Four days after issuing a joint statement with another bishop saying the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were acceptable and could be taken "as an act of charity," Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, reiterated this message noting there had been some misunderstanding about it.
Some interpreted the Dec. 14 statement to say Catholics had a moral obligation to receive the vaccine.
"The short answer is we don't have a moral obligation" to do so, the archbishop told Catholic News Service Dec. 18. He said the intent of the statement "was to show it is permissible to use these vaccines. What we do say is that there is a moral obligation to work for the common good."
The vaccine statement was issued by Archbishop Naumann, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine.
The bishops, responding to questions about moral concerns about vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, said the two were not directly connected to cell lines that originated with tissue taken from abortions, but there was a remote connection as both vaccines relied on an aborted fetal cell in one of the confirmatory lab tests.
Regarding a third vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, the bishops said this vaccine is "more morally compromised" and "should be avoided" if there are alternatives available.
Colorado's Catholic bishops went a step further to say this vaccine was "not a morally valid option because better options are available."
Many people have disparaged the USCCB statement, particularly on social media. Archbishop Naumann said his friends in the pro-life movement also have been critical of it.
"I appreciate their passion," he said.
He said he and Bishop Rhoades were "trying to help people understand they can conscientiously object" to COVID-19 vaccines and make their advocacy against it clear, but if they do so, "they have a responsibility to protect public health and need to look at other ways to do that to not contract or transmit the virus."
He also said they tried to be clear in expressing that the church has a "rich tradition in evaluating moral obligation" and principles of cooperation with evil.
Those who make vaccines, he said, have a responsibility not to use cell lines from aborted fetuses. For vaccine recipients, he said, "their cooperation with evil is very remote" with these COVID-19 vaccines.
In their joint statement, he and Bishop Rhoades said it was important to note such cell lines do not involve cells "taken directly from the body of an aborted child" and were derived from tissue samples taken from two abortions in the 1960s. Cells from these cell lines are stimulated to produce the chemicals necessary" for a vaccine, they explained. "It is not as if the making of the vaccine required ever more cells from ever more abortions."
However, Archbishop Naumann also emphasized in his interview with CNS that while it is permissible to receive the COVID-19 vaccinations now available, recipients should voice their protests to pharmaceutical companies and the government about the need to be provided with "untainted vaccines."
Maryland's Catholic bishops issued a Dec. 12 statement that said: "A Catholic can in good conscience receive these COVID-19 vaccines. Moreover, given the grave risk of harm to others, we strongly encourage the faithful to receive a vaccine against COVID, unless medically indicated otherwise."
They added that it is "imperative that pharmaceutical companies be urged to develop vaccines that fully respect the dignity of the human person at all stages."
And on Dec. 21, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that when alternative vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses.
"The licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses," it said.
Archbishop Naumann told CNS the vaccination discussion overall has been positive because it has enlightened a lot of people about how all vaccines are made and reminded Catholics about their "obligation to advocate for morally untainted vaccines" especially since he said it is not necessary to use cell lines from aborted fetuses in vaccine production.
When asked if he would get the COVID-19 vaccine, the archbishop said he had asked his own doctor about it. His doctor didn't think it was necessary right now because the archbishop got COVID-19 and had at least temporarily built up antibodies against it.
"It's not something I would wish on anyone," he said of the disease, which he said he recovered from after plenty of rest and his own immune system's work.
He said advocacy work surrounding vaccines will continue.
During the pandemic, he said, he has been impressed with the overall care for the elderly who are "most vulnerable to the disease."
"As a society, we took extra steps to protect them; I take that as a positive sign," he said.