The following essay does not necessarily reflect the opinions of all Clarifying Catholicism writers. We encourage respectful discourse in the comments below, as well as responses to this article submitted to our contact form.
Jobin Cyriac, Mount Saint Mary’s University
For the last two years or so, we have seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the world, from the national to the global stage. Very recently, vaccines have been developed and produced in an effort to combat the effects of the pandemic, seemingly with the intent to restore the status quo—essentially, “to go back to the way things used to be,” as many people have been saying as of late. However, with the advent of national and local measures that intend to mandate (or at least “strongly encourage”) people around the world to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, one cannot help but ponder the lawfulness of such mandates. Furthermore, while vaccine mandates may be deemed “lawful” by the state, one still must scrutinize such action on the basis of whether it is conducive to the flourishing of those whom this mandate is being enforced for (or rather, in some cases, upon). This essay intends to address the facts surrounding such a tumultuous time and present to the reader the case for why the establishment and enforcement of such mandates is not ethical with regard to human flourishing.
In order to properly examine why mandating the COVID-19 vaccine is unethical, one must start at the root of the situation. A timeline of the vaccines in relation to the pandemic will suffice to begin with. In early December of 2019, the first few patients in Wuhan, China began to experience symptoms of COVID-19, and by early January of 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) was alerted to the escalating situation in Wuhan.1 In mid-January, the WHO confirmed the first human-to-human transmission of the virus, and Wuhan was soon placed under a strict lockdown.1 The lockdown failed to contain the virus, however, as Thailand, Japan, and the U.S. all had laboratory-confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 by the end of January.1 On January 27, 2020, “the United States Food and Drug Administration announced that it would be taking ‘critical actions to advance development of novel coronavirus medical countermeasures’ with interagency partners, including CDC.”1 Note that it is at this point that the FDA had stated its intention to develop some kind of drug for the treatment and prophylaxis of COVID-19. On January 31, 2020, the WHO and the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services declared the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak as a public health emergency.1 On March 17, the first human trials of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine developed by Moderna Therapeutics commenced at Kaiser Permanente research facility in Seattle.1 As a note, another prophylactic—hydroxychloroquine sulfate—was soon after issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA to be used by those hospitalized for COVID-19.1 On April 30, 2020, President Donald Trump “launche[d] Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus as quick as possible,” in order to stem the pandemic.1 In December of 2020, the FDA issued an EUA for the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, and by December 14 the first few patients begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.1 On December 18, the FDA issued an EUA for the Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. At the turn of the new year, approximately one million American had been vaccinated, and both Pfizer and Moderna suffered vaccine shortages in early January.1 In February 2021, the FDA granted an EUA for the Johnson & Johnson single-shot COVID-19 vaccine, and the U.S. “surpasse[d] 100 million vaccinations” by mid-March of 2021.1
On March 14, however, several countries “suspend[ed] dispensing [the] AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine over concerns of blood clotting,” and on April 13 the CDC “recommend[ed] pausing the use of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine because of blood clot complications.”1 Then, on April 23, “the CDC change[d] course and recommends the continued use of Johnson and Johnson vaccine for people 18 and older,”—this just after the U.S. surpasses 200 million vaccinations.1 Further, in the same month, “increased cases of myocarditis and pericarditis [had] been reported in the United States after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna), particularly in adolescents and young adults,” most predominantly in male patients, with the onset being “typically within several days after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination.”2 In addition to this, an article was published in the British Medical Journal which addressed the possibility of a link between menstrual anomalies in women and the COVID-19 vaccines.3 We continue to feel the effects of the pandemic and the vaccine, with new reports highlighting further complications by the day.
