But the greater blow to Catholic anti-vaccination sentiment certainly came during the case, from the Pontifical Academy for Life, a Vatican-linked society on biomedicine and law whose members are appointed by the pope. Last month, as the Kunkels’ suit gained news attention, the academy sent an updated consideration of the Catholic position on vaccination to the Catholic News Service, ruling unequivocally in favor of vaccination. In 2005, the academy had laid out its position on vaccination, which was mainly positive, but with serious moral reservations concerning vaccines derived from aborted human fetal tissue. The academy’s complex discussion of moral harms versus practical benefits had led some Catholics, such as the Kunkel family, to decline certain immunizations.
But the new statement, an English translation of the July 2017 original, excludes “that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice of voluntary abortion,” and holds that parents have a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.” Thanks to the academy’s ruling, Catholics trying to make up their minds about vaccination will now have a definitive statement to refer to, and Catholics objecting to vaccination will have a far more difficult case to make. This won’t just benefit children who end up vaccinated and otherwise may not have: It will benefit their friends, neighbors and broader community, especially if more religious authorities make similar moves to air pro-vaccination religious reasoning. At this point, I’d argue that religious figures with public voices and an interest in their communities’ well-being are obligated to do so.
The academy’s change in stance comes at a tense moment. While not all vaccine refusal arises from religious objections, several outbreaks over the past few years have begun in religious communities with poor vaccination rates. The current measles outbreak in New York, for example, has been linked to vaccine refusal among ultra-Orthodox Jewish families in Rockland County. Prior to that, an unvaccinated Ohio Amish community saw a massive measles outbreak in 2014. In 2013, a smaller outbreak was traced back to an evangelical megachurch in North Texas.
As these outbreaks have continued and studies have shown an uptick in nonmedical vaccine exemptions, government agencies have become increasingly serious about limiting religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. Some states have moved to eliminate nonmedical exemptions entirely, leading to increased fears among some religious communities about battles with the state over religious liberty. Worse, some religious groups — such as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York — have begun to face an upsurge in discrimination from outsiders.
As in Kunkel’s case, rejecting vaccines on religious grounds isn’t always a result of a broad, authoritative ruling from a pope or some other similar leader. Rather, religious anti-vaccination sentiment often stems from the preaching of individual leaders (think particular megachurch pastors, influential rabbis, or local priests) who have close contact with their followers. They may refer to the theological contents of their religions — but they still find themselves minorities in their larger traditions. From a religious pro-vaccination standpoint, this is both a good and bad thing: On the one hand, it means broader bodies of religious authority may have some difficulty reaching these isolated pockets of vaccine resistance. On the other, it means that their refusals often have more to do with idiosyncratic interpretations of religious doctrine than with well-founded, authoritative teaching. In that latter case, documents such as the one from the Pontifical Academy for Life could be extremely helpful.
Religious authorities with vaccine-hesitant communities in their purview have good reason to make public arguments directed to their own in favor of vaccines. First, clarifying the religious logic behind vaccination can help prevent costly and tense legal battles such as Kunkel’s, and head off confrontations between church and state before they unfold. Obviating these points of friction not only saves resources on both sides, it helps prevent the rise of prejudice against religious groups which can flare during highly publicized conflicts over tense subjects such as vaccination. And it is, after all, religious groups who opt to vaccinate who benefit the most from hearing clear teaching on the subject — they and their children will be spared illness and death as a result.
Americans have a funny relationship with religion: Our laws carve out a broad space for the individual conscience in choosing one’s spiritual beliefs, affiliations and practices, and so it seems we have a difficult time arguing about which conflicting religious convictions — even within specific traditions — are correct. That is indeed a difficult space for courts to navigate, which is all the more reason that religious thinkers and leaders should take it upon themselves to persuade their communities using the knowledge, reasoning and doctrines they all agree upon — before issues such as vaccination boil over into church-state battles. It may feel strange to take on one’s own religious brethren when times are already tense. But it’s the right thing to do.