Theologian: Catholics must also consider the 'justice' of COVID-19 vaccine

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Catholic bishops and prominent theologians and ethicists say that although there is not an obligation to receive a COVID vaccine, Catholics should consider the strong moral argument in favor of doing so.

Regarding moral concerns over the connection of COVID vaccines to immoral acts, one theologian told CNA that Catholics must also consider the "justice" of being vaccinated to protect their neighbor during a pandemic.

"We do a lot of virtue signaling in this country, but you can't just virtue signal, you have to act in a way where all the other virtues are realized, including the virtue of justice," said Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, OP, a professor of biology and theology at Providence College, in an interview with CNA on Thursday.

"If you are at risk, or you have people that you live with or work with that are at risk, you can see how the calculus will move in favor of using the vaccines," he told CNA.

CNA spoke with Fr. Austriaco as Catholic bishops and scholars have recently released statements - sometimes at variance with each other -  on the morality of the COVID-19 vaccines. 

At issue is the vaccines' use of cell lines believed to be derived from a baby aborted in the 1970s, and the degree of connection that each COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in the U.S. possesses to these cell lines - whether in design, production, testing, or in all phases. 

The U.S. bishops' conference has agreed with the Vatican that Catholics can receive any of the available vaccines, but should consider ones with lesser connections to the controversial cell lines - if in fact they have a choice between vaccines. 

Fr. Austriaco recently signed on to a letter by Catholic scholars arguing that each of the vaccines' level of connection to abortion from decades ago is so remote that they can be considered of equal morality on that issue. Furthermore, they said, Catholics must consider the arguments that receiving vaccinations will promote public health during a pandemic. 

Meanwhile, other Catholic women signed a joint statement opposing the reception of any "abortion-tainted vaccines," arguing that statements from bishops and the Vatican revealed "an incomplete assessment of the science of vaccination and immunology."

In a Thursday statement, Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said that the Church's teaching is clear "that people may discern in conscience to use any of the ethically problematic vaccines offered in the United States, because no good alternatives are available to ones that utilize abortion-derived cell lines in one or more phases of production and testing." 

"No one accepting the vaccines had any meaningful role in the abortions that were exploited to create abortion-derived cell lines," Meaney said, adding that Catholics should "express their opposition to the use of abortion-derived cell lines and to call for alternatives as quickly as possible." 

Ultimately, Fr. Austriaco told CNA, the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States are all acceptable for Catholics to use - but the decision by each Catholic to receive the vaccine requires discernment and consideration of all the teachings of the Church. These teachings include not only remote cooperation with evil, he said, but "justice" in caring for the health of neighbors.

Practicing virtue is complex and requires discernment on a case-by-case basis, Austriaco said, rebuting notions that his position is "relativist."  

Regarding the connection of the vaccines to abortion, he said that "with this category of moral acts, where you are benefiting from historical evil without perpetuating future evil," a Catholic's decision on whether or not to receive the vaccine "becomes a little bit more entangled. And many people want it black and white." 

Amid the statements by Catholics on the morality of vaccines, public figures have also appeared in campaigns encouraging Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Fr. Austriaco praised the bipartisan public service announcements by former presidents, saying that he is "grateful" to see their campaign. "Really this should be a bipartisan, apolitical effort," he said. 

Several American presidents released public service announcements on Thursday urging Americans to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, when vaccines become available to them. 

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In a campaign for the Ad Council, former Presidents Barack Obama (D), George W. Bush (R), Bill Clinton (D) and Jimmy Carter (D), as well as former first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Rosalynn Carter, are pictured receiving COVID-19 vaccines. 

Former President Donald Trump and former first lady Melania Trump do not appear in the ad. 

The Associated Press reported that Trump was still in office when the former presidents' project started in December. Trump also did not attend President Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, when Obama, Bush and Clinton filmed an ad together in person. The Trumps were reportedly vaccinated in private before the 45th president left office in January. 

In one ad, the former presidents characterized getting vaccinated as the best way to end the pandemic. In another ad filmed at Arlington National Cemetery on the day of Biden's inauguration, Obama, Bush, and Clinton reiterated their call for Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. 

Currently, three vaccines against COVID-19 have been approved for use in the United States. 

The COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States were either tested or produced utilizing cell lines derived from the remains of a deceased unborn child in what may have been an abortion.

Two of the vaccines - produced by Moderna and Pfizer - did not directly use the cell lines in the design and production phases, but some laboratory tests did use those controversial cell lines. Meanwhile, the latest vaccine to be approved for use in the U.S. - from Johnson & Johnson - did utilize the cell lines in all three phases.

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However, while the Church teaches that abortion is an intrinisic evil, Catholic theologians have argued that the connection to abortion of each of the vaccines is remote and is not ongoing.

The chair of the U.S. bishops' doctrine committee, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and the bishops' pro-life committee chair, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, said that while all three vaccines are morally acceptable to use, Catholics should seek the those "with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines."

"Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna's vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson's," the bishops said in a statement released earlier this month.

Catholics must advocate against the use of the controversial cell lines, they said, adding that "we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good."

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