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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Could Catholics find middle ground on vaccination?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 19, 2022

Justice and charity require Christians to take each other seriously—to respect each other’s motives, to listen to each other’s views.

Yes, we understand: most American Catholics favor Covid vaccination. Pope Francis has strongly endorsed the shots, as have most (but not all) Catholic bishops. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has stated that the use of the vaccines is morally justifiable, even if they were produced using immoral means. Even those Catholics who disagree must admit that a strong case has been made for the vaccines.

In return, isn’t it reasonable for us to ask that Catholics who promote the vaccines recognize the existence of strong moral arguments against the shots? Contrary to the popular rhetoric, resistance to Covid vaccination is not based exclusively on selfishness or on misinformation.

Or failing that, perhaps we could meet on middle ground, if proponents of vaccination would admit that there are—or at least certainly should be—limits to their enthusiasm for the shots. Specifically, even the most enthusiastic Catholic supporters of the vaccine campaign should recognize:

1) New developments could change the arguments

  • When he said that vaccines are the best way to fight the disease, Pope Francis was not making a doctrinal or moral declaration but issuing a medical opinion. Since he is not a medical authority, that opinion is not binding. Every argument for vaccination is based on the assumption that the vaccines will curb the spread of Covid. That assumption is now questionable; in fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend.
  • The vaccines may have dangerous side-effects. Evidence of these dangers has already emerged, although the evidence is in dispute—as is virtually every scientific claim about the vaccines. As more data becomes available (and anyone who is ready to “trust the science” should want more data), if there are clear signs of medical risks associated with vaccination, the moral equation would change. This would be especially true for young people, for whom the benefits of vaccination appear minimal, and the implications of long-term side effects would weigh heavier.
  • If the disease becomes less virulent—as the Omicron variant seems to be—the moral arguments again would shift. The CDF reasons that the use of morally tainted vaccines can be justified in case of grave necessity. A life-threatening disease may impose a grave necessity, where a week of mild discomfort would not.

2) The Church must defend fundamental human rights.

The CDF insisted that vaccination must be voluntary—an important proviso that many dioceses (and even the Holy See!) have chosen blithely to ignore. Few of our bishops have warned against the violation of conscience. And now there are threats that more serious violations could be on the horizon. Heads of state, led by French President Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, have frankly confessed their plans to make life miserable for those who are not vaccinated.

In the US today, if the new Rasmussen poll results are accurate, a majority of the members of one of America’s two major political parties—the party currently in power, in fact—favor government action to compel citizens to take a Covid vaccine. Maybe our bishops would accept, or even support, the imposition of fines on the non-vaccinated. But surely they could not accept:

  • house arrest for the unvaccinated (supported by 59% of Democrats in the Rasmussen poll), or
  • prior restraints on free speech and freedom of the press—including the threat of prison terms—to prevent statements critical of the vaccines and their effectiveness ( 48%); or
  • internment camps for the unvaccinated ( 48%); or, most frightening,
  • “temporarily removing parents’ custody of their children if parents refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine” (29%).

Those survey results suggest that the powerful worldwide campaign for vaccination threatens to create a climate in which the unvaccinated are deprived of fundamental human rights. Church leaders should speak out against that dangerous attitude. Remember: the Vatican has clearly taught that vaccination must be voluntary. There can be no justification for treating the unvaccinated with contempt.

3) The Church must work for change.

Whether or not we can reach accord on the morality of the Covid vaccines, Catholics should all agree on the immorality of using fetal tissues, acquired from abortions, for commercial purposes. The Vatican has consistently taught that even when the use of tainted vaccines can be justified, those who accept vaccination have a moral obligation to speak out, to press for the introduction of vaccines developed by moral means.

Pope Francis has met twice in the past year with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, we are reliably informed. Did the Pontiff seize the opportunity to press Bourla on this issue—to insist the Pfizer should change its production system to eliminate the moral obloquy? Unfortunately there is no evidence that he did.

Nor is the Pope alone in his silence. Scores of American bishops have issued strong endorsements of vaccination, and even in many cases mandated vaccination for their diocesan clergy and employees. If any of those same bishops have issued equally strong calls for a change in the process of vaccine development, I have missed them. And so the Church has missed another opportunity to promote the Gospel of Life.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: visions - Jan. 20, 2022 1:23 PM ET USA

    By separating the it’s sacrum from the emperor’s it’s publicum he (Jesus) created the space of freedom of conscience where every power ends, even that of the Roman God-emperor, who thereby becomes a purely human emperor and changes into the beast of the Apocalypse when he nevertheless wants to remain God and denies in inviolable space of conscience ………For this limitation Jesus went to his death; ……..Christianity begins not with a revolutionary but with a martyr. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 19, 2022 9:28 PM ET USA

    Besides the great points you make, it's hard to see any good reasons why the current political and ecclesiastical powers are still dead silent about the obvious benefit of natural immunity of the large, and ever growing, numbers of those who got the virus and recovered.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jan. 19, 2022 8:55 PM ET USA

    The Church’s leaders have missed not only this chance to advance the Gospel of Life, but every chance to advance the Gospel, period. They could have explained how the Catholic Faith has enabled people through the ages live courageously through dangerous times. How many suicides might have been prevented if priests and bishops had only reminded people to be brave, focus on helping their neighbors, and leave the rest to God?