Catholic Conscience and the COVID-19 Vaccine

On Thursday, Vatican News confirmed that both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have received the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, themselves providing an example, ostensibly, for the Church as a whole. In the world’s eyes, I suspect this spells the end of any claim a Catholic might otherwise make for religious exemption to required reception of the current vaccines. If abortion-tainted vaccines are mandated, either formally or by informal social incentives such as the widely-proposed possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine be a prerequisite for travel, conscientious Catholics could not say, “but my Church objects.”

Corporations and governments will not hear a careful explanation about the difference between, say, the magisterial authority of the Pope and bishops when they teach ex cathedra in contrast to the things our leaders might say or do as individuals. They simply won’t sell you a plane ticket or issue you a visa. The pope and former pope’s actions here may make life difficult for Catholics whose personal conscience recoils at the irreconcilable dissonance of the Vatican press office statement that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and productions process.”

Yet, the Catholic conscience is resilient, if often misunderstood, sometimes even by those who possess it—and most certainly by the world. It bears two features which are especially misconstrued. First, it can not ask less than what the Church requires, but it can ask more. For instance, one person may feel bound to heroic charity in a situation where another does not. Second, in order to function at all, the conscience must be formed (and informed) by truth—the truth of Christ Himself and an accurate understanding of the surrounding world. Otherwise, we don’t have a conscience to follow, but simply our own inclinations.

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A favorite exhortation of TV pundits lately is to follow the science, which is excellent advice if actually taken to heart, and exactly what the word con-science means—with science, or with knowledge. If we are to uphold our individual responsibility to form our consciences, we are obligated to actively pursue the knowledge of truth, which is ensured only by exploring and vetting a variety of sources and perspectives, even and especially while doing so has become increasingly difficult. Two truly excellent sources have come about in the past weeks to assist Catholics in the task of forming their individual consciences with regard to the vaccine. 

In the arena of formation in moral truth, the first is the letter from Bishop Athanatius Schnieder, which first appeared in Crisis on December 11, 2020. In regard to formation in scientific truth, the second is a recent interview with Pamela Acker, author of Vaccines: A Catholic Perspective from the Kolbe Center—a book I look forward to reading. It has been difficult for many faithful Catholics to inform their conscience with regard to the nuts-and-bolts science of how the vaccine industry makes use of aborted children’s bodies, because the information is not readily available, but this interview provides a great deal of help. However, its length might be prohibitive, and because its content is critical, I wish to share a few of the hard truths it contained, in light of the information otherwise made available to us.

In conversations with friends, I have noticed that many of us calm our consciences with certain facts. We know that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not use any cells derived from abortion in the production process. That is, we know that we are not being directly injected with fetal cells or their engineered descendants (though this fact differs with other manufacturers). We hear that the abortion-derived cell lines were only used in testing, which should somehow comfort us, though it still means that the vaccines from which we seek to benefit depend on the involvement of abortion. We are told that the cell line used in testing came from one abortion, which took place decades ago. These things are all true, but they do not serve to inform us fully.

What we may not know follows. The most prominent cell line, called HEK 293, comes from an abortion performed in the 1970’s. It’s labeled 293 because that’s how many experimental attempts the researchers needed to get a working cell line. Therefore, though the abortion-to-experiment ratio is not precisely one-to-one, hundreds of abortions went into the project, even if they didn’t result in the working line. 

HEK stands for human embryonic kidney. To harvest a viable embryonic kidney for this purpose, sufficiently healthy children old enough to have adequately-developed kidneys must be removed from the womb, alive, typically by cesarean section, and have their kidneys cut out. This must take place without anesthesia for the child, which would lessen the viability of the organs. Instead of being held, rocked, and comforted in the time intervening between their birth and their death, they have organs cut out of them alive.

There is no way that a spontaneous abortion could result in the cell line (as the kidneys cannot remain viable past the brief window in which they must be harvested) or that some brilliant researcher found a way for great good to come out of a rare tragedy by making use of a child’s body donated to science after it was aborted. The deliberate killing of an unwanted child (a little girl, in the case of HEK 293) took place in the tortuous manner it did precisely to obtain her organs for research. The harvest of her organs was the direct cause of her death, prior to which, she was a living child, outside the womb.

I fear that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict may not have had this information when they received the vaccines. If we re-examine the Vatican statement that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and productions process,” we see that it does not apply here. It does not imagine this scenario. To approve of the currently-available vaccines, it would have to read “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from living persons, killed by the harvest of their organs for use in medical research and productions processes,” but the Church’s moral teachings could never truly bend so far.

Similar to the human rights abuses exposed by international tribunal in today’s China, where unwanted individuals such as religious and political dissidents are executed by the harvest of their organs for profit, the little girl whose cells gave rise to the COVID-19 vaccines was brutally sacrificed for the purpose, as were all the children whose cell lines failed before her. 

Still, many rightly argue, when we discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, there are more lives at stake than even those of the hundreds of children who suffered and died for one specific cell line in the past. Concern for these lives must most certainly bear our consideration as well.

The information about how HEK 293 was created may call vividly to mind the current scandal of Planned Parenthood, who is selling human tissue to the highest bidder, and performing abortions in specific ways to obtain organs and preserve their viability—for the right price. Put more bluntly, the abortion industry performs vivisections on viable, healthy, and well-developed living children for massive profit, on a massive scale. What we are seeing now is the explosion of an industry trafficking in children’s bodies, which began with experiments in the 1970’s, including those on which the available COVID-19 vaccines rely.

Why does this go on? Money is a central motivator in any industry, and it goes on because we support it. We are consumers. If we boycotted, science would be forced to pursue alternative solutions. Even remotely, every one of us who benefits from an industry that functions this way plays our part in its perpetuation. This is why Pope Francis encourages Catholics to voice our dissent, even while receiving the vaccine. Unfortunately, when money is the motivator, voiced dissent does not speak as loudly as refusal.

However, we now find ourselves in a situation where put before us is either concern for our vulnerable neighbors who, we are told, might catch COVID-19 if we ourselves are not vaccinated, or concern over perpetuating an industry we know with certainty very deliberately and brutally kills the most vulnerable among us. 

If concern for our neighbors does not burden our hearts into the acceptance of evil as a means to an end, even a good one such as the prevention of COVID-19, there exist other mechanisms of coercion that appeal to our own self-preservation. These are the social disincentives to refusal of ethically-tainted vaccines, from which our Church will now not protect us. Instead of saying, “my Church objects,” those whose informed Catholic conscience now binds them to refusal of the vaccine must now only say, “I object.” 

In accepting these persecutions, conscientious Catholics’ choice to refuse an ethically-tainted vaccine may be a source of assurance to their neighbors that they do not lack care for their welfare, as they are themselves willing to assume a degree of self-sacrifice to avoid the deliberate murder of newborns rather than the possibility of infection from a disease primarily affecting adults. It is a dark parallel to the Eucharist—Christ’s perfect sacrifice by which we receive, in our own bodies and for our salvation, the innocent Divine Victim Himself. In the end, this chilling reflection frames the question that now conscience alone must answer.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/Vatican Pool via Getty Images]


  • AnnaMaria Cardinalli

    AnnaMaria Cardinalli is an American military investigator, classical guitarist, and operatic contralto. She is the author of Music and Meaning in the Mass (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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