Archbishop welcomes CDF statement on COVID vaccines

As Catholics around the world have wondered about the moral acceptability or otherwise of COVID vaccines ultimately sourced from aborted unborn children, the Vatican's top doctrinal watchdog - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - has reassured the faithful that they may receive them without morally cooperating with the killing of the children from whom they are sourced.

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP Fisher meets Pope Francis at the Vatican. The Archbishop, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has welcomed the CDF’s advice issued on 21 December 2020 on the moral acceptability of COVID vaccines. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has welcomed the Vatican’s 21 December statement stating that when alternative vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses

“The CDF note confirms previous teaching on this matter and the position taken by Bishops Conferences around the world,” Archbishop Fisher said in a statement issued the day after the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s top doctrinal and moral theological body.

“In particular it exhorts researchers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and governments to pursue ethically uncompromised vaccines, and not to use cell-lines derived from aborted fetuses,” he said.

Preferential option for ethically-produced vaccines

Archbishop Fisher emphasised that the CDF document supports patients preferring ethically-uncompromised vaccines over ethically-compromised ones where they have a choice.

“For us in Australia that means preferring the Novavax or Pfizer vaccines (or the Moderna vaccine if it becomes available here) over the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.

However, he added, “were only the AstraZeneca vaccine available, people could choose to use it in good faith as their connection (today) to the abortion (in the 1970s) that led to the foetal cell-line used in the vaccine is so remote.

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared for distribution in the US. Photo: CNS, Paul Sancya, Pool via Reuters

Vaccination must be voluntary

“Though the Church is in general pro-vaccination, the CDF document also emphasised that, like other medical treatments, COVID vaccination must be voluntary. Punishing or discriminating against non-users would itself be unethical.

“The Church continues to encourage the developed world to ensure the availability of the vaccine to people in the developing world. For us in Australia that means we should be buying enough doses of the good vaccines to distribute to our poorer Pacific neighbours as well as our own citizens.

“I am grateful for these clarifications. The document offers some clear thinking to help with the ethical formation of medical researchers, manufacturers and professionals, as well as informing our decisions as patients. My own GP recently said to me that when the vaccines are available in Australia he presumed I would want the Novavax, Pfizer or Moderna one: I said “yes please”.

Use is not an ethical endorsement

However, the Vatican statement stated that “the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.

“Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated,” it added in the note published on 21 December.

The note “on the morality of using some anti-COVID-19 vaccines” had been reviewed by Pope Francis on  17 December and he ordered its publication, the doctrinal office said.

Outgoing US Vice President Mike Pence receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the White House in Washington on 18 December 2020. Photo: CNS, Cheriss May, Reuters

Statement responds to global clarification requests

As vaccines against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are being distributed in some parts of the world, the doctrinal office said it has been receiving requests for guidance regarding the use of vaccines which, “in the course of research and production, employed cell lines drawn from tissue obtained from two abortions that occurred in the last century.”

The “diverse and sometimes conflicting pronouncements in the mass media by bishops, Catholic associations, and experts have raised questions about the morality of the use of these vaccines,” the congregation said.

Even though there are already some notes and instructions by the doctrinal office and the Pontifical Academy for Life regarding vaccines prepared from such cell lines, it said, “this congregation desires to offer some indications for clarification of this matter.”

Degrees of cooperation with evil

The Catholic Church teaches that there are differing degrees of responsibility of cooperation with evil. That means that the responsibility of those who make the decision to use cell lines of illicit origin is not the same as those “who have no voice in such a decision,” the doctrinal office said, quoting from its 2008 instruction, “Dignitas Personae.”

“When ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available – e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated – it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the doctrinal congregation wrote in the new note.

Using these vaccines is morally licit when the “passive material cooperation” with the evil of an abortion “from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote.”

Doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are seen in boxes as preparations are made to distribute themin the US. Photo: CNS, Paul Sancya, Pool via Reuters

A moral duty

“The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent – in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19,” it said.

Therefore, in such a case, “all vaccinations recognised as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion,” it said.

However, the doctrinal congregation emphasised that “the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, 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.”

CDF urges pharmaceuticals to produce ethically-sourced vaccines

The congregation repeated the Vatican’s call on pharmaceutical companies and governmental agencies to produce, approve and distribute ethically acceptable vaccines, that is, without using morally compromised cell lines at all.

The doctrinal office also said that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

From an ethical point of view, “the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good,” it added.

A health care worker vaccinates a man against COVID-19 in Jerusalem on 21 December, 2020. The Vatican’s doctrinal office said it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses when alternative vaccines are not made available. Photo: CNS, Ammar Awad, Reuters

Common good also a factor

If there are no other means to stop or prevent an epidemic, the congregation said, “the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

Those who wish, for “reasons of conscience,” to refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission” of the virus.

They must avoid putting at risk the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and who are the most vulnerable, it said.

Lastly, the congregation said it is “a moral imperative for the pharmaceutical industry, governments and international organisations to ensure that vaccines, which are effective and safe from a medical point of view, as well as ethically acceptable, are also accessible to the poorest countries in a manner that is not costly for them.”

Otherwise, this lack of access would become yet another sign of discrimination and injustice “that condemns poor countries to continue living in health, economic and social poverty.”

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