Bishops across US issue split messages on Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine

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Bishops across the United States have weighed in with varied guidance for their flocks amid renewed debate over the morality of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency FDA authorization last weekend. 

While the bishops’ conference at large has said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally acceptable if Catholics have no other choice, some individual bishops have said Catholics ought to accept the first vaccine they are offered. 

And in contrast, at least one bishop has instructed his flock not to accept the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at all. 

In a March 2 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) echoed the Vatican in stating that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses when no alternative is available, but if possible, Catholics ought to choose a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available…it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,’” the bishops wrote.

The statement was signed by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who head the USCCB committees on doctrine and pro-life activities, respectively.

Bishop Rhoades has since clarified that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine “can be used in good moral conscience.”

“What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” Bishop Rhoades said in a March 4 video message. 

“It can be an act of charity that serves the common good. At the same time, as we bishops have already done, it’s really important for us to encourage development of vaccines that do not use abortion-derived cell lines. This is very important for the future.”

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In the United States, vaccines are federally allocated, and the amounts of each of the three COVID-19 vaccines available varies from state to state. Experts have said it is unlikely that patients will be able to choose which vaccine they will be able to get. 

Joseph Zalot, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that while Catholics are free to choose to wait for a more ethical vaccine— or even to not receive a vaccine at all— they must take into account the potential effects not only on their own health, but on the health of others.

For example, a healthy person accepting a COVID-19 vaccine— even Johnson & Johnson’s— is less likely to spread the virus to others, such as elderly relatives, he noted, which could constitute a proportionate reason to accept the less ethical vaccine. 

NPR reported that at least one Catholic hospital, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, had already received several hundred doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week— before the USCCB’s statement— with plans to administer them as soon as possible. 

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Zalot commented that he hopes most Catholic hospitals will have tried, as much as possible, to order the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines rather than the Johnson & Johnson. 

“However, if the J&J vaccine has already arrived, the question then becomes, ‘Which is the greater evil – issuing these vaccines knowing their ‘heightened’ connection with abortion-derived cell lines or letting them go to waste when people could greatly benefit from them?’” Zalot said. 

“As much as I personally would seek to avoid accepting the J&J vaccine, I also don’t think it would be prudent to let them go to waste.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life has said that Catholics should advocate for ethically-produced vaccines which do not use cell lines of aborted babies. Zalot noted that Catholics who do choose to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ought to inform the manufacturers of their opposition to the use of abortion-derived cell lines.

Several bishops have echoed the USCCB’s March 2 statement with statements of their own. 

The bishops of Pittsburgh, St. Augustine, and St. Louis are among those bishops who have affirmed the USCCB statement to their own flocks. 

“I have received both doses of a vaccine and have encouraged our priests to get theirs as soon as their age or risk group is able to do so. You should not delay getting your vaccine. Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are preferable. When there is no choice, you may receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta said March 3. 

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, while not prohibiting Catholics from receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if no other ethical alternative is available, advised Catholics to seek out the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines if possible.

Bishop Michael Duca of Baton Rouge also weighed in on the matter this week in a March 1 letter to the faithful.

“[M]y guidance to the faithful of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is to accept as your first choices the vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna, but if for any reasonable circumstance you are only able to receive the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, you should feel free to do so for your safety and for the common good,” Bishop Duca wrote.

Some bishops, such as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, have released statements encouraging people not to delay in accepting any vaccination available to them.

“[O]n the concrete moral and pastoral question of receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson or Astra-Zeneca the current pandemic moment, with limited vaccine options available to achieve healing for our nation and our world, it is entirely morally legitimate to receive any of these four vaccines, and to recognize, as Pope Francis has noted, that in receiving them we are truly showing love for our neighbor and our God,” McElroy wrote March 3. 

McElroy’s statement did not reference any obligation to avoid certain versions if given a choice.

Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, while echoing the USCCB and Vatican statements, similarly encouraged people to accept the vaccinations they are given. 

"When it is your turn to receive a vaccine, you can receive the one that is offered to you without moral reservation,” Deeley wrote in part March 4. 

The diocese of Syracuse, led by Bishop Douglas Lucia, said in a statement to local news that all individuals may not have the ability to pick and choose a vaccine, so “therefore what is most important is the duty to protect one’s own health and that of their neighbor by being vaccinated.”

Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri said March 4: “In the current situation of a pandemic, Catholics may in good conscience utilize any of the vaccines currently available, even those derived in an unethical manner, to protect themselves, as well as to avoid the serious risk to vulnerable persons and to society resulting from remaining unvaccinated. If a person concludes he or she cannot be vaccinated, whether for health reasons or if their own moral analysis is different from the Church, they are morally obliged to do everything they can to prevent transmission of the coronavirus and avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated.”

At least one U.S. bishop has specifically advised his flock against receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Bishop David Kagan of Bismark, North Dakota released a statement March 2 which took a harder line than the USCCB at large, effectively prohibiting Catholics in the diocese from accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

“This Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised and therefore unacceptable for any Catholic physician or health care worker to dispense and for any Catholic to receive due to its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion,” he wrote. 

“No one should use or receive this vaccine but there is no justification for any Catholic to do so.  Two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used. As always, no one is bound to receive this vaccine, but it remains an individual and informed decision.”

One other prelate, Bishop Joseph Strickland, has publicly expressed his personal opposition to receiving any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, while not prohibiting his flock from doing so. 

“I will not accept a vaccine whose existence depends on the abortion of a child, but I realize others may discern a need for immunization in these extraordinarily hard times,” Strickland said on Twitter late last year. 

Strickland has not issued a statement or letter to his flock directly addressing the issue since an April 2020 letter in which he encouraged Catholics to pray and demonstrate for ethical COVID-19 vaccines. 

Strickland has since called the situation with COVID-19 vaccines a “lost opportunity” to voice opposition to medical treatments with connections to abortion. 

“It’s not up to me to tell people whether or not to take the vaccine, but to be informed, and to make their own informed conscience decision. That’s really what the Catholic church teaches,” Strickland told local news station KETK March 3. 

The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes use of PER.C6— a proprietary cell line developed from retinal cells from a fetus aborted in 1985— in design and development, production, and lab testing.

In contrast, mRNA vaccines available from Pfizer and Moderna have an extremely remote connection to abortion in the design and testing phases, leading ethicists to judge those vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.” Similar testing is performed on many contemporary prescription and over-the-counter medications.

A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson issued a statement March 3 saying there is “no fetal tissue” in their vaccine. 

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