Catholic during the pandemic: freedom of conscience, or obligation to get vaccinated?
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Jesús Colina - published on 05/03/21
Can Christians be at peace and decide not to get vaccinated? How about if you get vaccinated?
If vaccines are the most efficacious instrument to avoid the spread of the virus during this pandemic, does a Catholic have the moral obligation to get vaccinated?
This is the question that many people ask themselves. In general, those who ask it have a more favorable approach towards vaccines against COVID-19.
On the other hand, Catholics who have doubts about health risks or ethical concerns are more likely to defend the freedom of conscience not to get vaccinated.
What does the Catholic Church say regarding these two possibilities: freedom of conscience or a moral obligation to get vaccinated?
Let’s look at the answer based on the sources of the regular Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
The reference document of the Holy See in this matter is the Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, published last December 21 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Freedom of conscience: how and where?
For the Church, the decision to get vaccinated or not to do so is a serious one, with moral and health implications. For this reason it affirms that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation.”
We can ask ourselves if the totally exceptional situation of this pandemic and the inability to find other safe means for avoiding the deaths of many people constitute one of those particular situations which escape the “general rule” mentioned by the Vatican Congregation.
Indeed, the situation of a worldwide pandemic with its imposing numbers of sickness and death could lead to this conclusion.
However, based on the available information, many people are afraid of the potential health side effects caused by the vaccines, and prefer to have recourse to their freedom of conscience not to be vaccinated.
Faced with the options of putting their health in danger either due to the virus or due to the effects of a vaccine, they prefer not to get vaccinated, based on the information to which they have access or on their specific health conditions.
The fact that authorities have in some cases temporarily suspended the distribution of vaccines such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca to verify secondary effects shows that this prudence may be understandable in certain circumstances.
In any case, it’s sufficient reason for a person to be able to invoke freedom of conscience.
The moral responsibility would be very different if that person were to take public positions against the vaccines, with the goal of discouraging or impeding people from getting vaccinated.
This would only be morally justified if there were reliable scientific evidence that the possible negative effects caused by the vaccines were not justified by the benefits.
Nevertheless, we affirm with certainty that the health authorities of countries around the world, as well as recognized scientific experts, have categorically dismissed this possibility at this time. Certainly, these authorities and experts can make mistakes; however, the near unanimity constitutes a determining factor of credibility.
The episcopates of various countries, which as such are not qualified in matters of health or science, have arrived at this conclusion.
For example, we can read the Answers to Key Ethical Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines, of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which refers to the health guarantees offered by their country’s authorities.
The second reason why some people have recourse to freedom of conscience not to get vaccinated is ethical in nature. These people point out that, in Western countries, the only vaccines currently available have been produced more or less directly from cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirms, in its Note, that a Catholic can get vaccinated with a clean conscience in these extraordinary circumstances; however, at the same time it indicates that we’re dealing with a valid argument for a person with a fully informed conscience to take the decision not to be vaccinated.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for its part, has clarified that not all of the vaccines have been produced in ways with the same ethical implications.
As the Charlotte Lozier Institute—often cited in documentation from the USCCB—explains, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production.
AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, however, have been tested and produced with abortion-derived cell lines, raising additional moral concerns.
If Catholics cannot choose which vaccine to receive, according to a note published by the Holy See, they may in good conscience get vaccinated with any of them. However, if they are able to choose, they should opt for the ones that have been produced following higher ethical standards.
At the same time, the Congregation asks consistency from these people who are highly sensitive to the respect for human life:
Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.
In particular, the Holy See adds, those who decide for reasons of conscience not to get vaccinated “must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”
That is to say, those who do not get vaccinated are taking on a grave responsibility: they put the lives of the people around them at risk.
For this reason, the Church morally rejects the position of those who oppose vaccines without scientific and ethical arguments proportionate to the health emergency and to the risk they can potentially create for their neighbors.
These people commit a gravely immoral act if, in the absence of an ethical or scientific foundation, they incite others not to take precautionary measures that are proportionate to the danger facing humanity.
Is there a moral obligation to be vaccinated?
Although we have seen that the Church recognizes freedom of conscience, we have noted at the same time that it emphasizes the very grave situation that humanity is traversing and the duties that derive from it.
In an interview broadcast on this past January 10 by the Italian newscast “TG5,” Pope Francis recognized that, under current circumstances, “I think that ethically speaking everyone should get vaccinated.”
“It’s an ethical choice, because you’re playing with your own health, your life, but you’re also playing with the lives of others,” the Pope explained.
The Bishop of Rome reaches this conclusion based on two clear considerations:
- As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains in its note, given the extreme situation that we’re going through, a Christian can in good conscience be vaccinated with the currently available vaccines, despite their ethically compromised origin.
- In the current situation, we can be reasonably sure that these vaccines are the only efficacious means that humanity has available at present to achieve herd immunity, thus avoiding millions of additional deaths.
In this interview, which does not constitute a magisterial pronouncement given that it was a conversation with a journalist, the Pope formulated the moral responsibility towards the common good, or “ethical choice,” constituted by the vaccines.
“An act of charity”
Episcopates around the world have referred to this moral responsibility as “an act of charity.” Bishops using this expression include, for example, those of the United States, those of Paraguay, and those of African countries.
“Being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good,” say the Committee on Doctrine and the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Commandment of love”
If the decision to get vaccinated is a “moral responsibility” and constitutes an “act of charity,” this means that for Christians the free act of getting vaccinated can become a way of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who gave his disciples his “new commandment.”
For this reason, in conclusion, we can state that when Christians freely and consciously go to receive a vaccine, after having analyzed the ethical and health implications, they may be carrying out a concrete action to fulfill, in relation with their brothers and sisters, the Lord’s “commandment of love.