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On December 14, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a response to a question that many Catholics had recently been asking: Is it permissible to get vaccinated for COVID-19 if the development of the vaccine involved cell lines derived from aborted fetuses? The USCCB’s answer was that the use of such “morally compromised cell lines” was a form of material cooperation with evil. While it would be better to develop vaccines that do not involve these cell lines in any way, the bishops concluded that it is nevertheless permissible to use the current vaccines, given that the cooperation with evil is remote and that the benefits of vaccination are so great.
The USCCB’s statement faced an immediate blowback in some pro-life circles, and several bishops signed an open letter lamenting that “the acceptance of these vaccines by Catholics, on the grounds that they involve only a ‘remote, passive and material cooperation’ with evil, would play into the hands of the Church’s enemies and weaken her as the last stronghold against the evil of abortion.” The letter even argued that the rush to vaccinate demonstrated that “our society has created a substitute religion: health has been made the highest good, a substitute god to whom sacrifices must be offered—in this case, through a vaccine based on the death of another human life.” The letter ended with a claim to the sensus fidei, describing the “almost instinctual” reaction against the vaccines among laypeople with whom these bishops had spoken.
Catholic moral theology does not usually give much weight to “instinctual” reactions, and for good reason. They are sometimes based on bad information. In this case, it quickly became clear that many in pro-life circles did not actually understand what exactly the connection to abortion was. The open letter spoke of one’s own “body” benefiting from the “fruits” of this “concatenation” with the “abortion industry.” It encouraged the lurid idea that, as one well-known pro-life commentator put it, the bishops were allowing “our children to be injected with these vaccines that have dead children in them.” Such sensationalistic language implies that all the talk about “remoteness” is just a smokescreen for a moral abomination.
Happily, the USCCB’s own analysis eschews such sensationalism. It soberly recognizes the importance of vaccination for our whole society, as does the subsequent instruction issued by the Vatican on December 21. Still, many readers of Commonweal might find the USCCB document excessively cautious and the later Vatican document even more so. It might seem obvious that the benefits of a COVID vaccine outweigh any concerns about the use of “cell lines of illicit origin,” as the bishops call them. But what if the cells used had come from the HeLa line, the first “immortal” cell line still used for much research, obtained by Johns Hopkins in the 1950s from a young female African-American cancer patient without her consent?
The vaccine controversy raises the larger question of how to evaluate the present use of benefits derived from past evils. This is a difficult question that many people want to make too easy. They perform utilitarian calculations when they are less concerned with a past evil, and demand maximum moral purity when they are more concerned. The USCCB, to its credit, speaks out of the rich Catholic tradition of reflection on these knotty questions. But its approach also raises some questions about that tradition’s viability in light of the whole range of grave historic wrongs on which our lives are built, from slavery to abortion.