Will the Vatican address vaccine confusion, and the bishop at its center?

Analysis

Concern among some Catholics over the morality of the coronavirus vaccine has become especially pronounced since the vaccine began to be administered last December. Parishes, dioceses, and even the pope have weighed in on the ethics of the vaccine, while the issue has remained a topic of controversy for some Catholics. 

Amid that controversy, the differences between interventions from two conservative U.S. bishops speaks to a challenge of governance for the Church’s leaders.

Perhaps the most vocal diocesan bishop to weigh in against vaccines is Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has become one of the country’s leading critics of the coronavirus vaccines. 

While Strickland has spent the last eight years leading his small Texas diocese, the bishop has attracted a growing national following mostly in the last few years. In that time, he has garnered attention for leading prayers at a Stop the Steal rally, for incorrectly tweeting in 2019 that 69 U.S. bishops voted against “uphold[ing] the preeminence of the Sanctity of the life of the unborn,” and for his periodic support of Archbishop Carlo Viganò, the increasingly erratic former apostolic nuncio to the United States.

In fact, Strickland’s emergence as an influential voice on the virus began with a letter from Viganò.

In May 2020, Strickland signed an open letter authored by Viganò, which argued that the coronavirus pandemic is being exploited in order to create a one-world government, and cautioned that an “odious technological tyranny” would “allow centuries of Christian civilization to be erased under the pretext of a virus.” 

Shortly after he signed that letter, the bishop began to campaign against the use of covid-19 vaccines, arguing that receiving a vaccine developed or tested with cells derived from aborted babies could constitute moral complicity with abortion.

In June, Strickland said that he would “refuse” a vaccine if it were produced using tissue from “aborted children.”

By November, as vaccines for the virus began to be developed, Strickland tweeted that a vaccine produced by Moderna “is not morally produced,” because of its alleged connection to abortion. 

“I urge all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject a vaccine which has been produced immorally,” the bishop added, even as conservative Catholic bioethicists called that particular vaccine “ethically uncontroversial” and “not problematic.”

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The Church has offered guidance on the morality of vaccines for more than a decade. 

In 2008, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed directly the issues surrounding vaccines developed with cell lines “which are the result of an illicit intervention against the life or physical integrity of a human being.” 

The Vatican guidance concluded that the use of fetal cell lines derived from aborted babies in medical research is morally illicit, but said that for doctors and patients, “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’”

The congregation specifically explained that vaccines could be morally used in some circumstances, explaining that “danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin.”

Strickland issued a formal letter to his diocese in December 2020, however, which took a different tack. The bishop lamented that “too many [Catholic leaders] have accepted the exploitation of aborted children. I urge you to reject any vaccine that uses the remains of aborted children in research, testing, development, or production.”

Just two weeks after Strickland’s letter, the CDF spoke specifically about vaccines and the coronavirus pandemic. 

“When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available (e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients, or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions, or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated) it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the Vatican explained.

The “use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion,” its letter concluded.

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While Strickland told the AP in January that he did not reject the Church’s teaching on the subject, he tweeted on Jan. 13 a different view. 

Seeming to respond to the Church’s teaching on vaccine recipients and fetal cell lines, Strickland tweeted that “We can convince ourselves that this all happened long ago or that it is so remote that it is of no consequence but the facts undermine our convenient deflections.”

On Jan. 21 he tweeted that “ANY vaccine available today involves using murdered children before they could even be born. I renew my pledge....I will not extend my life by USING murdered children. This is evil WAKE UP!”

On Jan. 27, he seemed to tweet a rejection of all vaccines and other medical research. “Now we learn that aborted children are used throughout medical research not just vaccines...WE WILL NOT KILL CHILDREN TO LIVE.” 

Some common over-the-counter medications and many prescription medications are routinely tested with the HEK293 fetal cell lines, derived from a child aborted in the 1970s, and now a standardized part of medical laboratory testing. The Church has made clear that while abortion is always wrong, and Catholics should call for other kinds of medical testing, taking an advil in 2021 does not make one complicit in an abortion that took place 50 years ago.

