The Fake Theology Behind Vaccine Mandates

In her National Catholic Reporter article “Catholics seeking ‘religious’ exemptions from vaccines must follow true church teaching on conscience”, M. Therese Lysaught, a professor of bioethics and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, maintains that Catholics in good conscience MUST receive a COVID-19 vaccine. She provides a template for a “dialogue” with someone asking for an exemption. From the get go, she makes it clear that those who refuse to get vaccinated are egocentric, deficient in their understanding of what the healing ministry of Jesus requires, not committed to unity or the common good, without concern for the poor and vulnerable, and lacking in charity. 

What a beginning! Lysaught doesn’t exactly exhibit the charitable practice of assuming the best motives on the part of one’s “dialogue” partner. Indeed, neither in the template nor in the essay written to accompany the document does Lysaught show the slightest interest in why Catholics or others might resist taking a COVID-19 vaccine. Clearly, they are just selfish dunderheads who don’t understand what is manifestly true for those in the know. In such a “dialogue” the dialogue partner could not get a word in edgewise. They have nothing to say of value.

Appeal to Authority

Lysaught’s argument is one based largely on an appeal to authority. She cites the “magisterial” documents issued by the Holy See and the USCCB, as well as remarks by Pope Francis. She claims that these statements “teach” that “Catholics have a moral responsibility to be vaccinated and to assist the global community in achieving vaccination levels sufficient for herd immunity.” None of these documents, however, have the degree of magisterial authority to require assent; they are all low-level documents or non-magisterial statements that cannot impose obligations on Catholics. While these sources do attempt to make a strong case that there is a “moral responsibility” to receive the vaccine, none speak of a moral obligation to do so. And, as we shall show, according to Catholic theology, they can’t do so. (For an explanation of the various levels of authority of Church teaching, see the “Doctrinal Commentary on concluding formula of Professio fidei.”)

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Lysaught lists a Public Service Announcement which features Pope Francis, six Cardinals, and archbishops from North, Central, and South America. It was issued alongside another PSA featuring several past presidents and former first ladies. Does Lysaught truly believe that a PSA has magisterial authority? Does she think Catholics can be bamboozled so easily? 

Listed also is a statement by a Vatican COVID-19 Commission in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Life which, while it does strongly encourage people to get the vaccine, does not speak of a moral obligation to do so. All it can offer is guidance; it has no authority over the consciences of Catholics. Moreover, the presence of several pro-abortion individuals on the Academy corrodes the trust of Catholics in the guidance offered by the academy.

Lysaught also cites a document from the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, which, again, is a document that imposes no obligation on the consciences of Catholics. It provides guidance in a time of great confusion but by its very nature cannot oblige Catholics to receive an experimental vaccine.

The most “authoritative” document, the CDF’s Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-Covid-19 Vaccines, was written not to urge people to get a COVID-19 vaccine but to inform them that in their judgment using the vaccine is morally acceptable, provided some criteria are met (studies I cite below indicate it is arguable that those criteria have been met). 

The CDF document deals largely with the moral problem of possible material cooperation with abortion, since the vaccines have either been developed or tested by using fetal cells lines generated from living babies in the course of abortions. It argues that getting the vaccine does not involve a person in a material cooperation with abortion. Elsewhere I have argued that although there are likely many good reasons to reject the COVID-19 vaccines, including their scandalous association with abortion, receiving the vaccines does not involve a real cooperation with the evil of abortion. Here I shall not revisit that issue, though certainly that is a major concern of many of those who choose not to get vaccinated.

The CDF “Note” makes it clear that there is no moral obligation to get a vaccine: 

At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed. 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, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.

How deceptive is it that Lysaught does not cite and consider this passage?

Misusing the Magisterium

Stating that getting the vaccine “must be voluntary” is not aimed only at physically-forced vaccination but also at the possibility of coercive measures used to force people to get the vaccine. And such coercive measures are being used; members of the military must get vaccinated to remain in the military; students in many universities and schools must be vaccinated to attend; many jobs are now requiring employees be vaccinated; federal employees must get vaccinated—except for members of congress and their staff. One bishop even tried to bar Catholics who are unvaccinated from access to Mass and other Church events, although he later backtracked on that decree.

Yes, the “Note” does speak of the “duty to pursue the common good” but implicitly acknowledges that there may be other ways to protect the common good and also, extremely importantly, that those who have a conscientious objection to vaccines produced from cell lines from aborted fetuses, if they work to protect the vulnerable, need not get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Any magisterial authority the document has resides in its articulation of general moral principles; the magisterium cannot give specific advice to particular individuals about practical matters (see below).