Yet, with all of these complications in the midst of such a precarious situation, many states and nations have seen fit to mandate such a vaccine, even for those specifically opposed to their reception given the above stated facts. Of course, the argument surrounding the vaccine immediately becomes a moral one when it involves the question of human flourishing—and in this case, when the state begins to act in the place of conscience by imposing vaccine mandates, it becomes an all-the-more pressing matter to address. The freedom of the individual man to make moral decisions for himself has come under very serious scrutiny over the course of the pandemic. Make no mistake: the ability to make medical decisions for oneself has always been a singularly controversial subject of debate in the bioethical and medical communities but has become most especially scrutinized in light of COVID-19. A metaphorical “dip in the pool” of modern dialogue supplies a starkly ubiquitous consensus: COVID-19 vaccination ought to be viewed primarily through the lens of acting in the interest of the common good. In an article for MedicalXpress, Alexandra Pecharich brings into question the point at which freedom and an obligation to the common good intersect. In so doing, she cites physicians in saying that “the benefit of widescale vaccination should override individuals’ reasons for saying ‘no’ to the shots.”4 On the Catholic side of the media, two examples suffice to show the climate of the “vaccine debate.” In an opinion piece for the National Catholic Reporter, the author asserts that vaccination “is a life-saving measure, not just for the vaccinated person but for the general populations, including those who cannot or will not get vaccinated themselves.” The article goes on further to state that “During a deadly pandemic, public health must be prioritized,” and that national governments “are perfectly within their rights—in fact, it is their responsibility—to limit the activities of unvaccinated people.”5 In an article for the National Catholic Register, Msgr. Charles Pope argues that while the Church holds that “conscience should be respected and that mandates ‘must be voluntary,’” he also states that because the U.S. bishops “have chosen to emphasize the permissibility and goodness of receiving the vaccine…a Catholic who has objections to receiving the vaccine should do so on a personal basis.”6 At the same time—in a seemingly indecisive reversal of words—Msgr. Pope says, “It remains a matter of deep concern that any Catholic diocese or institution would simply or uncritically use legal and economic pressure to compel fellow Catholics, or any human being to receive vaccines or disclose personal medical information…Government mandates ought to be refuted as a violation of human dignity and the right of individuals to follow their conscience.”6 It is clear from this small sample of articles that both the secular and Catholic worlds are rife with division on the matter of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates. This ought not to be so on the Catholic side of things, however, as the teaching on the grounds of such matters are very clear especially with regard to the question of conscientious objection.
The primary reason the imposition of such mandates is ethically problematic is because it categorically infringes on the ability (and natural right) to follow one’s conscience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that man’s conscience “must be informed” if he is to act morally and in accord with natural and divine law. At the same time, however, the Catechism references Dignitatis Humanae in paragraph 1782, stating that “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’”7 Thus even in the case when one acts erroneously, if one is morally convicted by his own conscience, then the only proper response is to follow the movements of conscience and resist any affront that would attempt to coerce one to betray one’s moral convictions. Furthermore, in paragraph 1790 the Catechism affirms, “A human being must always obey the certain judgement of his conscience If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgements about acts to be performed or already committed.”7 The Church’s teaching on conscience seems to warn of the error of dictating the conscientious movements of others: that it violates the ability of the other to make a free choice, and that this in some way does violence to the human person, resulting in their “self-condemnation.” The Church also provides for the fact that it is entirely possible for one err in the judgement of a particular situation and remain in ignorance of the act. This implies that the person themselves does not necessarily, in any and every circumstance, retain moral culpability for the action they commit, particularly if they are ignorant to factors that may have otherwise influenced their judgement.
The Church’s guidance on the matter of conscience applies to the decision of vaccination and the decision to adhere or object to vaccine mandates. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states in its December 2020 note on the use of some COVID-19 vaccines, “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”8 Furthermore, “The vaccination question is a multifaceted one, where the difficulty of accessing accurate, unbiased, reliable, and credible information may lead people to different conclusions in good faith. In any case, there must be serious reasons for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious diseases.”9 The uncertainty and division of the medical information surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines and their efficacy alone would appear to grant a sufficient reason to object to vaccination. However, there remains another facet to the question of the ethics of vaccine mandates: the proximate association of the COVID-19 vaccines to abortion.
It would be amiss if the reality of the scourge of abortion and its rather deep and unfortunate ties to modern medicine and pharmaceuticals was not addressed, especially considering the fact that the vast majority of COVID-19 vaccines utilize aborted fetal cells in either their testing phase, or their production phase, or even both. Of the three most widely used vaccines in the United States, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines utilize aborted fetal cells in their testing phase, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses aborted fetal cells in both the testing and production phases.10 The argument of whether one should receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines in light of their association with abortion and aborted fetal cells is highly nuanced and certainly not an open-and-shut case of moral culpability. On the one hand, the reception of the vaccine is defined as “remote material cooperation with evil,” which can “in some circumstances, be tolerated if legitimate, proportionate goods are sought.”11 The association with of the vaccine recipient to the testing and production of the vaccine itself is several orders of magnitude removed such that the recipient is considered “morally inculpable” for the actions taken in developing the vaccines and can thus be “morally free” to receive the vaccine. Thus, while one is not permitted to formally cooperate with evil, one may be permitted to cooperate remotely given that there are grave enough circumstances. In addition, it is not necessarily that cooperation with the distant moral evil intertwined with the COVID-19 vaccines that results on one’s culpability. Rather, “failure to adequately protest and/or to demand alternatives to these vaccines can contribute to moral complacency on this critical issue.”9 The onus is on the recipient to protest and demand alternatives to vaccines wit close associations to abortion and aborted fetal tissue. Ultimately the argument being made is that the “COVID-19 vaccines are ethically problematic, but morally permissible,” and that the faithful, both clergy and laymen, have an obligation to make known their opposition to abortion-tainted vaccines.
