Sam Sawyer, S.J. March 03, 2021
(CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

Why are some bishops of the Catholic Church telling Catholics to avoid the newly approved Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine? Why did some U.S. Catholic leaders rush to issue warnings about this vaccine even though the Vatican has already said that it can be morally acceptable to receive it? Most importantly, why did these statements not start, as would be entirely compatible with Catholic moral teaching and the Vatican guidance, with a summary that said: “All of these vaccines are safe, effective and morally acceptable under present circumstances, even if not perfect. Solidarity, especially with those at increased risk from Covid-19, calls us to cooperate in getting as many people vaccinated as soon as we can”?

Caveats, of course, must follow immediately: The actual statements were more nuanced than the headlines; the statements in question were issued by individual dioceses and chairs of committees at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other bishops and dioceses have not universally adopted this approach; and the statements, properly understood, only counsel avoidance of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine relative to other options.

Nonetheless, the headlines these statements drew make the risk and cost of such statements clear: “Covid-19 Vaccines Draw Warnings From Some Catholic Bishops”; “Catholic Archdiocese Bans COVID Vaccine Over Tenuous Link to Abortion”; “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says to avoid Johnson & Johnson vaccine if possible.” Compare the impression those headlines give with the Vatican guidance on this issue: “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” (emphasis in original).

Recent statements from some U.S. bishops, properly understood, only counsel avoidance of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine relative to other options.

If you have been following these issues closely and are carefully focused on the caveats, then you already know how to explain the nuance that is missing from most of the headlines. (The corollary, of course, is that if—like most Catholics—you are not thoroughly well-versed on the technicalities of these issues, you are more likely to just be confused.) There is a moral difference between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which only used cell lines derived decades ago from abortions for tests during their development process, and the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses such cell lines as part of its production. That difference means that the new vaccine is less remotely connected to the evil of abortion than other currently approved vaccines—though, as the Vatican guidance makes clear, still morally acceptable when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines are not available.

There is no fundamental disagreement between the Vatican’s guidance and the recent statements within the U.S. church on the underlying moral teaching, and certainly no formal theological error in any of them. Instead, the confusion around this recent vaccine guidance arises from differing priorities given to the various parts of the moral calculus outlined in the Vatican’s guidance, combined with what seems to be a pastorally irresponsible failure to plan for the predictable ways a Catholic recommendation to “avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine” would be covered and communicated in the secular press.

It is worth unpacking both those differences in priorities and the pastoral failure in communications, since they will continue to be challenges for the church regarding the vaccines and pandemic, and in offering public moral guidance to Catholics on any contentious issue. There are three key points to recognize.

Some public statements by U.S. bishops reflect a prioritization of formal theological distinctions over easily understood guidance on realistic, practical choices.

First: These statements reflect a prioritization of formal theological distinctions and avoidance of potential moral error over easily understood guidance on realistic, practical choices.

As stated earlier, it is true that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less morally remote from the evil of abortion than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. It is therefore also true that, in a situation where one faced with an equal choice between those options, it would be better to choose a vaccine that is more remote from the evil of abortion. This is a standard Catholic analysis about degrees of moral cooperation, and it reflects the fact that, all else being equal, benefitting even remotely from an evil act could tend to encourage rather than discourage future evil acts. The hypothetical here runs something like: If we do not resist dependence on abortion-derived cell lines to produce vaccines so far as we are able, that could help legitimate future abortions from which such benefits might be derived.

But this is a fairly remote hypothetical, not an active risk—the cell lines in question were derived from abortions in the 1970s and ’80s, and those abortions were not intended for the purpose of creating the cell lines. Nor does taking a vaccine today directly encourage the derivation of new cell lines or new abortions. These hypothetical risks must be weighed against the present, actual risk of slowing vaccinations and delaying herd immunity during a pandemic that is causing real deaths right now.

Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is easier to store than other options and can be administered in a single dose, it will be especially useful in vaccinating underserved populations.