Defending against the claim that Pope Francis’s guidance on the vaccines does not have magisterial authority, she exhibits a shockingly erroneous understanding of the scope of papal authority. She cites Lumen Gentium 25: 

…that the Holy Father exercises an “authentic magisterium … even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, [regard] must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Lumen Gentium 25 cannot possibly apply: so far as I know, no respectable theologian has ever claimed that the authority of the papal magisterium extends to whether or not an individual should get a vaccine, any vaccine, let alone an experimental vaccine. The Holy Father is not an expert on the health risks of a virus or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and even if he were, again, papal authority does not extend to such matters.

Lysaught distorts the guidance given in the documents and claims that they teach that Catholics have a “duty,” “a responsibility” or “an obligation” to receive the vaccines. There is much talk of responsibility in the statements she references but never do they say that there is a “duty” or “obligation” to receive the vaccine.

Lysaught insists that Catholics MUST get a COVID-19 vaccine because the vaccine is “ordinary treatment.” She gives no consideration to the fact that people have no obligation to use experimental medicines or procedures. The Declaration on Euthanasia (section 4) makes it clear that patients may use experimental means but that they need not do so if they judge the risk to be too great.

The National Institutes of Health is zealous in claiming the vaccines are safe and effective, although other groups with well-credentialed experts at the helm claim that the vaccines have been rushed through the approval process and are far from safe. Despite the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the legitimacy of that approval has been questioned; indeed, none of the vaccines have completed the third phase required for new drugs and seem to have diminished capacity to defend against the new variants. 

Concerns of the Unvaccinated

Many of those seeking exemptions from the vaccines are familiar with groups such as America’s Frontline Doctors, who warn about the misinformation the government and the CDC have put out about COVID-19 and the vaccines. For Lysaught not to acknowledge the work of such groups and attempt to refute them considerably undercuts her credibility. Has she truly dialogued with those who question the safety and efficacy of the vaccines? Does she know their concerns? Can she answer their concerns?

These are some of the concerns of the unvaccinated:

  1. There have been an endless string of lies told by Dr. Fauci; lies about the origin of the virus, lies about the effectiveness of masks, lies about the dangers of the vaccine, lies about herd immunity, etc., With some regularity over the last two years Fauci has had to reverse his positions—reversals that often confirm what the skeptics have believed. Most importantly lies have been told about such effective early treatments as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. It is horrifying that Australia bans doctors from prescribing ivermectin. 
  2. MSM and social media have been censoring qualified, credentialed doctors from raising concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. The truth is always best discovered when all the counter-evidence and reasonable arguments are given due attention. That is not happening with the COVID-19 vaccines. Not surprisingly this censorship exacerbates distrust of authorities and experts.
  3. The deaths from COVID 19 have been grossly over stated
  4. Few people die from COVID-19 alone; co-morbidities are so frequently present, it is difficult to determine the true cause of death. From the CDC:
    For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.9 additional conditions or causes per death. The number of deaths with each condition or cause is shown for all deaths and by age groups. Values in the table represent number of deaths that mention the condition listed and 94% of deaths mention more than one condition.
  5. Those who die with COVID-19 are typically elderly. 56.8% of those who die with COVID-19 are over 75 years old; the average lifespan in the US is 79 years old or so. 78.5% of those who die with COVID-19 are 65 or older. Can we not protect our elderly in ways other than subjecting the whole population, most at little risk of death from COVID-19, to an experimental vaccine? Fewer than 1% of the fatalities with COVID-19 are under 29 years of age.
  6. People are dying from the vaccines, perhaps even more than with COVID-19. It is likely that the numbers are greatly underreported. One study shows the vaccines cause more harm than good. In fact, it is possible that the Covid vaccines are “leaky vaccines” that accelerate the spread of more deadly variants. 
  7. No one knows the long-term effects of the vaccines. 
  8. People who get vaccinated still die from COVID-19; how effective can the vaccine be? What other vaccine requires that the vaccinated be protected against the unvaccinated?
  9. Critics of the COVID-19 vaccines experience extreme cognitive dissonance in watching politicians and celebrities advocate wearing masks and making exceptions for themselves; of churches being closed and abortion clinics left open; of numbers of people at funerals being limited to immediate family while demonstrations for politically-correct purposes being permitted. How can there not be enormous suspicion of the information given to us by those who make these decisions? Can people believe health is the first concern of those who make these decisions?
  10. Those who have natural immunity from having had COVID-19 are still required to get a COVID-19 vaccine even though studies demonstrate that natural immunity is much more effective than vaccination! More cognitive dissonance.
  11. Surprisingly high numbers of health care workers, many with natural immunity from COVID-19 and many at risk to their own lives who cared for patients with COVID-19 for well over a year, are declining to get a COVID-19 vaccine, even though the refusal is costing them their jobs and is causing a shortage of healthcare workers, which harms everyone. 
  12. Australia has become a police state because of irrational fears about COVID-19. Unless some people resist that coercion, the erosion of fundamental freedoms in the US will continue.

