Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The misuse of Church authority on vaccination

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 25, 2021

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock warns his priests they should not endorse a parishioner’s request for a religious exemption from Covid vaccination requirements, because “signing off on such a ‘religious exemption’ would indicate your support for the proposition that the Catholic Church teaches that receiving the vaccine is fundamentally immoral and impermissible.”

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But isn’t there an obvious way out of that problem? The priest could write:

The Catholic Church does not teach that receiving the vaccine is fundamentally immoral and impermissible.

That would seem to satisfy the bishop’s concern, wouldn’t it? But the priest might then go on to say:

However, the Church does teach that one must not violate one’s own conscience, and my parishioner, X, believes that he cannot in good conscience take the vaccine.

In fact, in his full statement on the matter, Bishop Taylor makes that point himself, acknowledging of those who seek a religious exemption, “It may be that their conscience (well-formed or not) is telling them not to get vaccinated, and their consciences are obviously inviolable.” Exactly!

Nevertheless, in the very next sentence, Bishop Taylor continues: “But their religion is not telling them not to get vaccinated.”

Excuse me, but I’m lost. My religion—as represented here by the authority of my bishop, if I live in the Little Rock diocese—tells me that I cannot violate my conscience. If my conscience tells me that I cannot take the vaccine, then, doesn’t my religion tell me that I cannot take the vaccine? No one is suggesting that the Catholic Church bars everyone from vaccination; I am only saying (if I am seeking an exemption) that the Church tells me not to be vaccinated.

Bishop Taylor distinguishes between a “religious exemption” and a “conscientious objection.” The former is not available to Catholics, he concludes, but the latter option is still open. Not so in Chicago, where Cardinal Blase Cupich requires vaccination for all priests and employees, and threatens disciplinary action against those who resist, saying that they are guilty of “a rejection of the Church’s authentic moral teaching regarding Covid vaccines.”

Just a moment, please. For an authoritative expression of “the Church’s authentic moral teaching regarding Covid vaccines,” Cardinal Cupich points to the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—which says:

At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.

Thus Cardinal Cupich makes vaccination mandatory—citing the authority of a document that says vaccination must be voluntary.

And there is yet another important point in the CDF statement, which has been almost completely ignored by the prelates who promote vaccination. The note from the Vatican stresses that the use of abortion-tainted vaccines is morally objectionable. The use of such vaccines may be morally justifiable “if there is a grave danger,” the CDF teaches, but such use “does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.” [emphasis added]

Here the Vatican is following up on an earlier document, released in 2005 by the Pontifical Academy for Life, on the use of abortion-tainted vaccines. In that statement the Vatican emphasized the responsibility to protest the use of such vaccines and to press for alternatives:

Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available… Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human fetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.

(Did you notice the ellipsis in that quotation? Do you wonder what I am withholding? I’m glad you asked; here’s the missing sentence: “They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human fetal origin.” There, in clear language, is the Vatican’s support for the conscientious refusal to accept vaccination.)

The 2005 document, too, allowed that Catholics may use these vaccines, in cases of grave necessity, if there is no available alternative. But the Pontifical Academy insisted that such “emergency use” of a tainted vaccine comes with a moral obligation:

In any case, 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.

Perhaps I am wrong—I would be very happy to accept correction—but in all the recent statements by Catholic prelates urging the use of the Covid vaccines, I have not seen one reminding Catholics of their obligation to protest their immoral provenance—much less any practical suggestions on how we might bring pressure to bear on the pharmaceutical companies to provide ethical alternatives.

As someone who objects in conscience to the use of these vaccines, I am willing to admit that the Vatican says they can be used, in good conscience, if there is a grave necessity, if the vaccines are themselves safe, and if they are the only effective means of curbing the epidemic. (Notice, however, that those “if’s” involve medical judgments, outside the scope of Church authority.) I ask only that other Catholics acknowledge that if they invoke the Church’s most authoritative statement on that question, they should also accept the same authoritative statement in its insistence that vaccination must be voluntary, and faithful Catholics must be involved in the battle to stop the use of immorally produced vaccines.

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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  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Aug. 25, 2021 1:58 PM ET USA

    And if any bishop wants to know why once faithful Catholics are leaving their parishes, looking for greener pastures, they need only evaluate the behavior of Taylor and the absolutely reprehensible demands of Cupich. How is it that you, a layman, excels in moral theology in comparison to all the bishops who have distorted this whole Covid mess? They have become so secularized that they can't properly form issues to arrive at conclusions similar to those of Becket and More. Excellent work, Phil.