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Explainer: Catholic Vaccine Questions



In recent weeks, there has been controversy among Catholics on whether to get one vaccine over another. Several bishops, including Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Center, are discouraging parishioners from getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if possible due to its link to cell lines from aborted fetuses. But the U.S. Catholic Bishop Conference said it is acceptable.

David Cloutier is associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and a contributor to Commonweal magazine.


Terry Sheridan, WSHU: What is the issue?

David Cloutier: So I think to understand the issue a little background would be helpful. In 2008 the Vatican issued a document “Dignitas Personae”, and it was the height of controversy over the use of embryonic stem cells and the Vatican took a very strong stand against any use of embryonic cells for research or production. 

So flash forward to 2020, Catholics are hearing that there is some connection between abortions and the vaccines and somehow the vaccines are different. But it seems to me that there is a key mistake here: the vaccines do not come from aborted fetal tissue or embryonic stem cells, and people are applying the morality of that earlier document to the present controversy. 

The vaccines come from an immortal cell line that has existed for 50 years and the various vaccines use that cell line in different ways. 

TS: Why do some bishops come to one conclusion and other bishops come to another conclusion?

DC: Almost no bishops have come out simply against the vaccine. I think it’s important to say that. Catholics have a way of discussing issues like this that uses the term “cooperation with evil”. There is a recognition that while one might not be doing an evil action, one might be cooperating, for example with acts of racism by contributing to a particular campaign, and it can be morally blameworthy to cooperate with evil.

If we want to understand the different judgements of the bishops we have to recognize they are making different judgements about the calculation involved in the original evil of the abortion 50 years ago. Some bishops have suggested that the evil is so grave, that any cooperation with it is not allowed, but most bishops, including the U.S. National Conference of Bishops have suggested that the cooperation is extremely remote, and the good achieved by receiving the vaccine is very high and so such cooperation is acceptable.

TS: What is the controversy with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

DC: So these cell lines, HEK 293 is the name of the cell line, are used in different ways in the different vaccine manufacturing processes, and the original vaccines, the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines used HEK 293 only for testing, but the Johnson and Johnson also used this cell line in the process of producing the vaccine. So to some, the use of the cell line in the Johnson and Johnson is greater, and therefore produces a greater cooperation with evil.

But I would stress most Catholic observers have argued that there is no real difference between the vaccines.

TS: Has Pope Francis or the Vatican weighed in on this? 

DC: Well, it’s important to note that both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict were among the first to receive vaccines back in January, and the Vatican has issued a general statement especially on the responsibility of Catholics to be vaccinated for the common good.

David Cloutier is associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America and a contributor to Commonweal Magazine.


Terry Sheridan is an award-winning audio journalist. As part of his duties as Senior Director of News and Education, he developed a unique and award-winning internship program with the Stony Brook University School of Communications and Journalism, where he is also a lecturer and adjunct professor. He also mentors graduate fellows from the Sacred Heart University Graduate School of Communication, Media, and the Arts.