Not every critic of the vaccines shares all the above concerns. Perhaps some study cited above might eventually be refuted, and none of the critics would object to an honest evaluation of their claims, and in fact would welcome their voices being heard. 

Lysaught may believe that all the above concerns are unfounded but they are concerns of the critics of the COVID-19 vaccines. Those who seek to persuade others of something are unwise to ignore or dismiss their concerns; they should respectfully respond to those concerns. Lysaught should have researched these concerns in order to be qualified to counsel those who are wary of the COVID-19. If she actually does such counseling and listens to those she counsels, she is likely to find them more knowledgeable about the information that has informed her thinking than she is about the information that has formed theirs.

The Role of the Conscience

The basic argument of Lysaught’s piece is that those who allow the Church to form their consciences have a moral obligation to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. As I have argued above there is no magisterial teaching that has taught that, nor in fact, could there ever be such a teaching since it requires scientific expertise that does not belong to the magisterium. The role of the conscience is to apply the general moral principles to particular moral decisions. Were Catholics simply to accept the guidance of a pope and various cardinals, bishops, and bishops conference on practical matters, they would not be exercising the fullness of their humanity. They would be blindly following Church authorities in areas outside their expertise.

Magisterially the Church does teach that we must act out of love for our neighbor and for the common good. But the Church does not, and cannot teach magisterially whether or not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is loving towards one’s neighbor and for the common good

This does not mean that Catholics should give no heed whatsoever to the opinions of Church leaders and their various instruments of arriving at and teaching those opinions.  The USCCB document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” rightly describes the responsibility of Catholics to pay heed to views of Church authorities on public policy while acknowledging the freedom of Catholics to differ from those views:

Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as armed conflict, housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on such specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.

The freedom of Catholics to reject “teachings” of Church authorities on public policy issues applies even more so to decisions about the medical treatments or procedures they must personally undergo. Even Catholic bioethicists who are enthusiastic about the COVID-19 vaccines, such as Charles Camosy, argue strongly that mandates or coercion to get the vaccine are violations of personal conscience. 

“A Gift of Love”

Pope Francis and others have repeatedly stated that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is a “gift of love” to others. Yet, it does not promote the common good that skeptics abandon their own assessment of matters. There is no need to list the times here that the “latest” scientific evidence has been wrong. The hesitancy of many in the African-American community to receive the vaccine has historical roots in such debacles as the Tuskegee experiment. Again, Lysaught may be surprised to learn that most of the critics of the vaccine are very cognizant of the claims she makes and of what is reported in the mainstream media but they no longer “pay, pray, and obey.” She keeps insisting that those who love their neighbor must get vaccinated. But the unvaccinated believe they are loving their neighbor by being willing to be called selfish and egocentric and unloving in order to resist what they see to be a foolish reliance upon government officials and certain representatives of the healthcare industry. 

Indeed, the medical establishment is slowly confirming the concerns many have about the COVID-19 vaccines. As noted above, one of those concerns is that scientific studies that show that natural immunity is far more effective than vaccines not only have failed to receive the attention they deserve but have been censored. Just recently, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins noted that studies do show that natural immunity in those who have had COVID-19 is “as good or better” than vaccine-induced immunity.” Professor Marty Makary,  a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins noted that studies do show that natural immunity in those who have had COVID-19 is “as good or better” than vaccine-induced immunity.” He states, 

That’s why it’s so frustrating that the Biden administration has repeatedly argued that immunity conferred by vaccines is preferable to immunity caused by natural infection, as NIH director Francis Collins told Fox News host told Bret Baier a few weeks ago. That rigid adherence to an outdated theory is also reflected in President Biden’s recent announcement that large companies must require their employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing, regardless of whether they previously had the virus.

Downplaying the power of natural immunity has had deadly consequences. In January, February and March, we wasted scarce vaccine doses on millions of people who previously had covid. If we had asked Americans who were already protected by natural immunity to step aside in the vaccine line, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. This is not just in hindsight is 20/20; many of us were vehemently arguing and writing at the time for such a rationing strategy.

Those who refuse the vaccine are working not only to make the medical establishment prove its claims, but also to pressure the government to respect fundamental human rights—frequently at a great cost to themselves. Standing up for evidence-based science and for respect for law and human rights is one of the best “gifts of love” that we can give to our neighbors.

I hope no health care worker or establishment uses Lysaught’s template to engage in “dialogue” with those who are hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine; it is insulting and condescending in tone; it misrepresents Church teaching on magisterial teaching; it considers few if any counterarguments to her position. In the long run the template will be counterproductive for her cause, for if this is the best argument that can be made for receiving the vaccine, it really will convince no skeptic and will only confirm skeptics in their belief that the arguments for receiving the vaccine are weak indeed.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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