What does Catholic theology tell us about vaccine mandates? It’s not black and white.

Over the course of the past several weeks, I have been asked for my opinion as a moral theologian on a range of issues connected with the emerging policy mandates around Covid-19 vaccines and mask usage.

These requests have come in light of the surge in Covid cases caused by the Delta variant coupled with significant resistance among considerable parts of the population to common-sense public health measures. Some requests came from school administrators, from grade schools to universities, who were wrestling with formulating policies for the new academic year. Others came from those seeking moral analysis on the very public and sharply conflicting positions promulgated either “officially” or through social media by a number of church leaders. Still other requests came from pastors on how to deal with various parishioners presenting form letters originating from an agency whose name misleadingly suggests official sponsorship by the U.S. bishops. Added to this toxic mix is the swirl of Catholic journalistic opinions masquerading as factual reports on the issues involved.

While these issues, like our real world, are morally complex, the church’s ethical tradition does give us some navigational aids in traversing this difficult terrain. Two of the most germane here are: 1) the distinction between moral principles and accompanying prudential judgments and 2) probabilism, the mode of moral discernment articulated by St. Alphonsus Liguori, C.Ss.R. (1696–1787), who is the patron saint of moral theologians and a Doctor of the Church—which is a traditional Roman way of saying his approach is über-orthodox.

Like an Ikea purchase, our moral decisions require a certain amount of assembly before they are serviceable for our needs.

Using the right tools

First, let us consider the crucial distinction between an ethical principle and its prudential application. These two are necessarily related and distinct. A principle is grounded in what I term a moral truth claim, such as “all human life is sacred from conception to natural death.” A truth claim expresses not an empirical observation or fact, but something that “ought” to be respected. This is where the principles come in, as they seek to protect and foster the values incorporated in the moral truth claim. For example, the aforementioned truth claim leads to the principles that elective abortion and capital punishment are both immoral according to official church teaching.

Like an Ikea purchase, our moral decisions require a certain amount of assembly before they are serviceable for our needs. In this process, ethical principles are the tools available to be employed. A proper choice of the most apt principle requires what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “practical reason” and what we could call “prudence.” To return to my metaphor, this reason-based three-part process involves 1) reading the directions carefully, 2) finding the appropriate parts to be assembled and 3) choosing the correct tools to complete the process. Mistakes in this three-part process will result in any number of difficulties and frustrations.

I believe this metaphor represents a good deal of our current situation regarding Covid-19, masks and vaccinations. At the risk of torturing the metaphor, I believe we have a problem of not understanding the directions adequately, coupled with the misidentification of some of the parts to be assembled and the wrong selection of tools to be used. It is a bit like using a hammer rather than a screwdriver to try to force a screw into the wrong piece of the assembly.

Most of those arguing that the Covid-19 vaccines are morally compromised have a faulty understanding of the relevant moral principles.

Earlier in the Covid-19 vaccine development process, a number of concerns were voiced about the connection of the vaccines’ research and production to the use of fetal cells. These were legitimate concerns, but ultimately the Holy See and most credentialed moral theologians found that these concerns do not render the vaccine illegitimate to use, given the gravity of the public health dangers. Very interesting in this regard is the well-reasoned statement from a group of staunchly anti-abortion academics who argue that all of the vaccines are acceptable and morally equivalent, regardless of the level of use of fetal cells in their production, since the issue is not so much “remote cooperation with evil” as how one legitimately “appropriates” evil already caused.

For example, we can condemn the institution of slavery, which helped build the nation’s Capitol building, and yet still continue to use that edifice for the legitimate exercise of federal government. The argument here may appear to be a moral version of “inside baseball,” but nevertheless it is crucial to have the correct understanding of the right principle before moving to a principle-based conclusion. As the old maxim goes, “Parvus error in principiis, magnus error in conclusionibus”—even a small mistake in the formulation of the initial principle will likely lead to a major error in the conclusions we draw from that first principle.

I believe that most of those arguing that the Covid-19 vaccines are morally compromised have fallen one way or the other into this conundrum of using a faulty understanding of what they consider to be the relevant moral principles, on which they are basing their erroneous conclusion that using or promoting vaccination is somehow morally suspect at best.

Meanwhile, the predicted dangers about the seriousness of the virus have been more than verified. In hindsight, we could conclude that a prudential decision had been made by church leaders about the morally relevant principles and their established application using Aquinas’s practical reason. Nevertheless, some voices have loudly continued to insist that any use of these vaccines is morally compromised and could never be countenanced by persons of sound mind and good will. To return to my assembly metaphor, I suggest what we have in these cases is the selection of a hammer instead of a small screwdriver, with the compounding error of trying to force pieces together that simply were never designed to be inserted in this way. Often it seems that these people thought moral principles came in only one shape (the hammer) and that it had to be swung full-force, come what may, if we were to protect the truth claim about the sanctity of life.

We should not forget that Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have consistently and repeatedly argued for getting vaccinated.

Prudential judgments and exceptions

Much more recently, the focus of the disputes has centered less around a question of a black-and-white “principle,” and involves instead what we would call a “prudential” judgment. The question is whether (or not) to offer attestations of grounds for a legitimate religious-based exemption to an individual who might be faced with an unwelcome mandate to obtain the Covid-19 vaccine for the purposes of employment or some other legitimate activity such as travel.

On July 30, 2021, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York City published a memorandum to its priests instructing them not to grant religious exemptions for Covid-19 vaccines, saying that to do so would contradict the pope and adding therefore that there “is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.” Negative reaction was swift among more traditionalist elements in the Catholic press, and shortly thereafter the bishops of Colorado and South Dakota came to an opposite conclusion, defending individuals who wished to exercise their conscience in refusing the vaccine if they believed it to be morally tainted.

America also weighed in on this issue with recent articles that bring forward many excellent points for deeper reflection: See Jason Eberl (“Vaccine mandates are coming. Catholics have no moral reason to oppose them,” Aug. 10, 2021) and Sam Sawyer, S.J. (“How not to talk about vaccines: Some bishops are choosing the culture war over the common good,” March 3, 2021; and “Catholic bishops must not turn vaccines into a culture war issue,” Aug. 11, 2021). Other bishops, like Robert McElroy of San Diego and Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., went on the record likewise prohibiting or discouraging priests from giving out these “religious exemptions.”

So who is “right” and whose guidance do we follow? Here is where Alphonsus Liguori’s teaching on probabilism can be of real service. It is based on the ancient legal maxim that a “doubtful law does not oblige.” In the 17th century, the prevailing expert opinion was that in situations like this, one should do either that which was “safer” (tutiorism) or “more probable” (probabiliorism). However, Ligouri reasoned that in cases like this, in which we have similar internal arguments on different sides, or external equivalent authorities who hold contrary positions, one can in good conscience choose the path of “greater freedom.”

While it is true that a decreasing number of bishops and theologians still argue against the legitimacy of the vaccine and/or the presumptive obligation to get vaccinated, we should not forget that Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have consistently and repeatedly argued for getting vaccinated. In fact, on Aug. 18, 2021, a video was released in Spanish with Pope Francis joined by five cardinals urging people to receive the vaccine as a mark of Christian charity.

With the Aug. 23 announcement of full approval of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, the case for an “informed conscience” refusal to get vaccinated promoted by the National Catholic Bioethics Center and certain bishops becomes considerably more difficult to maintain. People can still hold this position in “conscience,” but it is more difficult to maintain this is a conscience-based judgment that is fully “informed” in accordance with the church’s moral tradition and contemporary magisterium. While this may be what is traditionally called “invincible ignorance,” the church has never held that this should be aided by third parties, as would be the case in pastors offering letters for “religious exemptions” from the vaccine.

According to Ligouri’s probabilism, choosing the path of “greater freedom” is not to be confused with moral laxism. Rather, this concrete moral choice is an exercise of the virtue of prudence. Prudence gives form to the theological virtue of charity, which in turn we understand to be God’s life in us (1 Jn 4:16). As Aquinas teaches, the exercise of prudence and its conclusions necessarily will be both changeable (“contingent”) and somewhat uncertain (“fallible”) the closer we come to where the moral rubber hits the road of life (Summa Theologiae I-II, Question 94, Article 4).

For those who demand that morality always be a binary choice between black and white, right and wrong, the positions of Aquinas and Ligouri will likely be both perplexing and discomfiting. But in a morally complex world this side of God’s kingdom yet to come there likely will be 50 shades of gray—and many other hues as well in the moral spectrum.