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The English bishops’ pre-emptive surrender on Covid vaccine

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 31, 2020

The English Catholic bishops have surrendered, before the battle has even really begun. Worse, they have given up something that was not theirs to give. They have surrendered the rights of the faithful.

In a statement that purports to give “The Catholic position on vaccination,” the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has asserted that Catholics have “a prima facie duty to be vaccinated” and a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the sake of others.”

Count on it: When a Covid vaccine becomes available, this statement by the English bishops will be quoted by zealous lawmakers campaigning to make the vaccine mandatory—and thus to deprive the English people of the freedom to make their own medical decisions for themselves and for their children.

In fact the bishops’ statement itself is clearly an argument in favor of mandatory vaccination, and to rally Catholics to that cause. In a release accompanying the statement the bishops’ conference states that its goal is “to encourage Catholics to commit to protecting the most vulnerable in society”—by vaccination, naturally.

(Just by the way, this statement is signed by Bishops Paul Mason and John Sherrington, who are identified as “Lead Bishop for Healthcare” and “Lead Bishop for Life Issues.” I don’t know what a “lead bishop” is. I always thought that a bishop is ordained for service in a diocese rather than a public-policy field.)

There is no Covid vaccine currently available, of course, so this statement is preparing the ground in advance: clearing away possible opposition before the inevitable rush to vaccinate.

But wait. Some of the vaccines currently being developed are derived from fetal cells obtained in abortions. Are the English bishops ignoring the ethical questions involved? Not quite. The document concedes: “The Church is opposed to the production of vaccines using tissue derived from aborted fetuses, and we acknowledge the distress many Catholics experience when faced with a choice of not vaccinating their child or seeming to be complicit in abortion.”

The “distress” that “some” Catholics experience: that’s a nice way of minimizing the gravity of a real moral problem. But—you can feel the “but” coming, can’t you—the English bishops aren’t going to let that moral problem deter them. The statement goes on:

Nevertheless, the Church teaches that the paramount importance of the health of a child and other vulnerable persons could permit parents to use a vaccine which was in the past developed using these diploid cell lines.

So the “paramount importance” of vaccination outweighs the “distress” that “some” Catholics might feel. Even if the first Covid vaccine that emerges from the current competition is unethically derived, the logic of the English bishops insists that we accept it.

In reaching that conclusion the bishops’ statement cites a 2005 directive from the Pontifical Academy for Life, which said that “all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience.” But they neglected another sentence from that same Vatican document, in which the Pontifical Academy said that “there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.”

The way to “make life difficult” for unethical pharmaceutical corporations is to fight valiantly against the development and approval of any vaccine developed from fetal cell lines. As I explained several weeks ago, the time to object to unethical vaccines is now, before any vaccine is approved for use. By signaling so clearly that they will support the use of even an unethical vaccine, the English bishops have surrendered before that battle begins in earnest.

Worse, the bishops’ statement undercuts the witness of those Catholics (and non-Catholics) who will refuse an unethical vaccine. The Pontifical Academy had acknowledged the evangelical value of that witness in 2005. More recently, Helen Watt of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre explained:

Even if there is no absolute duty to boycott vaccines produced via existing foetal cell-lines—this is a matter for individual conscience and there will often be weighty reasons against it—some will feel, whether rightly or wrongly, called to a boycott even if no alternative vaccine is available to them.

If a Covid vaccine developed from fetal cell lines is developed, approved, and mandated in the United Kingdom, consider the position of the Catholics who resist the mandate, in light of the bishops’ statement. They will now be told that they are simply wrong: that the Catholic Church does not support their ethical choice. They will be ordered by the government to do something they consider morally repugnant, and their bishops will support that mandate.

And by the way, this entire argument presupposes that a Covid vaccine will work effectively to prevent the disease. Since the coronavirus acts much like a flu, and flu vaccines are notoriously unable to guarantee immunity, there is ample reason for skepticism on that score. Are the bishops saying that good Catholics should take the vaccine even if it might not work? And what about undesirable side-effects? Are Catholics morally bound to take a vaccine—and give their young children a vaccine—even if it is potentially harmful and not certainly effective?

Then again, we cannot expect Catholic bishops to advise us on the efficacy of vaccines or their potential side-effects. Catholic bishops are not experts on medical questions. Which is precisely why Catholic bishops should issue clear guidance on moral questions—fight the development and use of unethical vaccines—and leave medical questions to the doctors, the laity, and their informed consciences.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: phil L - Aug. 03, 2020 9:13 AM ET USA

    Here are a couple of analyses of the potential vaccines: There is some debate, specifically on whether the Moderna vaccine is ethically derived:

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Aug. 01, 2020 1:06 PM ET USA

    Well said! This is another example of not only the Bishops, but even those higher up who are making popular causes and politics their priority. What Happened to the shepherds helping us to get to Salvation?

  • Posted by: fatheratchley - Aug. 01, 2020 5:15 AM ET USA

    My take exactly, Phil. One of the first principles regarding medicine is "do no harm!" To strong-arm believers into submitting to vaccines that could cause harm, especially in this day of suspicion and fear mongering, is, to me, unconscionable. Fr. Jon Atchley

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Jul. 31, 2020 11:59 PM ET USA

    Phil, when you speak of bishops limiting themselves to moral questions and reference the aborted cell lines, you seem to deliberately omit the legitimate view that because of the way vaccines protect people on a population/epidemiological level, there can be a moral obligation to receive a vaccine for a serious illness. I support both avoiding unethical vaccines and requiring, for the common good, vaccinations for serious illnesses using ethically developed vaccines. The bishops can too.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Jul. 31, 2020 11:43 PM ET USA

    Do we know that any of the vaccines under development in the US, use fetal cell tissue from abortions?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 31, 2020 9:41 PM ET USA

    It appears that Judas is still betraying his Lord. I pray the other disciples reaffirm their belief in God and use their talents to win souls for Christ instead of performing public sacrifices for the state.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jul. 31, 2020 5:13 PM ET USA

    This is all so obvious it is embarrassing that it has to be said. Any bets on whether the US bishops will refuse to endorse mandatory vaccination or defend our moral liberty in any way?