In a ruling reminiscent of medieval speculation over the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has issued a split decision on the religious acceptability of major COVID-19 vaccines. It has deemed the Pfizer and Moderna versions okay but called the new Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine “morally compromised” because it was derived from cloned stem cells distantly related to tissue from fetuses aborted back in the 1970s. Here’s the key language from the statement:
The Archdiocese of New Orleans, in light of guidance from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and The National Catholic Bioethics Center affirm that though there was some lab testing that utilized the abortion-derived cell line, the two vaccines currently available from Pfizer and Moderna do not rely on cell lines from abortions in the manufacturing process and therefore can be morally acceptable for Catholics as the connection to abortion is extremely remote.
It is under the same guidance that the archdiocese must instruct Catholics that the latest vaccine from Janssen/Johnson & Johnson is morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.
As Religion News Service notes, this judgment (binding only on Catholics in a single area — and then only on those who pay attention to such guidance from the hierarchy) reflects an old hairsplitting argument:
The statement is part of a longstanding debate regarding the use of what are referred to as HEK293 cells, which reportedly trace their origins to an aborted fetus from the 1970s. Scholars and ethicists have noted that HEK293s and similar cell lines are clones and are not the original fetal tissue.
It’s worth noting that another Catholic diocese not far away, in Tyler, Texas, has rejected all three vaccines as having been “produced immorally” because of obscure connections to an abortion in the distant past. But an advisory from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adjudged otherwise on the two older vaccines, and the Vatican itself is administering the Pfizer vaccine (with Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, among its recipients). Indeed, the Vatican has threatened to fire employees who do not get vaccinated.
So the faithful in Tyler, Texas, have to decide whether they will insist upon being more Catholic than the pope(s), while those in New Orleans and elsewhere may have to wait for the Church to sort itself out on all things COVID-19. Many, of course, will just follow their own consciences, as American Catholics often do, with relatively little weight placed on guidance from the hierarchy.