administration of the Covid-19 vaccine are well underway at the Vatican, with Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI paving the way by receiving the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. A makeshift clinic has been set up in the atrium of the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall, where health care workers, security personnel, staff who deal with the public and older residents, employees and retirees will be offered the vaccination.
Pope Francis has also asked that some of the Vatican’s vaccines be made available to the poor and homeless.
In his Christmas Day ‘Urbi et Orbi’ message, addressed “to the City (of Rome) and to the World,” Pope Francis called on global leaders to provide “vaccines for all, especially for the most vulnerable and needy of all regions of the planet.” In an Italian TV interview last week, the Holy Father encouraged everyone to get the vaccine. “It’s an ethical choice because you are playing with health, life, but you are also playing with the lives of others,” Francis told the station. “I’ve signed up. One must do it.”
Despite the great importance of the vaccine, expressed by both Francis and Benedict, bishops, theologians, and others around the world have drawn attention to the moral complexities and the need for discernment that come with it.
The use of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular, has been singled out as problematic, since it is reported to have made use of abortion-derived cell lines, both in its development and production, and in its laboratory testing.
The Bishops of Colorado, for example, have expressed caution, reminding their faithful that no good can justify evil means: the use of abortion-derived cell lines in “the design, development, production, or lab testing of vaccines… is ethically unacceptable” and fails to show the respect due to all human remains. They go as far as teaching their flock that “vaccines such as AstraZeneca-Oxford … are not a morally valid option because better options are available.”
Caution, however, does not mean prohibition. As the Bishops of Colorado acknowledge, the Holy See’s Pontifical Academy for Life has stated that “all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and… the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of co-operation with voluntary abortion.” Anyone such vaccine may be received – including AstraZeneca – but if presented with a choice between a morally compromised vaccine and a vaccine that is less morally compromised or not compromised at all, then “Catholics have the duty to use vaccines that respect human life.”
In some countries, such as the UK, Catholics who choose to be vaccinated may have no choice. For this reason, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has clarified for its flock: “It is not sinful to take the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine that is being produced to prevent Covid-19.”
So are we simply obligated to receive any vaccine, even if it were morally compromised? A Dominican moral theologian and colleague, Fr Nicanor Austriaco, has written helpfully on this question: “Different people have different thresholds of sensitivity to evil.” Some have no desire to benefit from abortion-derived medical technology and would prefer to self-isolate or to observe more stringent practices of social distancing. “Others have fewer qualms… We should, therefore, expect different people to reach different moral conclusions that could even be opposed to each other, and both these conclusions could still remain virtuous responses.”
In other words, questions of co-operation with evil are not necessarily questions of objective moral duty. They require discernment – not all private discernment but also conversation with and certainly concern for others. Ultimately, they call for a personal decision, an ethical stance born of considerations of conscience and simultaneously respectful of the ethical decisions of others.
As the bishops of England and Wales have stated: “Each Catholic must educate his or her conscience on this matter and decide what to do … Catholics may in good conscience receive any of these vaccines for the good of others and themselves. In good conscience, one may refuse a particular vaccine but continue to have a duty to protect others from infection.”
Shortly before returning to Rome, I brought the ethical conundrum to a trusted medic in the UK – not a Catholic or a Christian – and felt that we both learned from each other. In explaining my dilemma, I found him gratefully and inquisitively attentive and open. He spent time looking into the matter and came back, explaining why the understanding of the use of aborted cells might be disputed. He followed up with a question that has called me to ponder and discern: “I guess the doctrinal question is whether the ends justify the means, that is, were it to be the case that ‘aborted cells’ have been used, does the fact that the technique has saved countless lives and morbidity in preventing polio and Rubella, and now will save many from Covid, make it acceptable?”
A weighty question that bears on the pre-eminent duty to protect life in all of its stages. And a learning and teaching moment. Why not have the conversation with your own GP, and ask about vaccine choices? Use the current discussion as an opportunity to learn and teach – for you, the medical profession, your family, children, and friends, and those unaware of the ethical dilemma.
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo has served in various capacities at the Vatican and as a Spiritual Director for over 20 years.
He is a regular guest analyst of Church affairs for media networks throughout the world.
Picture: US President Joe Biden receives his second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters).