This video raised a few eyebrows this week. It comes from Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno: 

The bishop said he is typically a very optimistic, hopeful person.

“I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade. But I’m going to rain on a parade today. It’s the vaccine parade,” he said.

…Catholics must “always and only pursue vaccines that are ethical and morally acceptable,” and that the use of fetal stem cell material at any stage of a vaccine’s development means it would be off limits to Catholics.

“My brothers and sister I must tell you, as your bishop, as you teacher, as a believer in the ultimate value of life and how that forms and fashions our conscious and our choices, I must tell you that there’s some serious problem with a number of the vaccines.”

That includes the vaccine made by Pfizer, which appears to be 95% effective in treating the virus. The company has asked U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of the vaccine.


The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion organization, lists both the Pfizer vaccine and one created from Moderna, as well as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute as “ethically uncontroversial.”

A Catholic medical website elaborated:

Some, but not all of the Coronavirus vaccines under development are derived from aborted fetal tissue. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not derived from aborted fetal tissue. The AstroZenica vaccine does use a fetal cell line. Of note, the United States government has provided 1.2 billion dollars of funding for the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which is being developed using the HEK-293 cell line. This cell line originated from kidney cells from a fetus that was aborted in 1973. This article from Science magazine, published in June, 2020 provides a good summary of the coronavirus vaccines under development and the cell lines used for each vaccine.

And from Aleteia, there’s this: 

The drugmaker Moderna’s announcement last week that there coronavirus vaccine is 94% effective is the latest promising news in the march to end of the global pandemic.

That news along with today’s reports from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer that its new vaccine is 95% effective, offer hope that a vaccine will be available for limited distribution as soon as December.

Assuming both vaccines are approved by the FDA, pro-life advocates won’t be faced with having to choose the one that was ethically-made. Unlike some other vaccines in development, both vaccines were made without the use of fetal cells, or for that matter, any cells at all.

According to the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, in a comparison of vaccines in development, deemed both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.”

Typically, a vaccine is developed by placing a virus inside cells. The coronavirus vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and Astrazeneca relies on the HEK-239 cell lines from a baby aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

If approved by the FDA, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines would be the first vaccines to use mRNA technology, which does not require any cells at all.

To put it plainly, when it comes to the Pfizer vaccine, the good bishop of Fresno is wrong.

Nonetheless, he raises an important issue: what does the Catholic Church teach about using vaccines derived from the cells of aborted fetuses?

A Vatican document explains the moral problems of these vaccines.

However — and this is significant — there is some latitude.

The USCCB explains: 

The Moral Reflections released by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005 have been welcomed by the Catholic Bishops of the United States. Our Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities agrees with the National Catholics Bioethics Center, the Catholic Medical Association, and others that manufacturers should be urged to make alternative vaccines more widely available so that Catholics and others will not face this moral dilemma.

In cases where no alternative is currently available, the Academy said that Catholics may licitly accept vaccination for themselves and their children using a vaccine based on tissue from abortion or may refuse the vaccine “if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health.” The Academy specifically cited the potential threat to pregnant women and their unborn children from a failure to vaccinate for rubella (German measles).

Tobias Winright, an associate professor of theological and health care ethics at Saint Louis University, offered this insight to America, in explaining the moral nuances involved — specifically the notion of “cooperation with evil”:

“The notion of ‘cooperation with evil’ addresses situations when an agent must decide whether to perform an act that cooperates with, by contributing to, the morally objectionable action of another agent. In this present case under consideration, however, the problem that is faced by agents—Catholics who are considering using the drug that President Trump used—is whether to make use of the fruits of another agent’s morally objectionable action (e.g., an elective abortion).”

Winright noted other ethical considerations. “Do the researchers (and the benefactors of their research, the patients) share the intent of those who were originally involved in the presumably elective abortion from nearly five decades ago? A clue here might be provided by asking whether they would be fine with (and thus intend) more such abortions taking place to facilitate further similar research,” he commented. “Without such an intent, though, this appropriation of evil appears morally permissible.”

America summed it up succinctly:

The short answer is the most helpful one: If you can avoid using medical treatments derived from fetal cells, you should. If there isn’t another practical option without grave health risks, the Catholic Church considers it morally acceptable for you to take advantage of medical treatment derived from fetal cells.

Let us pray that a safe, effective and ethical COVID vaccine will be coming soon.

UPDATE: The bishops of Missouri have issued a statement on this very topic. (h/t to Bishop Shawn McKnight for sending it my way!). It echoes what was reported above. In sum:

The bishops stated that if safe and effective vaccines are available that don’t rely on aborted fetal cell lines, they “should clearly be the preferred option” for Catholics. “The vaccines currently in development which utilize problematic cell lines, however, should not keep Catholics from seeking vaccination,” they stated. “Preserving one’s health and that of others outweighs the remote association with past abortions which were neither desired nor intended by those now using the vaccines.”

Read the full statement. 

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