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Bishops address use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

News of the Diocese

March 2, 2021

On March 2, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine recently approved for use in the U.S.

“The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.

“Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘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.’[1] However, 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.

“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the worldwide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”

For further details, see the December 2020 statement to the bishop chairmen’s Answers to Key Ethical Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines, to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Note, and to the statement of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Life.

**The statement above updates a December 2020 statement issued by the USCCB committee chairmen that appears in the March/April 2021 issue of Northeast Ohio Catholic as part of the special report (below) on COVID-19 vaccines.

Bishops address use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine


With the Food and Drug Administration’s recent emergency approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and the recent approval of a third, many questions have been raised regarding the ethical status of these vaccines (particularly questioning whether tissue from aborted fetuses were used in their creation and whether Catholics can morally receive such vaccines). The following is a brief moral analysis to help provide you some guidance when these questions arise. Be mindful that this analysis is dependent on current information and, therefore, could change once more information is released. It has only been within the last few weeks that the findings of some of the vaccines have been submitted to the FDA for approval, so more information will be forthcoming in the upcoming weeks as the government and independent researchers have access to data.

At this point, it appears as if the vaccine created by Pfizer/BioNTech, along with the vaccine created by Moderna, have not been created using material of illicit origin (i.e., embryonic stem cells and/or the tissue of aborted children). For Catholics, this is great news. Theologically speaking, there are no moral or religious grounds that would restrict the consciences of Catholics from receiving these vaccines.

There have been articles and press releases that affirm that, while these vaccines were not created with material of illicit origin, there is evidence that these vaccines may have been tested (post-production) utilizing the tissue of aborted fetuses. These articles and statements, therefore, conclude that it is immoral to use them. This sweeping conclusion made by these articles is inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching.

A critical question is: “Are Catholics always forbidden to perform an action if it touches upon evil, or cooperates, somehow, with the evil action of another?” The answer is ‘no.’ There certainly are instances when Catholics must refrain from immoral cooperation. However, Catholic teaching on moral cooperation makes critical distinctions (formal/material, mediate/immediate, proximate/remote, etc.) to determine the degree or level to which one cooperates in evil. In some cases, some forms of cooperation, while unfortunate, can be allowed in certain circumstances.

Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world. Dig deep enough and one finds that many of our actions touch upon evil and the evil actions of others. While the Church draws a firm line in delineating certain acts of cooperation as immoral, it does not condemn all actions of cooperation as such. It challenges us to be aware of evil around us, to always choose the option that involves less evil (or no evil) and to speak and challenge others to desist from evil. It is for this reason that the Church, in the early months of vaccine development for COVID-19, boldly challenged (and continues to challenge) researchers and the medical industry to seek moral means of vaccine production (and to reject the use of material of illicit origin that involved the destruction of unborn life).

Regarding the previous statement about the immorality of taking the vaccine because of immoral post-production testing or even statements from some bishops that have forbidden vaccines derived from material of illicit origin, the following paragraph from Dignitas Personae, issued from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI, offers critical (and perhaps surprising) conclusions. In speaking of the use of embryonic stem cell lines or the tissue of aborted children, the document states in no. 35: “Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’ Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.” While the statement uses the example of the danger to the health of children, the dangers of COVID-19, particularly to our vulnerable elderly or those with compromised health, could reasonably be presumed as grave reason for vaccination. While the Church unequivocally condemns researchers and the medical industry for the creation, production and distribution of vaccines produced from embryonic stem cells and from the tissue of aborted children, the taking of these vaccines is in another moral category. It is for this reason that, on Dec. 14, 2020, the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Pro-Life Activities clarified that, despite the remote connection in the use of morally illicit cells, the use of the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer is morally justified.

In conclusion, at this point there appear to be no moral issues prohibiting a Catholic from receiving vaccines produced by Pfizer or Moderna. If other vaccines are released which do have recourse to material of illicit origin, Catholic moral teaching would direct Catholics to utilize the option that is least morally problematic (i.e., the vaccines that were not created via such immoral means).

As more vaccines are produced, we recommend that you visit the following website (HERE), which provides a fairly complete list of all vaccines, and how they were produced and tested.

**The special report above was produced by Father Joseph Koopman, a professor of moral theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe. It appears in the March/April 2021 issue of Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine.

CNS photo/Jacob King pool via Reuters

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