The counterpoint to the aforementioned position is that we indeed ought to refuse to be vaccinated with abortion-tainted vaccines. This position is one that seems to be frequently dismissed as merely the opinions of the “religious right.” But to ignore such arguments on the basis of another’s political affiliation and dismiss them with the charge of “conservatism” or over-religiosity does not nullify the truth that such arguments may carry. Furthermore, if we are to live truly virtuous and fulfilling lives, we ought to desire to know and pursue that which will predispose us to do so. Therefore, the exploration of such a position, while unpopular perhaps, is entirely worthwhile.
The most pointedly obvious counterpoint to the acceptance of abortion-tainted vaccines on the grounds of circumstantial gravity is squarely in opposition to the stance of remote material cooperation. It can be summed up in the following question: the vaccines may be considered “ethically uncontroversial” if aborted fetal cells were only used in research, but when did it become acceptable to use fetal cells even in research.”12 The gravity of abortion and its connection to the COVID-19 vaccines currently on the market is not merely explained away by referencing the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This precondition of circumstantial gravity, however, is nullified by the fact that “COVID-19 is not grave to all individuals, except to those that belong to high-risk conditions like the elderly, diabetics, smokers, and those who are obese or have chronic diseases.”13 Prima facie, then, thevast majority of vaccine recipients are not in the at-risk category that would render the pandemic a grave matter and thus morally permit the reception of the vaccine across the board. “There may be justified reasons to take an experimental vaccine in high-risk individuals…However, there is no justification for healthy individuals who are free of these risk factors and have greater than 99 percent survival rate to this infection to wrestle with a medical or moral issue on whether to accept an experimental vaccine that poses significant risk to their health.”13 Moreover, while Catholics are morally obligated to “advance and support alternative ethical vaccines and medicines,” as of yet “there has been no concerted effort by established Catholic institutions…to support the development of ethical alternative vaccines and advanced medicines.”14 A Catholic may indeed, under specific situations, be free of culpability for the participation in an evil. Yet silence a posteriori denotes a certain complicity with the promotion of aborted fetal cells for medical research and development. “The Church also recognizes that there can be a moral impossibility for an individual to do a particular act. Medieval moralists called it a vehemens horror. In the case of vaccines associated with abortions, even remote ones, the horror is to have any association with the taking of innocent life.”15 The horror of abortion indeed does (that is, should) invoke in one not simply a desire to protest any vaccine with ties to it, but even more so to outright refuse any connection with such vaccines at all. It is clear that, “Given that nothing has been effective in stopping the slide along the path of bioethical self-destruction, the role of conscientious objection deserves greater consideration, particularly by theologians and the Magisterium.”15
The question of vaccine mandates as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic appears by all accounts to be an open-and-shut case. The experimental nature of the vaccines alone ought to preclude the ubiquitous application of vaccine mandates. The seemingly connected medical concerns and risks associated with such vaccines show that the vaccines ought not to be thought of as a “cure-all” for the pandemic. In fact, the complications documented thus far are themselves evidence that mandating vaccines across the board has the immeasurable potential to cause more harm than it will bring about any goods sought. The right of the individual to make moral and medical decisions for themselves on the basis of conscience is to be respected as well by authorities in considering vaccine mandates. Of course, the very fact that such mandates would seek to destroy the autonomy of the individual in raising conscientious objections and refusing the vaccine proscribes the establishment of vaccine mandates from the outset. The question of using vaccines with varying degrees of association to aborted fetal cells becomes more nuanced, however. It may be permissible in manifestly grave situations or for those in high-risk categories to receive such vaccines, but prudence and careful discernment is required in making such a decision. In most cases however, and specifically regarding the circumstances of most people in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, the overwhelming conclusion is that one ought to refuse such abortion-tainted vaccines. The metaphorical downward slope towards the disregarding of the principles of bioethics should compel one to outright refuse vaccination in witness to the sanctity of life. Therefore, given all of these aforementioned reasons, the universal mandating of COVID-19 vaccines is not only unethical, but even more so is contrary to human flourishing. The nature of these mandates show disregard for the medical safety, conscientious rights, and reverence for life of their constituents, and as such ought not to be considered an ethically viable response to the pandemic. If vaccine mandates are to be enforced, the state must also take extensive measures to ensure that moral and religious objections and exemptions be seriously considered and perhaps granted. To deny such exemptions in the face of mandating vaccines is a clear violation of—and does violence to—the right of the individual to make conscientious decisions for himself and those he is responsible of. It is entirely non-conducive to human flourishing.
