A Catholic Take on Vaccinations
May 13, 2021
I remember calling my grandmother in May of 2020 to tell her I wouldn’t be coming home for the summer as I usually do. COVID-19 was still rampant throughout the country and flying across the country on an airplane, potentially exposing myself and my grandmother to the virus, was too much of a risk. She understood but was of course still saddened by the reality. “Well, Elaine,” she told me, “I’ll just keep praying for the vaccines, so I can see you again soon.” Fast forward to a year later – my grandmother and I have both been vaccinated, and the Summer 2021 visit is on.
Deciding to get vaccinated was an easy decision for me, not only because I want to visit my grandmother and other relatives, but because I believe it is the right thing to do in accordance with my Catholic faith. However, as vaccines have become more prevalent, I have learned that some fellow Catholic friends are not as eager to be vaccinated. In my conversations with these people, three themes of Catholic Social Teaching—a set of seven principles that help Catholics apply our faith to our everyday lives—have been most prevalent. Ever since I was first introduced to these tenets in high school, I have turned to them to help me navigate decisions such as how to vote, what career to choose, and where to donate money.
There are many resources dedicated to explaining the science of vaccines and secular motivations for vaccinations, but very few address religious motivations and concerns. In this piece, I would like to lay out three of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching as they apply to vaccinations, as well as address one major concern for Catholics.
And now the concern: “But, Elaine! The vaccines are tied to abortions!” Yes, all of the COVID vaccines currently on the market either were tested (Pfizer and Moderna) or developed (Janssen and AstraZeneca) using embryonic stem cells from an aborted fetus. This process is not new, as many other vaccines were created from the same or similar cell lines, such as the vaccines for polio, rabies, hepatitis-A, shingles, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and varicella/chicken pox (Variax). However, there are a few other details we need to be aware of. First, the aborted tissue in question is from 1985, and the embryonic stem cells used are derived from a cell line hundreds of generations removed from the original fetus. Secondly, no aborted cells or tissue are in the vaccine. The Catholic Church has designated this as a “remote” connection, and therefore it does not make us complicit in the abortion.
Even though the vaccines have ties to abortion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as well as Pope Francis himself, have clearly iterated that we are “morally obligated” to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to its ability to protect life in the here and now. Since we don’t have effective and ethical alternatives, the USCCB has made it clear that we have a duty “to protect ourselves, and to pursue the common good” despite the fact many vaccines (COVID and otherwise) are created using unethical cell lines.
For me, the guarantee of the vaccine to protect life outweighed the cons: ties to abortion, side effects, and the minute potential for risks such as blood clots. I trusted my own instinct, and the wisdom of our church’s leaders, and received my vaccine without qualms.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’m in the majority among Catholics. According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), 68% of Catholics have been vaccinated or are planning on being vaccinated. Catholics are readily receiving the vaccine at a greater rate than the American public in general (55% receiving). I am encouraged to see so many Catholics putting Catholic Social Teaching into action, and I believe we need to use these themes to encourage even more people to get vaccinated to reach the immunization levels we need to achieve herd immunity.
As part of IFYC’s Alumni Vaccine Network, I am planning to take the themes of this piece on the road and speak at various in-person and virtual Catholic services. Please feel free to share this article and use the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching to help encourage those who might be hesitant to get vaccinated. As Pope Francis encourages us, “We must make this ethical decision, for ourselves, and others.”
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