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After days of halting statements about vaccine morality, multiple Catholic leaders call the shots urgent, important

A Catholic priest receives the first of the two Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses in Chicago on Dec. 23. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

After days of halting, nuanced statements by U.S. Catholic bishops about the morality of taking the coronavirus vaccines, some Catholic leaders began pushing back late this week, saying the shots are moral and needed urgently to save lives.

The barrage of differing, sometimes lengthy philosophical opinions on the three Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines were based on how central the use of fetal cell lines were in their production. The lines are essentially reproductions of fetal cells from abortions done in the 1970s and 1980s and the shots themselves don’t actually contain fetal cells.

The controversy began Feb. 26, when the Archdiocese of New Orleans, singled out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying it is “morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Bismarck, N.D., diocese, which wrote Tuesday of Johnson & Johnson, “there is no justification for any Catholic” to use the vaccine when “two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used.” Allentown, Pa., Bishop Alfred Schlert wrote in a Wednesday newsletter that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine “should not be accepted by Catholics if other choices are available.”

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Some Catholic leaders and medical professionals worried that the stream of criticism over the Johnson & Johnson shot and tepid wording about the vaccines in general could discourage devout Catholics at a time when, for many, procuring any coronavirus vaccine is elusive. And some felt the need to say explicitly that getting a vaccine is not at all problematic morally and there is an ethical imperative to do so.

“It is clear that there is an urgent race against time, in the growing presence of these variants, to get as many people vaccinated as possible and to do that as soon as possible,” the Boston archdiocese wrote Thursday.

It noted the church teaching against abortion, but said the abortion from which the cell lines derived “occurred in the second half of the 20th century, and the abortion was not done with the intention of using the tissue for research or drug development. The circumstances of that act, which we continue to decry as a violation of the sanctity of the gift of life, are significantly distant and remote from where we find ourselves today, in the battle to save the lives of billions of people around the globe, so as to not impute those who might receive the vaccine into the immoral action. Rather, there is a positive duty to save lives whenever we are able.”

A group of prominent conservative Catholic scholars Friday went into greater detail, saying none of the vaccines developed in the U.S. so far — by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna ― should be seen as “more morally tainted” than one another. The statement by the eight scholars noted that the abortion was not done in order to provide research material, the scientists working to develop the coronavirus vaccines a century later were not involved in the abortion, and the cell line is so common for testing that “the great majority of processed/packaged food products available for sale in the United States are likely to contain ingredients produced or tested” with it.

The signers included Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Princeton University law professor Robert P. George; and O. Carter Snead, director of the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

Use of the cell line, the social conservative scholars wrote, “do not contain the remains of any human being and so its use does not show disrespect for human remains, any more than the contemporary use of products, such as roads or train lines, that were constructed by unjustly enslaved human beings, or use of land unjustly taken, shows disrespect for those victims in the distant past.”

None of the vaccines contain fetal tissue. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines used the cell lines in testing. The vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca used them in manufacturing as well. A U.S. regulatory decision on AstraZeneca is expected in April.

Some observers felt the statements, from bishops across the country, as well as from their industry group, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, were actually more alike than different. They all emphasized the abortion that facilitated the production of vaccines is evil, and to try to be as morally “distant” from it as possible, but that getting vaccinated has moral benefits as well. The statements all included some kind of permission to use vaccines and mostly said a shot is optional.

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But some ethicists saw the bishops’ statements as too vague, and evidence of a church deeply in an American culture war.

“Not everyone will have the choice of multiple vaccines. This is a First World problem where people have the luxury to deny the danger of covid, and to debate. And right now, where should the attention be here?” said Lisa Sowle Cahill, an ethicist in Boston College’s theology department. “People of color in our country are suffering loss of life at the highest degree, and around the world, it’s countries that don’t have the access the United States does to medical assistance, and yet some people want to have this very narrow discussion about something that’s not threatening them, it’s threatening other people.”

The Vatican’s doctrine-crafting arm in December issued a statement about vaccine morality in general, without naming products. It said when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines — which seemed to imply vaccines that didn’t in any way use the cell lines — aren’t available, “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” Absent other means, “the common good may recommend vaccination,” and governments and industry must be sure safe and ethical vaccines are available for the poorest countries, it said. Vaccines must be voluntary.

After a FDA advisory panel approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last weekend, the U.S. Bishops Conference on Tuesday issued a statement saying all the available vaccines raise moral questions because of some connection to the cell line. Catholics should opt for the vaccines that only used the lines in testing, not production, the USCCB said.

“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good," read the statement by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

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But after much Catholic debate and discussion about what exactly was being said, Rhoades on Thursday released a new, more explicit statement.

“There’s no moral need to turn down a vaccine, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is morally acceptable to use,” Rhoades, of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said in YouTube video. “All the COVID vaccines recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience.”