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Celia Viggo Wexler Covid vaccines, not abortion, should be on Catholic bishops' agenda in Baltimore

When it comes to lifesaving Covid vaccinations, some so-called pro-life U.S. prelates are not loudly endorsing their use.
Image: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) hosts its annual General Assembly meeting in Baltimore
Prayer is held during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual General Assembly meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convened in Baltimore this week, abortion was on the agenda. After a fractious meeting in June, it looked like the bishops might try to ban all pro-choice public officials — including President Joe Biden — from receiving communion. It was a terrible move that looked as partisan as it was.

Since when have U.S. Catholic bishops respected the conscience rights of Catholics? It certainly doesn't come up when the bishops are doing all they can to criminalize abortion.

On Wednesday, the bishops backed off. But the months of speculation over the possibility made clear what is important to the bishops and what will always be their primary issue, no matter what this document states: abortion.

If you want proof of that, you have only to consider what the bishops did not get around to discussing, which is the real scandal dogging the U.S. church: When it comes to lifesaving Covid vaccines, some so-called pro-life U.S. prelates are not loudly endorsing their use.

The muddled messaging from U.S. church authorities creates confusion and has given license to Catholics to refuse to get the shots, increasing the likelihood of illness, death and Covid spread. From June through September, vaccines could have saved an estimated 90,000 lives in the U.S.

Policies vary from diocese to diocese and prelate to prelate. In New York City, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said there is no Catholic exemption to getting the shots, while Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago went so far as to mandate that all clergy and archdiocese employees get vaccinated. Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, Washington, was so worried that Hispanic farmworkers in his flock might be wary of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that he visited a farmworkers center and got the shot.

But bishops in Colorado disagreed — and offered a link to a template of a letter for Catholics seeking exemption from any vaccination mandate. Archbishop Timothy Broglio, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, told troops that even though the church says the Covid vaccines are morally permissible, “no one should be forced to receive a Covid-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”

Once again, it is the bishops’ obsession with abortion that distorts their thinking. Scientists created these lifesaving drugs by relying in various ways on cells made in the lab but originally derived from fetuses aborted decades ago, and that remote connection to abortion has been used to justify their questioning the morality of getting the shots.

In March, the conference of bishops issued a statement expressing qualms about all three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. The Pfizer and Moderna shots “raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them,” the bishops stated. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine raised “additional moral concerns” because the vaccine was “tested, developed and … produced with abortion-derived cell lines.”

In the statement, Catholics were advised that if they had the choice of vaccines, they should opt for Pfizer’s or Moderna’s. But two dioceses were even more critical. The Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, told Catholics that they should not get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that health workers should not distribute it because it was “morally compromised.” The Archdiocese of New Orleans warned Catholics to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the same reason.

This tone dramatically diverged from what Pope Francis has preached. The Vatican has acknowledged the abortion ties to the vaccine, but Francis has urged Catholics to get any of the approved vaccines. He has called getting the shots “an act of love.” He stressed: “Getting vaccinated is a simple yet profound way to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”

Of course, it is not unusual for U.S. bishops to publicly disagree with their putative boss. Francis was not pleased during the months of controversy about denying communion to Biden and other pro-choice politicians. “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” he told reporters in September, adding that the bishops should be pastors, not politicians.

So it is possible that this dispute over vaccines is another example of the rift between conservative bishops and the pope. But much more is at stake than the political lives of Catholic politicians: the actual lives and health of members of the American faith community and everyone they come into contact with.

The morality of routinely administered vaccines whose existence has depended on the cells derived from decades-old aborted fetuses used to be something that scholars at the Vatican scrutinized but did not reach Catholics in the pews.

You do not see Catholic parents turning down vaccinations to prevent measles and chickenpox. Or hear bishops telling the faithful that taking Tylenol, Sudafed, Benadryl and countless prescription drugs whose existence is remotely linked to aborted fetal cells could be morally wrong.

But even though Covid deaths now almost entirely occur among the unvaccinated, bishops in places like South Dakota are stressing that Catholics should be permitted to refuse vaccinations.

“We have the right to freely follow our conscience. We must not be forced to act contrary to our conscience, i.e., to be compelled to do something we believe to be wrong,” they wrote in August.

But since when have U.S. Catholic bishops respected the conscience rights of Catholics? It certainly doesn't come up when the bishops are doing all they can to criminalize abortion. They do not trust Catholic women to make moral decisions about terminating pregnancies based on their consciences and family circumstances or even the dangers to their own health or lives.

And what about LGBTQ Catholics, who believe that their love for their partners is not sinful but holy and enriching? Somehow, church leaders feel free to fire or exclude gay Catholics despite their deep faith. They certainly are not allowed to exempt themselves because they believe what the pope says is wrong.

A Catholic woman who has a deeply felt call to serve in the priesthood is not given any understanding. Her conscience does not matter. Female priests are automatically excommunicated.

Perhaps the members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should search their own consciences and weigh whether their tolerance of their brother prelates as they give cover to those who refuse vaccinations is prolonging a pandemic. As Covid deaths continue, and as many medical experts predict a surge of cases this winter, the failure of the U.S. church to strongly endorse vaccinations without equivocation may be the gravest sin of all.