All of this being said, however, given the current ratcheting of our political climate, what are morally convicted Catholics to do? With mandates springing up in multiple cities, counties, and states across the U.S., the need for decisive moral resistance grows with each new day. Even in the face of possible persecution, us Catholics should not fear nor turn away from our moral convictions—we cannot. In saying this, I myself have not received any of the COVID-19 vaccines (despite the many protests of those around me, and in direct contradiction of how I have lived the majority of my life), and the idea of mandating the vaccines currently in use is wholly abhorrent to my very soul. But again, we cannot seek an easy escape to any possible persecution that results from resisting unethical vaccine mandates. To close with a reflection in light of our eternal destiny, we ought to remember that Christ Himself endured the cruelest persecution for the sake of truth and goodness, and most of all for our sake. And no servant is greater than his Master. Since the world has hated Christ, so too will it hate us. If we are to be like Christ, then we ought to imitate Him in all things, even in persecution, by humbly submitting to all things for love of Him, our Master.
1“COVID-19 Timeline.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed 4 August 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/museum/timeline/covid19.html.
2“Myocarditis and Pericarditis Considerations.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last reviewed 9 November 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/clinical-considerations/myocarditis.html.
3Male, Victoria. “Menstrual changes after covid-19 vaccination.” BMJ, published 16 September 2021, https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2211.
4Pecharich, Alexandra. “Americans should embrace COVID-19 vaccines for the common good.” MedicalXpress, published 7 December 2020, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-12-americans-embrace-covid-vaccines-common.html.
5Schlumpf, Heidi. “Do your part for the common good: Get vaccinated.” National Catholic Reporter, 26 April 2021, https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-connections/do-your-part-common-good-get-vaccinated.
6Pope, Msgr. Charles. “Conscience, COVID Vaccines and the Common Good.” National Catholic Register, 24 September 2021, https://www.ncregister.com/blog/conscience-covid-vaccines-and-the-common-good.
7Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012, paragraphs 1782, 1790.
8Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines.” 21 December 2020, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20201221_nota-vaccini-anticovid_en.html.
9National Catholic Bioethics Center. “FAQ: On the Use of Vaccines.” NCBC,published 2006, revised 2019, https://www.ncbcenter.org/resources-and-statements-cms/faq-on-the-use-of-vaccines.
10Prentice, David and Lee, Tara S. “What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines.” Charlotte Lozier Institute,published 8 December 2020, last updated 2 June 2021, https://lozierinstitute.org/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-covid-19-vaccine/.
11Meany, Joseph. “Point: The Current Covid Vaccines Are Problematic But Permissible.” Catholic Answers,published 23 December 2020, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/point-the-current-covid-vaccines-are-problematic-but-permissible.
12Trasancos, Stacy. “Counterpoint: We Should Reject Abortion-Tainted Vaccines.” Catholic Answers,published 23 December 2020, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/counterpoint-we-should-reject-abortion-tainted-vaccines.
13Moy, Alan. “Vaccine Mandates and Passports Represent a Likely Illegal and Immoral Public Health Measure to Contain COVID in Catholic Institutions – Part 3: Strategies for Students, Parents, and Employees to Combat Mandates.” John Paul II Medical Research Institute, [PDF], Updated 16 August 2021, https://9c0dee3e-d4b1-49e5-82ab-2a96b1ab169b.filesusr.com/ugd/d8f730_58b19cdcdd714abeb270266539d06472.pdf.
14Moy, Alan. “What is the Vatican’s position on the use of vaccines derived from an abortion?” John Paul II Medical Research Institute, https://www.jp2mri.org/what-is-the-vaticans-position.
15Donovan, Colin. “The Vaccine Dilemma.” Catholic Answers, published 18 August 2020, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/the-vaccine-dilemma#_ftnref1.