Franciscan professors weigh in on COVID-19 vaccinations, Catholic morality

Francesco Pinque and Tabitha Silva

Staff Writers

Varying opinions, concerns and horror stories dominate the conversation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines. Since it is such a complicated matter, a solid starting point on vaccination in general must be established before further discussion on the morality of this particular vaccine can take place. Donald Asci, who holds a doctorate in moral theology, establishes it by pointing to Catholic teaching on the fundamental issue of health.

“The number one point is that each of us has been given a life, and we are stewards of that life,” said Asci. “(Church teaching) says we have a grave responsibility to exercise that stewardship over our life by promoting health … (and) seeking appropriate healthcare when necessary.”

This grave responsibility, or obligation, also extends to promoting the wellbeing of others, since the state of one’s health can affect others in the spread of disease.

“The Church does say that vaccines can … be a way of fulfilling those moral obligations if we judge that the vaccine is good for my own health and for the protection of others,” said Asci. “But … (vaccines) are not absolutely obligatory if I can and do take other steps to prevent those diseases.”

From this context of Catholic teaching on health and vaccinations in general, Catholics can apply these principles to the specific issue of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to Asci, the decision to vaccinate comes down to prudential judgement.

“It is, for many, the right prudential judgement to get the COVID vaccine because their ability to impede the disease in themselves and in others is limited,” said Asci. “But if there are other measures that you judge more prudential and better for you for various reasons, for moral reasons, personal reasons … then you can feel comfortable not getting the COVID vaccine.”

Kyle McKenna, who holds a doctorate in microbiology and immunology, bolsters this principle of prudential judgement from his scientific perspective.

“I really think that, in the choice of medical intervention, you have to weigh the risk-benefit analysis,” said McKenna. “The risk-benefit analysis is really going to be driven by (two factors): am I at risk of death or serious injury, and am I in a position that I could spread the infection unknowingly to someone who is at risk?”

In regards to COVID-19, McKenna indicated that the first factor of the analysis — risk of death or serious injury — pertains more to an elderly population and is “less of an issue for a younger person.” Thus, it would be “prudent for the elderly population to get vaccinated,” which is not necessarily the same case for the younger population.

For the second factor — prevention of spreading disease — taking current measures such as mask wearing and self-isolation when infected “could be as effective as getting the vaccine,” and so the issue becomes “case-dependent,” said McKenna.

Prudential judgement and risk-benefit analysis, then, are key in the decision whether or not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, there is another very grave consideration that is in the forefront of the minds of many Franciscan University students: the use of aborted fetal cells in the research and production of COVID-19 vaccines.

Asci made a point to clarify this particular issue. He began by analyzing the remote nature of the connection between abortions and the production of some COVID-19 vaccines.

“The abortions (from which the fetal cell lines were produced) took place long ago and no more are taking place. … There’s no way to prevent more abortions by refusing the vaccine,” said Asci. “Anyone who gets the vaccine is not considered guilty of something immoral because of those previous abortions.”

Asci expanded on the circumstances under which it is permissible to have remote material cooperation with previous abortions through vaccination.

“Whenever we have even a very remote, passive or any kind of what’s called material cooperation, … it is permissible to be involved — to receive the vaccine in this case — if there is a grave enough reason,” said Asci.

However, “If there are other ways to prevent the spread of COVID, and the vaccine is not so necessary for you, then you may not have that grave reason that justifies being associated with these people (who produced the vaccine).”

McKenna also distinguished between COVID-19 vaccines that used fetal cell lines in the initial research phase versus in the production of the actual vaccine.

While Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech used fetal cell lines in the initial research and testing of their mRNA vaccines, they do not use fetal cells in production. The Johnson and Johnson engineered adenovirus vaccine, however, does. This difference makes the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech vaccines the more morally appropriate options, said McKenna.   

Because association with abortion in any way is such a grave matter, however, there is also the need to avoid scandal, which, Asci said, is to “encourage another in doing evil.”

Asci pointed to Vatican documents on the matter and explained that, to avoid scandal, “We should make it clear that this is not the way vaccines should be made. We have a moral obligation to speak out.”