Some Christians have raised serious moral questions about the morality of receiving one of the COVID vaccines. The United States Bishops have made it clear that either the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine can be received with no moral qualms of conscience, indeed, that receiving them is a morally praiseworthy act that promotes the common good.
The moral controversy revolves around the HEK-239 cell line. This line of cells was originally acquired by means of a grave moral evil – from an abortion back in 1972. The evil is long-since over and done with, but the cell line continues being used for all kinds of different research and testing. In this case, the cell line was actually not used for the research or production of the two main vaccines. But it was used in the testing phase.
The bishops are saying that the connection to the evil that happened way back in 1972 is enough degrees removed from receiving the vaccine today that one can get the vaccine without being a cooperator in evil. You can read a detailed article from their ethicists here.
I will try to give a slightly more readable explanation here of why I strongly support their assessment, based on what our Catholic faith teaches.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1868) lists four ways in which we can be guilty of “cooperating” with the sin of evildoers:
- voluntarily participating in the sin
- ordering, advising, praising, or approving the evildoer
- not disclosing or hindering the evil when we have an obligation to
- protecting the evildoer
Numbers 1 and 2 are examples what is often called formal cooperation. “Formal cooperation” simply means that one is sharing in the same intention as the evildoer(s). That means that one is also guilty of the sin, regardless of the one who actually does the evil. A classic example here is the mob boss who orders a hit on somebody – he is in many ways even more guilty than the one who pulls the trigger. Or think of kids on the playground actively cheering on the bully – they would also be guilty of bullying. In general, think of our criminal legal code for decades in our society. Aiding and abetting is also punishable by law because, after a certain point, you are joining forces with criminal intent.
Numbers 3 and 4 (above) are examples of material cooperation. In some cases, even though we are not choosing the evil and not intending the evil, we still can and should stop the evil.
“Can” and “should” are both helpful words here. Is it in my power to stop the evil? Is it my responsibility to stop the evil? To return to the bullying example, some of the onlookers are guilty of formal cooperation because they are actively cheering on the bully, joining in his intention. Perhaps others are guilty of material cooperation because they stand by and do nothing, because they don’t confront the evil, because they stay silent and let it happen. Are they guilty? It all depends on if they can reasonably do something, and whether it’s their duty. If the bully has a dangerous weapon, or is way bigger and stronger, it would be understandable and morally excusable not to confront him. Likewise, one might choose not to confront out of a sense of deferring to the proper authorities, avoiding vigilante justice.
We all know people who take on way too much guilt or moral responsibility – who feel like it’s their personal duty to fix every person’s problem and help every person in need. That is not the case. We all have a fundamental duty to care for ourselves, our spouses, our families, etc. – and it’s very important to “let go” of responsibilities that are not truly our own.
That is why discussions of material cooperation often ask the question of “proximate” versus “remote.” How close am I to the evil being perpetrated? In other words, how many degrees removed am I? Living life in the midst of a fallen and messy world, we will always be connected to evildoing at some level – even if the evil is a few levels removed. This is true when we vote for a politician at the federal level, when we buy products that are manufactured from goods harvested in multiple countries, when we pay taxes, and (in the present situation) when we receive a vaccine that was acquired by a highly complicated history of converging people and events.
You may be familiar with the party game “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” One party guest names an actor, and then the other guest has to name a movie that actor was in; from that movie he names another actor and another movie; from that second movie he names still another actor and another movie – seeing how quickly he can arrive at a movie starring Kevin Bacon. Skilled players can always do it in six moves or less, starting with any movie.
Notice how this applies to the moral life. There are serious moral evils that have been perpetrated, are being perpetrated, or will be perpetrated. We absolutely cannot choose those evils as our means, and we cannot share in the intention of the evildoer. In some cases, we are close enough to the evil that we have both the power and the duty to do something about it and stop the evil. If so, we do our duty and stop the evildoer and/or the evil. But in so many other cases, we are several degrees removed from the evil, and cannot be held morally responsible.
In the case of the COVID vaccines, we are definitely talking about several degrees of removal from that original grave evil that happened 49 years ago. If we held ourselves to that level of moral strictness in the rest of our daily decisions, we would quickly become paralyzed. None of us can live an hour of our day interacting with other humans without being just a few degrees removed from cooperation with evil. We just tend not to think about it – thankfully, or we’d probably drive ourselves insane. It’s a fallen world with a lot of evil!
There is an ancient Christian letter entitled the Letter to Diognetus, in which we Christians are described as living “in the world, but not of the world.” That letter was written in apostolic times. We are again living in apostolic times, surrounded by non-Christian people engaging in non-Christian practices. The early Christians continued conducting trade and commerce, immersing themselves in political affairs, even joining the military – holding back only when they were directly coerced into evildoing. They wanted to live in the midst of non-Christians so that they could win them over to Jesus!
Certainly it is our duty to stop evil when and how we can, and never to participate directly in it. Getting a COVID vaccine is not participation in evil. Be at peace.