A Catholic Take on Vaccinations

Elaine Krebs is a science educator and Catholic Confirmation coordinator in Los Angeles, CA. She is member of the IFYC Alumni Vaccine Network, as well as a 2021 IFYC Interfaith Innovation Fellow.

I remember calling my grandmother in May of 2020 to tell her I wouldn’t be coming home for the summer as I usually do. COVID-19 was still rampant throughout the country and flying across the country on an airplane, potentially exposing myself and my grandmother to the virus, was too much of a risk. She understood but was of course still saddened by the reality. “Well, Elaine,” she told me, “I’ll just keep praying for the vaccines, so I can see you again soon.” Fast forward to a year later - my grandmother and I have both been vaccinated, and the Summer 2021 visit is on.  

Deciding to get vaccinated was an easy decision for me, not only because I want to visit my grandmother and other relatives, but because I believe it is the right thing to do in accordance with my Catholic faith. However, as vaccines have become more prevalent, I have learned that some fellow Catholic friends are not as eager to be vaccinated. In my conversations with these people, three themes of Catholic Social Teaching—a set of seven principles that help Catholics apply our faith to our everyday lives—have been most prevalent. Ever since I was first introduced to these tenets in high school, I have turned to them to help me navigate decisions such as how to vote, what career to choose, and where to donate money.  

There are many resources dedicated to explaining the science of vaccines and secular motivations for vaccinations, but very few address religious motivations and concerns. In this piece, I would like to lay out three of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching as they apply to vaccinations, as well as address one major concern for Catholics.  

  1. To get vaccinated is to be pro-life. As Catholics, we are called by Catholic Social Teaching to be “pro-life” - this means ensuring the dignity and right to life of every human person - from conception until natural death of old age. Over the past year, millions of people around the world have unnaturally died due to COVID-19. Young, healthy people, and even children, have died from the virus—people who otherwise should be here today. The vaccines are proven to reduce our own risk of contracting (and therefore dying of) COVID-19, and they have also been proven to reduce our risk of spreading COVID to other individuals. Therefore, by receiving the vaccine, I am not only protecting my own life, but the lives of others around me. We, as pro-life believers, are willing to march in the streets and pray outside of clinics to potentially save lives from abortion. We must also be willing to receive the vaccine to potentially save a life - including our own - from COVID-19.  
  2. To get vaccinated is to help the poor and vulnerable. Those most affected by the pandemic have been the poor and vulnerable of our population, such as elderly people and those with disabilities. Due to their weakened immune systems, the elderly and disabled are more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19 and die from the virus. Nursing homes, convents, and care centers for our elderly brothers and sisters have been the center of many outbreaks and lost lives. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with COVID cases, and therefore less able to care for those who need regular treatment. The poor have also been disproportionately affected due to lack of health care, lack of virtual access, and job loss. By getting vaccinated, we are taking action to end the pandemic and, in turn, end the disadvantages that the poor and vulnerable have had during this time.  
  3. To get vaccinated is to heal the Body of Christ. Our Catholic faith is not meant to be practiced virtually. Christ no longer has a physical body on Earth, so we are called to be His hands and feet. As the virus rages through our global Body, we are not able to be physically present to each other. By receiving the vaccine, we are ensuring that one more person will remain healthy and not spread the virus to our brothers and sisters. By getting vaccinated, we are one step closer to being able to attend indoor services, to hold hands with each other during prayer, to minister face-to-face to those who need it most, and to live fully as part of the community to which we are called. 

And now the concern: “But, Elaine! The vaccines are tied to abortions!” Yes, all of the COVID vaccines currently on the market either were tested (Pfizer and Moderna) or developed (Janssen and AstraZeneca) using embryonic stem cells from an aborted fetus. This process is not new, as many other vaccines were created from the same or similar cell lines, such as the vaccines for polio, rabies, hepatitis-A, shingles, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and varicella/chicken pox (Variax). However, there are a few other details we need to be aware of. First, the aborted tissue in question is from 1985, and the embryonic stem cells used are derived from a cell line hundreds of generations removed from the original fetus. Secondly, no aborted cells or tissue are in the vaccine. The Catholic Church has designated this as a “remote” connection, and therefore it does not make us complicit in the abortion.  

Even though the vaccines have ties to abortion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as well as Pope Francis himself, have clearly iterated that we are “morally obligated” to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to its ability to protect life in the here and now. Since we don’t have effective and ethical alternatives, the USCCB has made it clear that we have a duty “to protect ourselves, and to pursue the common good” despite the fact many vaccines (COVID and otherwise) are created using unethical cell lines.   

For me, the guarantee of the vaccine to protect life outweighed the cons: ties to abortion, side effects, and the minute potential for risks such as blood clots. I trusted my own instinct, and the wisdom of our church’s leaders, and received my vaccine without qualms.  

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’m in the majority among Catholics. According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), 68% of Catholics have been vaccinated or are planning on being vaccinated. Catholics are readily receiving the vaccine at a greater rate than the American public in general (55% receiving). I am encouraged to see so many Catholics putting Catholic Social Teaching into action, and I believe we need to use these themes to encourage even more people to get vaccinated to reach the immunization levels we need to achieve herd immunity.  

As part of IFYC’s Alumni Vaccine Network, I am planning to take the themes of this piece on the road and speak at various in-person and virtual Catholic services. Please feel free to share this article and use the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching to help encourage those who might be hesitant to get vaccinated. As Pope Francis encourages us, “We must make this ethical decision, for ourselves, and others.”  

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.