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Charles Binkley (@CharlesBinkley) is the director of Bioethics and David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs, both at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.
Is it better to do good or avoid evil?
This isn’t just a question to get a first-year college ethics class all fired up.
In fact, in the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed an awkward, consequential split among Catholic bishops in the United States about how best to answer this question when considering the morality of using a COVID-19 vaccine.
The consistent message from Pope Francis, the Vatican, and many U.S. bishops has been the same: Do good, love your neighbor, and get vaccinated.
But, in the last week, several bishops in places ranging from New Orleans to North Dakota to California sent a different message: Avoid the evil of complicity in abortion by avoiding the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
What happened here, and what is its ethical significance?
In January, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of doing good when he said, "I believe that, morally, everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others."
In December, a statement from the Vatican’s top doctrinal office took note of the fact that cell lines derived from aborted fetuses were used in the testing or development of all the COVID-19 vaccines and said: “It is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”
The Vatican statement noted concerns about such cell lines but pointed to the moral priority of responding to the “uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent” (i.e., the COVID-19 virus) and affirmed the importance of vaccination in light of the “duty to protect one's own health...[and]...the duty to pursue the common good.”
In effect, in this statement the Vatican’s top doctrinal office echoed Pope Francis by emphasizing the good to be done for oneself and one’s community by being vaccinated. The statement rejected arguments that Catholics should choose not to be vaccinated in order to avoid complicity in the evil of abortion.
But someone at the Archdiocese of New Orleans thought otherwise. In a brief statement on February 26, the archdiocese said that the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine used problematic fetal cell lines in its testing, development, and production and thus was “morally compromised.” If possible, the archdiocese advised, Catholics should not use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The New Orleans statement departed from the clear Vatican position that all COVID-19 vaccines are “morally acceptable.” The statement also prompted similar statements from Catholic dioceses around the country. In the space of several days, the clear Catholic messaging around vaccines went from do good, love your neighbor, and get vaccinated to a more muddled emphasis to avoid evil, be wary, and don’t use the wrong vaccine.
There are several problems with these statements by New Orleans and other dioceses. One is that contradictory messages are confusing for people and the lack of a single voice speaking for the Catholic Church on COVID-19 vaccinations can lead to harm. When Catholics hear a bishop advising them to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they may then refuse to be vaccinated, a decision that could lead to further death and suffering. The confusion that occurs when each region makes its own rules—New Orleans has one set of rules about vaccination, San Diego has another—has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Divergent views over wearing masks, indoor gatherings, and the need for social distancing have contributed greatly to the more than 500,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States. The bishops should heed this warning.
Another issue is that the claims the bishops are using to condemn the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are very morally tenuous. The concern of these bishops is that the fetal cell lines used to test and produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were derived from an abortion. Therefore, this line of reasoning goes, someone’s use of the vaccine could be interpreted to mean that they approved of the abortion from which the cell lines were developed (and, possibly, approved of abortion more generally).
But the causal relationship is exceedingly remote between the act of abortion and the testing and manufacture of the vaccine. Vaccine manufacturers did not facilitate an abortion in order to harvest fetal cells to make a vaccine. These cells were procured from an abortion that occurred decades ago. Furthermore, these cells are used in scientific experiments all over the world. They are scientifically validated and provide the most efficient means by which manufacturers can develop the COVID vaccines that are saving human lives. The intention of the manufacturers is to save as many lives as possible, reduce human suffering, serve the common good, and allow us to, once again, enjoy family, friends, and worship without fear for our own health or that of others. Their intention is not to support or condone abortion. Moreover, the vaccines do not contain aborted cells.
A foundational principle of Catholic moral teaching is that an evil means never justifies a good end. This principle is behind the longtime Catholic emphasis on the importance of avoiding evil. But what happens when this emphasis becomes detached from the obligation to do good and thus from a more true and complete account of the moral life? In their statements in the last weeks, several bishops incorrectly drew on this classic principle and in doing so amplified an irrelevant moral distinction while also failing to emphasize the obligation to receive the vaccine as an act of charity on behalf of oneself, one’s neighbor, and the common good. They created a moral quandary when none exists, and in doing so drew attention away from Jesus’ message of mercy and love.