USCCB, Don’t Beat Around the Abortion Bush

Sean Fitzpatrick

By Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

McElroy Vaccinated
Photo Credit: Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego receives a COVID-19 vaccine; Diocese of San Diego

A death-dealing industry and a death-dealing illness are the horns of a dilemma that many Catholics feel caught up in, and the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine has brought new heat to the debate. Of course, as Catholics, we heed the battle cry, “death before sin,” and refuse to participate in the evil of abortion (i.e., murder), an evil from which the Johnson & Johnson vaccine derives its existence. And it would be a very good thing if this was the battle cry coming loud and clear from our bishops instead of their beating around the abortion bush.

On March 2, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement on the new single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine recently approved for use in the United States. This particular vaccine has been reported as a preferred vaccination option since it can be maintained in standard refrigeration storage and administered in a single dose, making it more efficient in some ways than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. As we all know, vaccines have been created for decades using human cell lines, and they have been successful in inoculating against measles, smallpox, and rubella. These cell lines, however, were derived from aborted babies, such as HEK-293, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was derived from this murder. 

While the USCCB statement communicates caution regarding the profound moral quandary posed by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to its direct derivation from the cell lines of aborted babies, it is disconcerting to hear it couched in language that seems to intend ambivalence or some sort of social correctness—as though abortion and its toxic fruits were merely a mild matter that raises “additional moral concern” and “questions about the moral permissibility.” Soft terms indeed for hard truths. By all appearances, there is a collective refusal on the part of our bishops to take the moral consequences of some vaccines as seriously as they should because they are too swept up in fearing the pandemic as much as secular society says they should—namely, as if it were a worldwide wave of the Black Death, which it isn’t.

The bishops give due warning of Johnson & Johnson’s immoral vaccine, but they conclude, “While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.” What seems to be missing here is that even remote cooperation in the evil of abortion is against the common good. Catholics can insist, but shouldn’t they refuse? They can object, but shouldn’t they boycott and stop the cash flow that perpetuates the bloodshed? In general, Catholics who choose to be vaccinated should certainly choose a vaccine that has been judged as morally and ethically uncompromising and uncontroversial due to its removal from evil; for, while they cannot participate any longer in an evil already committed, harm may be caused through abstinence. 

There are heavy implications attached to these hypotheticals, which is why it’s vexing that the USCCB statement includes a citation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating “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.” Why this insistence from our bishops to float the possibility of supporting gravely illicit products as though the population was hanging in the balance, putting unnecessary emphasis on the Church’s teachings regarding problematic vaccines and the priority of public health? Is COVID-19 so deadly a disease that it merits muddying the moral waters for confused or uninformed Catholics swirling in a sea of contradiction? Why would the bishops follow suit in this way regarding vaccine options for Catholics and not be crystal clear about the role and nature of abortion in all of this?

This question is especially poignant given contradictory remarks from other bishops. While bishops from Louisiana and Vermont raised similar warnings about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego pulled inexplicably in the opposite direction with this statement:

Because we live in a complicated world, Catholic moral teaching is often highly complex and nuanced in its reasoning about how to navigate the issues of balancing good and evil in confronting ethical choices. But on the concrete moral and pastoral question of receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or Astra-Zeneca vaccines, I want to make clear to the Catholic communities of San Diego and Imperial Counties that in the current pandemic moment, with limited vaccine options available to achieve healing for our nation and our world, it is entirely morally legitimate to receive any of these four vaccines, and to recognize, as Pope Francis has noted, that in receiving them we are truly showing love for our neighbor and our God.

Again, why frame a rationale for a grave moral evil when it is not absolutely unavoidable, and when Catholics should be receiving cut and dry guidance in this matter of all matters? It is no secret that the Catholic world is unsure about these vaccinations and their connection to the intrinsic evil of abortion. And with the pope and the pope emeritus publicly announcing their own vaccination against COVID-19, there is a good deal to be unsure about. Acknowledging all this, the bishops should make a greater effort to unite their front and emphasize what has been unfortunately and increasingly de-emphasized in the ever-mounting Catholic concern over supporting in any way an industry that condones and causes the murder of children and the harvesting and sale of human body parts. This genocide is the evil of our times and it should be called out and condemned in no uncertain terms. COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to it.

As has been said before, the Church’s ties to the federal government through its non-profit status often make our bishops unable or unwilling to take the stand that is sorely needed. As officers of tax-exempt corporations, they are too hampered by legal requirements and too used to kowtowing in the veiled language of social acceptance, social justice, and social mandates, even when it comes to the urgent moral concessions that threaten the strength of the Church in America. That is if they speak at all. Many are silent, which is even worse. Bishops should be free and willing to speak openly and directly to their flock about our civil and moral obligations as Catholics, especially in these times of mass confusion and paranoia. But the 501(c)(3) laws prohibit political affiliation and action, and if the pandemic is anything it is political, diverting Catholic organizations like the USCCB with bureaucratic red tape and the temptation of financial opportunity through doctrinal ambiguity.

And so, Catholics are left with statements like this, that get at the good but seemingly leave the door open to evil as well:

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.  

Again, why put Johnson & Johnson on the table when people aren’t dying in the street? Say what you will about our many social obligations, there is only one social doctrine, and it isn’t about social distancing, or immigration, or racism, or climate change, or LGBTQ rights—it is about favoring life, life itself, from conception to natural death. If we are so concerned about public health, the common good, and human life, then the abortion epidemic should be at the top of the list of our concerns and questions. Period. There are other single issues out there that animate the Left especially—whether it be gay “marriage,” transgender acceptance, or global warming—but these are not considered as stunted in position as is the anti-abortion position. The drive to help the living, whether the sick or the suffering, only seems to exist on this side of the womb and is yet another form of the madness we are facing and must fight. 

It would be good, to put it mildly, to have our bishops sounding a clarion call of truth in these days instead of churning out the same garbled fare that is making our heads spin. We cannot control the virus, and we certainly cannot choose to control it by immoral means. Any vaccine that has been derived or developed through or in conjunction with abortion is nothing that the Catholic conscience can accept. And it would be a relief if Catholics could hear a message of clarity and unwavering orthodoxy on this issue of issues from the leaders of the Catholic Church.