By Stacy Trasancos, PhD
Stacy Trasancos, Ph.D. is the executive director of Bishop Joseph Strickland’s St. Philip Institute. She has a doctorate in chemistry and M.A. in dogmatic theology. She is the author of Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science.
Bishop Joseph Strickland (Tyler, TX), along with Dr. Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, myself, and two others, recently released the statement “To Awaken Conscience” regarding the scandal given by Catholic leaders’ widespread acceptance of abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccines. Since then, the statement has received extensive support—more than 3,000 co-signers to date. It has, however, also elicited controversy in the Catholic world. Many people have asked about our motivation for creating the statement, which is what I seek to explain here.
In early March, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk wrote to me at the urging of her husband, Dr. Michael Pakaluk. Both are professors at The Catholic University of America. They read an opinion I wrote at The Catholic World Report about moving beyond vaccines. My concern is that Catholics have surrendered the moral authority at the global level because bishops, moral theologians, and bioethicists have focused too much on defending the permissibility of “remote cooperation in evil” and not enough on the risk of scandal. By making it clear that Catholics find it morally licit to benefit from abortion, we conceded hard-won ground in the defense of the dignity and sanctity of human life.
I asked Catholics to slow down, take in the landscape of this moment in history, and to consider their words; to take an outside-in view of the situation instead of a view through the lens of a Catholic bubble. It may satisfy the Catholic conscience to say that we oppose abortion even as we accept the abortion-tainted vaccines, but to the rest of the world the message we send is contradictory. It appears to put us in the same category as any pro-abortion advocate. If we truly find it moral to benefit from abortion, then we are ultimately no different from the abortionist. And that is an insurmountable problem for the conscience of many good Catholics.
In an effort to stir the consciences of Catholics, Catherine wrote “To Awaken Conscience.” She calls on Catholic leadership to defend our freedom of conscience and allow us to resist this “consensus” as morally repugnant. The consensus being foisted upon us is the rapidly evolving language about cooperation in evil. In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued guidance for parents trying to do the right thing regarding childhood vaccines, namely rubella. These vaccines would not exist but for the exploitation of aborted children. Moral theologians advised that remote cooperation in evil is licit if there is no other option in the face of grave danger; but the theologians also deemed this situation a “moral coercion of the conscience” for parents intending to protect their children and communities. The guidance called this an “unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.” Catholics were told to “make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.” Many of us took that seriously.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we hoped that Catholic leadership would unite and demand that pharmaceutical companies provide ethically produced vaccines—to right a long-standing wrong. Perhaps that was naïve, but it was a faith and hope we nonetheless mustered.
Instead, bioethicists prematurely declared the vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.” Upon the completion of successful mRNA vaccines phase III trials, controversy indeed erupted because pharmaceutical companies disclosed the use of the aborted fetal cell line, HEK-293, in testing. Catholic bioethicists then coined a new term, “confirmatory testing,” to dismiss concerns. Bishops and priests took that term to mean that the test was ancillary and only done one time. The bishops were ill-advised, however. Anyone with experience in research and development knows that testing does not end when production begins. Moderna, for example, already announced a plan for pre-clinical trials on new mRNA vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 variants at its manufacturing facility in Norwood, Massachusetts—a $130 million investment. The abortion-tainted test is the first step in the pre-clinal trials.
From there the language evolved further in the direction of licit cooperation in evil and away from any consideration of scandal. The consensus went from accepting the vaccines as a ‘morally unjust alternative to be eliminated’ to portraying their use as merely morally licit and then, even shorter, just moral. Dr. Melissa Moschella, also at The Catholic University of America, stated that the vaccines are “not morally compromised” and that “pro-lifers should not have any moral qualms about taking any of the available vaccines.” Taking the vaccine was compared to an act of charity, and from there the public reasoning process became more of a rationalization than a careful formation of conscience.
The idea that this consensus is being foisted upon us is real. My husband, Dr. Jose Trasancos, a retired executive and mathematician, has assumed leadership of Children of God for Life, founded by Debra Vinnedge 20 years ago—the woman who obtained the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 guidance. He sits at our dining room table every day now answering phone calls and emails from concerned people. He also uses his business experience to talk with pharmaceutical executives about ethics. I am helping him, but I primarily work for Bishop Joseph Strickland as Executive Director of his St. Philip Institute. I, too, receive an onslaught of phone calls and emails from people who feel abandoned by Catholic leadership.
For example, a woman called me last week asking for Bishop Strickland to write her a letter for a religious exemption of conscience so she would not be required to take the vaccine against her will. The woman is a nurse. Medical professionals at her hospital were first offered a bonus of $800 to get the vaccine. She declined. Then, her employer changed the policy and required medical personnel to be vaccinated. When the nurse claimed an objection of conscience, the administration told her she needed a letter, so she wrote one. Then, they told her she needed a letter from clergy, not one she wrote herself. When she asked her priest to write her a letter defending her freedom of conscience, the priest refused on the grounds that she had a moral obligation to be vaccinated. Bishop Strickland cannot write a letter for her either because he is not her bishop. In the end, I told the nurse to pray and ask God what to do. I told her that somehow we, the laity, need to let the clergy know that we need them to back us up. There are many more such stories.
Our statement of conscience is an appeal issued not by women alone but by two married couples with a slew of kids who are navigating a life of faith in a modern world. We could, of course, stick to our Ph.D. titles and abstractions, but we choose to present ourselves and our arguments as parents, spouses, and citizens—wives supported by their husbands, families supported by a bishop, thereby modeling the proper and complimentary relationships between men and women and between laity and ecclesiastical authority. We do not wish to divide but to lead.
In a week, we garnered over 3,000 signatures from people willing to publicly display their names. Most are laity. Some are clergy. Many represent Catholic institutions. There is even one from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the organization that participated in Operation Warp Speed. Catherine writes in the statement:
“Protect unborn man from born man!” St. John Paul II exhorted us. We live in a world divided into a Way of Life and a Way of Death. The Way of Death is this: born man subordinates unborn man to himself, for his own advantage. The Way of Life is this: born man unwaveringly and resolutely protects unborn man, even to his own disadvantage. To which culture do we wish to belong? With which do we identify? “What does it profit a man to gain his life but lose his soul?”
We, the Trasancos and the Pakaluk families, along with Bishop Joseph Strickland and thousands of voices, urge our ethicists to resist a premature “consensus” about abortion-tainted SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. We insist on our freedom of conscience to give witness to the Way of Life as we judge we are called to do. And beyond vaccines, whether a person takes the vaccine or not, we urge a public reckoning about the use of aborted children in research, development, and production of any pharmaceutical or product.
It seems that the Church is at a crossroad. It is easy to follow the crowd. It might seem easy to just take the vaccine and forget about this issue. But the use of aborted children in research does not end with vaccines. Aborted children are the gold-standard lab rat of today’s genetic research. It is our hope, therefore, that this statement and this stand will provide the pressure to keep us all on the straight and narrow path of life.