US Catholic bishops: Yes, Catholics can take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine -- if there is no other choice

Can Catholics take COVID-19 vaccines in good conscience, even if they derive from fetal stem-cell lines — like Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine? The New Orleans archdiocese cast doubt on this question last week, or at least the media reports about their announcement created confusion. The archdiocese called the J&J vaccine “morally compromised” because of the reliance of fetal stem-cell lines in its development, but that wasn’t all they said. Emphases mine:

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, in light of guidance from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and The National Catholic Bioethics Center affirm that though there was some lab testing that utilized the abortion-derived cell line, the two vaccines currently available from Pfizer and Moderna do not rely on cell lines from abortions in the manufacturing process and therefore can be morally acceptable for Catholics as the connection to abortion is extremely remote.

It is under the same guidance that the archdiocese must instruct Catholics that the latest vaccine from Janssen/Johnson & Johnson is morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.

We maintain that the decision to receive the COVID-19 vaccine remains one of individual conscience in consultation with one’s healthcare provider. We also maintain that in no way does the Church’s position diminish the wrongdoing of those who decided to use cell lines from abortions to make vaccines. In doing so, we advise that if the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is available, Catholics should choose to receive either of those vaccines rather than to receive the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its extensive use of abortion-derived cell lines.

In other words, where Catholics have a choice between J&J or the other mRNA vaccines, they should choose the latter. The archdiocese never said that Catholics should refuse vaccination entirely if their only option is J&J, although they left that option open for prudential judgment based on “consultation with one’s healthcare provider.” Nor is this a particularly new position; the Vatican announced exactly the same position in mid-December in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not yet available in the US.

Today, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement clarifying this position, with emphasis on the moral acceptability of the Hobson’s choice that many Americans will get when it comes to inoculation. Emphasis in the original:

“The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested, and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.

“Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production.  The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘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.[1] However, if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

Note the further fine tuning on this point. It’s not just whether some vaccine is available, regardless of its relative effectiveness. The USCCB, which is the highest ruling body in the American church, is emphasizing that Catholics can choose the most effective available, assuming they have a choice at all. If they have those options, the USCCB advises that they should opt for the two-shot regimens of Pfizer or Moderna.

The USCCB also refers back to the highest universal doctrinal authority, the CDF, which was even more clear about the necessity of vaccination in December. The “grave danger” of the pandemic has to be considered by Catholics when deciding whether to vaccinate, and the public good of using effective vaccines essentially outweighs the “remote” connection of the inoculated to the abortion which provided the stem-cell lines. And that, the CDF announced, applies to “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective”:

The CDF says the reason for considering these vaccines morally licit is the “kind of cooperation” in the evil of abortion, which is “remote” on the part of those receiving the vaccine.

Therefore, the “moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory” since there exists a grave danger, in the form of an “uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, says the CDF, fulfills this requirement.

“In such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

Frankly, this language should have settled the matter almost three months ago. This confusion was partly media driven but also partly due to the clumsy reworking of the argument by the New Orleans archdiocese, which could have avoided this entirely by simply repeating this statement from the CDF. However, the point from the New Orlean archdiocese and the USCCB is still valid — where Catholics have a choice, the morally superior choices are Pfizer and Moderna, and be sure to get your second shots too. But Catholics don’t need to wait months to get vaccinated if their only choice is J&J or bupkis. We also have an obligation in solidarity to help curtail transmission and mutations of COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

It’s good to see the USCCB clarify this after the earlier confusion. Rather than re-invent the wheel, though, maybe they should stick with the CDF’s already-clear language.