The long-awaited anti-COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out1. It is presumed that they have been tested under the usual rigorous conditions, since they have been declared safe by the appropriate medical and governmental authorities. Only those suitably qualified and professionally recognized as such can judge their safety. The rest, including moral theologians, are at the mercy of their judgement. However, since the vaccines on offer are considered by many faithful Catholics to be ethically compromised2 because of the use of foetal stem-cells either in their production and/or in their testing, this theologian at least has been asked by a number conscientious faithful: is there a moral duty to take the vaccines considering the nature of the pandemic and its consequences, personal, social, and economic?
After much reflection, I came to the conclusion that: Yes, there is a duty – under certain conditions. Since there is no alternative at present,3 the COVID-19 vaccines on offer (at least in the EU and UK) are considered to be morally licit in the judgment of most theologians and Church authorities, including the CDF, even though most consider them to be morally compromised. This judgement is based on the traditional, Catholic moral distinction between formal and material co-operation in evil actions. The former is always illicit; the latter may be allowed, provided certain conditions are met, above all, the existence of a proportionate reason. In the case of the present vaccines, they are judged to amount to passive, remote, material co-operation in the evil of an abortion undertaken years ago, and so can be allowed, since the nature of the present pandemic is judged to be a proportionate reason. There is one proviso: that some form of protest is made at the use of foetal stem-cells. Otherwise, there is the danger of appearing to condone the use of foetal tissue from aborted babies, which is increasingly widespread in biomedical experimentation today.
To say that an action is licit, does not mean that anyone has any obligation to so act. Most vaccines are taken to protect oneself from an infection. As in any other decision, a prudential choice has to be made, taking one’s particular circumstances into consideration. For some, vaccines should be taken only after consultation with one’s GP, if there is a serious risk due to a person’s underlying condition or to the child in the womb. What is paramount here is the primacy of conscience, the voice of God echoing in our heart, when making the decision.
Some may be convinced in conscience that on ethical grounds they should not take the vaccine. That conviction would normally be justified with regard to those vaccines which are taken primarily to protect one’s own health from seriously disabling or life-threatening infections. However, COVID-19 (like other infectious diseases) is not only a threat to one’s own health and life, but to that of others – as well as indirectly causing havoc to the psychological, social, cultural, and economic well-being of society and its future.
Given the highly contagious and potentially lethal nature of the pandemic, allowing oneself to be vaccinated seems to this writer to amount to a duty to the common good. This applies not only to those, who are in immediate contact with the particularly vulnerable, such as the sick or the aged, or to those who provide essential public services, but to all adults.
Even so, some who have committed their lives to the pro-life movement have expressed a conscientious objection to taking the vaccines. The fact that experiments to produce other vaccines and therapies continue to use stem-cells from aborted children could persuade a pro-life protagonist to refuse on conscience grounds even vaccines judged morally licit by Church authorities, and so thereby making a public protest. One is reminded of Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter, whose “conscience prevailed over the path of least resistance”. If protests by animal-rights protagonists to the use of animal tallow in the production of the new plastic currency forced the UK Government to find alternative material, pro-life activists can justifiably protest by way of refusal to use vaccines made from, or tested on, tissue from a child in his or her embryonic state.
On the other hand, a medical professional might refuse to take the vaccine based on his or her serious doubts about the validity of the testing. In parenthesis, one should not forget that the rush to produce a vaccine can hardly have been entirely altruistic. Pharmaceutical companies can expect unforeseen financial gain. Governments under intense political and economic pressure to end the pandemic could be tempted to tone down their specific duty of oversight.
That said, anyone who conscientiously refuses vaccination on either ethical or professional grounds has an even more serious obligation strictly to observe all COVID-19 regulations, if necessary self-isolating, depending on the danger to others they may pose.
Legislation to compel citizens to be vaccinated is being debated. Compulsory vaccination would amount to undue intervention by the State in matters that are fundamentally the responsibility of free persons – in a word a form of soft totalitarianism introduced under the pretext of a pandemic. Apart from any other consideration, the needed exceptions (in line with either medical or ethical grounds for refusing the vaccine) would be impossible to define legally in any way that would be just or fair, given the complexity of human situations.
The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating (loss of life, depression, suicide, abuse within families, unemployment, missed educational opportunities, etc.), leaving long-term economic and psychological damage in its wake. And while the media has kept us informed during the stages of the pandemic, the unrelenting obsession with COVID-19 by the media has added to the psychological burden of the crisis. Given the increasing sense of panic, even hysteria, a majority could easily be persuaded to take such radical measures, namely compulsory vaccination, which, apart from criminalizing the innocent (those who refuse on conscience grounds), would in the long term do untold damage to our already fragile Western democracy. People are so desperate to end the pandemic that they could be willing to turn a blind eye to the means used. The consequences of letting the end justify the means are always fatal.
On February 8 last, the President of the Pontifical Commission of the Vatican City State, “having obtained the advice of Superior Authority,” presumably the Pope, issued a Decree with regard matters pertaining to public health in an emergency. The Decree stipulates various regulations that come into effect in the case of a worldwide pandemic, such as we have at present. Most of the regulations are no different to those in place in most countries to combat COVID-19.
But the Decree also indicates that, should compulsory vaccination be needed, then those who refuse to be vaccinated without a medical reason could face serious penalties. The penalties are not spelt-out in detail, apart from indicating that the penalty would be proportionate to the delict. However, the Decree declares that those who refuse without a medical reason would be subject to an earlier regulation [dated November 18, 2011], which, in art. 6, provides for sanctions up to and including dismissal from employment in case of non-compliance with similar regulations. The Decree itself underlines the need to respect the human rights of all who work in, or are resident in, Vatican City State, which, presumably. would include those who refuse to be vaccinated on grounds of conscience for either of the two reasons mentioned above.
It should be remembered that Vatican City State is the smallest in the world. Its citizens, inhabitants, and those who work there, are in close proximity to each other, so that the respective authorities could judge it reasonable and proportionate to make vaccination compulsory.
In response to an outcry on social media, a clarification of the Decree was issued today by the same authority to the effect that there would be no punishment for those who refused the vaccine. It denied that the Decree was meant to be “sanctioning or punitive” and said that “freedom of individual choice” was important and would be respected. However, it also added that that certain jobs may require vaccination. And that is understandable. If they cannot be relocated to another job, and are dismissed, then they should retain the right to return to their workplace, once the pandemic is over. Such would also applies equally to those working in corporations or companies (e.g. airlines or private hospitals), the nature of which would make vaccination compulsory, and so face dismissal. Justice demands that a dismissal would be temporary. In the case of those who cannot take the vaccine, or refuse on medical or conscientious grounds, then they have a duty to take all the other precautions more stringently than usual to avoid spreading the virus.
(Note: The author, who lives in a Religious community of mostly senior clerics, decided to take the vaccine last Thursday as a duty of care to his confreres, after having first consulted with his own doctor, and the doctor in charge of administrating the vaccine, with regard to various serious medical underlying condition, both of whom agreed that he should take the anti-COVID-19 vaccine. The opinions here are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of CWR or Ignatius Press staff.)
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