Further, since the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still morally acceptable in the absence of alternatives, one would only be at moral fault for choosing the vaccine if other options were available to you. (By the same logic, if there were an equally available vaccine that hadn’t even been tested with compromised cell lines, it would be morally preferable even to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.) But most people cannot easily get vaccine appointments in the first place, much less choose between different vaccines. So attempting to avoid the marginally worse but still morally acceptable vaccine option, as these statements suggest, is likely to make it more difficult for people to get vaccinated at all.

Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is easier to store than the Pfizer and Moderna options and can be administered in a single dose, it will be especially useful in vaccinating underserved and hard-to-reach populations, including those in rural areas or those who would have significant trouble returning for a second dose. So the practical costs of additional moral anxiety about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are likely to be borne disproportionately by people who are already marginalized.

All of these vaccines are safe, effective and morally acceptable under present circumstances, even if not perfect.

Second: These statements are more focused on abortion as a front in the culture war than they are on the common good during the pandemic.

The Vatican guidance on these questions, after four points focused on the moral analysis of the vaccines’ remote connections to abortion, adds as its fifth point that “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.” Someone who refuses vaccination for reasons of conscience “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”

But the phrase “common good,” or even overall encouragement to get vaccinated at all, is absent from the Archdiocese of New Orleans statement, which is focused only on understanding how the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worse than the other options with regard to its connection to abortion. Nor does the statement anywhere explicitly affirm that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally acceptable in the absence of other alternatives.

Far more rhetorical emphasis is given to avoiding the danger of even the most remote connection to the evil of abortion than to the active danger of an uncontrolled pandemic.

The U.S.C.C.B. committee chairs’ statement is significantly better in this regard, as it explicitly quotes the Vatican guidance affirming that the Covid-19 vaccines are morally acceptable, then concludes with an affirmation “that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.” But while it encourages significant moral caution about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it does not acknowledge how avoidance of a morally acceptable vaccine could itself perpetuate the risk of infection to others.

To be clear, there are no formal theological errors in these statements—but far more of their rhetorical emphasis is given to avoiding the danger of even the most remote connection to the evil of abortion than to the active danger of an uncontrolled pandemic. They seem to prioritize avoidance of any potential lack of clarity about abortion over encouraging cooperation with efforts to reduce the damage of the pandemic.

Third: These statements conveyed formal church teaching but did not plan for how it was likely to be received.

It is entirely predictable that statements from Catholic bishops about moral concerns regarding a newly approved Covid-19 vaccine will be reported and perceived as a blanket Catholic judgment on the morality of the vaccine itself. Perhaps some fault lies with readers who only scan (sometimes misleading) headlines or who skip past conditionals such as “if less morally objectionable vaccines are equally available”—but so too can those issuing the statements be faulted for not doing everything in their power to head off such misunderstandings in advance.

While these misunderstandings cannot be entirely avoided, they can be significantly mitigated. One obvious—and missed—opportunity is simply to begin by affirming what Catholics are encouraged to do: to seek out opportunities to get vaccinated as soon as possible in order to help bring the pandemic under control and protect the vulnerable.

As I have argued previously regarding the abuse crisis and church interventions in politics, these rhetorical misses are significant pastoral failures. They leave the faithful confused, anxious and disedified, and they squander the increasingly slim reserves of credibility that the church’s leadership still holds.

It is possible for the church and for Catholic leaders to do better. The starting point is simply to affirm the most important truths we want people to walk away with, rather than giving undue emphasis to technical moral distinctions. As this article was being prepared for publication, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego issued a statement that did exactly that:

But on the concrete moral and pastoral question of receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson or Astra-Zeneca vaccines, I want to make clear to the Catholic communities of San Diego and Imperial Counties that in 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.

How different would our reception of cautions concerning the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been if all the statements began with that clear statement? To repeat: All of these vaccines are safe, effective and morally acceptable under present circumstances, even if not perfect. And solidarity, especially with those at increased risk from Covid-19, calls us to cooperate in getting as many people vaccinated as soon as we can.

Update (Mar. 4, 2021, 3:45 pm): Two days after the U.S.C.C.B committee chairs’ statement referenced above, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, chairman of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Doctrine, spoke about vaccination in a brief YouTube video, in which he started by affirming the moral acceptability of all the available vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and again described getting vaccinated as an act of charity that serves the common good.

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