But Strickland’s tweets have seemed to frame the Vatican’s view as overly complicated and insufficiently pro-life, and to suggest that some of the options identified as licit by the Vatican are actually morally unacceptable. 

Because the bishop’s position has been communicated mostly through tweets, and therefore not formulated in precise theological language, The Pillar sent Strickland several questions aiming to clarify his exact position on the morality of vaccines and other medications. The bishop has declined to comment.

Strickland’s engagement on the issue stands in contrast to that of Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, who is himself usually regarded as among the most outspoken conservative voices in the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Daly is often feted in conservative circles for his pro-life advocacy and traditional ideas regarding Catholic education. He is, in short, a bishop to whom conservative Catholics usually listen.

The bishop weighed in on coronavirus vaccines with a two-page letter Jan. 29, which focused on the sensitivities raised about the issue among conservatives.

The letter recognized the “worry, confusion, and fear” that some “Catholics and other pro-life individuals” have experienced about the vaccine, and expressed solidarity with their concern regarding the possibility of moral complicity in abortion. 

Daly’s approach was irenic and catechetical, focused mostly on explaining the Church’s reasoning on vaccines, and on providing pro-life Catholics a specific opportunity to speak to their ethical concerns.

The bishop cited the Vatican’s guidance on the ethics of vaccines, and explained in simple language a technical term at the center of the debate: “remote material cooperation.” He linked to a webpage his diocese had developed with more resources on the complicated moral theology involved in the topic.

While social media figures have expressed concern the Church will cooperate in coercive government imposition of the vaccine, Daly emphasized freedom of conscience: assuring that Catholics are not morally obliged to take the vaccine, even while he pointed out the importance of the common good in Catholic moral reasoning.

The bishop’s letter also focused on an often underemphasized point in the Church’s guidance on vaccines: That even while Catholics receive vaccines connected to fetal cell lines, they should also advocate against the use of those cells, and urge the elimination of all connection to abortion, however remote, in the development of vaccines. 

Daly encouraged Catholics to take that exhortation seriously. 

In fact, the bishop’s text linked to a template letter of protest that could be sent to Moderna and Pfizer, the covid-19 vaccine producers. It was intended, the bishop’s website suggested, to empower Catholics for advocacy.

Bishop Daly urged cogent and sober analysis of “moral and prudential matters,” concerning the vaccine, and consideration of the common good, in a letter that seemed designed to quell fear through a careful application of Catholic doctrine.

But the letter has not garnered the attention among Catholics that Strickland’s tweets attract. And it is unlikely to do so. 

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Strickland is at the center of a contingent of online Catholic personalities and anti-vaccine media outlets, advancing arguments against vaccines that contradict those of the Holy See. Some of those personalities have explicitly rejected the authority of the Church to teach on the subject. They have also gained a ready audience, which has turned into a broadening network of grassroots Catholic opposition to any coronavirus vaccines, regardless of the judgments of Church authorities on their morality.

A calm, measured, reflective letter from a conservative bishop is unlikely to resolve the situation, even while it will probably offer a measure of reassurance to some Catholics confused by the whole affair. But Strickland himself is probably the only bishop who could direct the most vocal members of his audience to the Holy See’s conclusions on the matter. And a sea change from the bishop seems unlikely without some intervention from ecclesiastical authorities.

While both CDF officials and U.S. bishops seem to be aware of growing dissent from their guidance on the issue of vaccines, none have yet offered directly a comment, correction, or concern about Strickland’s voice on the subject. Absent correction, the Church is faced with dueling magisteria on vaccines: one coming from Rome, and one from Tyler, Texas.

To date, Vatican officials have not seen fit to weigh in direction on episcopal voices offering unusual perspectives on the pandemic, including the numerous conspiracy theories proffered by Viganò. But indirect responses seem to have catalyzed neither episcopal unity on the subject nor, for some Catholics, moral clarity.

Catholics concerned about the ethics of vaccines are either confused by the competing takes on the subject, or they’re choosing a side. Without some intervention from ecclesiastical authorities, that situation could well become an epidemic.