Residents and staff at Clement Manor received their COVID vaccinations on Thursday, Jan. 14. (Photo courtesy of Clement Manor)

As vaccination efforts against the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 ramp up all over the world, Wisconsin’s bishops have provided some moral guidance to Catholics who are questioning the permissibility of receiving such a vaccine.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Jan. 13, on the website of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC), the five bishops of dioceses within the state of Wisconsin addressed concerns surrounding the manufacturing of several vaccines from the cell lines of abortion victims, the right of conscience not to be vaccinated, and the moral question of vaccines and the common good.

“We do not address the medical efficacy of any particular vaccine. Individuals should discuss such concerns with qualified health professionals,” wrote the bishops. “However, we wish to respond to important moral questions surrounding vaccination and offer spiritual guidance to assist Wisconsin Catholics in forming their consciences and in following Jesus’s command to love one another.”

The full statement, as well as a Frequently Asked Questions page, can be found at Some of the main takeaways from the statement include:

“A good end can never justify an evil means,” write the bishops, addressing the fact that many modern vaccines are manufactured or tested using cell lines from aborted children. “Abortion is gravely wrong and every Christian must avoid participation in this evil.” However, the bishops point out that the two earliest COVID-19 vaccines (from Pfizer and Moderna) do not use cell lines derived from abortion in their manufacturing. During testing, they did make use of abortion-derived cell lines, which does indeed pose a moral dilemma.

“Catholic moral theology has always made a distinction between formal and material cooperation in an act which is morally compromised,” write the bishops. Formal cooperation, they continue, could be exemplified by a doctor or a nurse who assists in performing an abortion. Formal cooperation in a moral evil is always sinful, the bishops reiterate. Material cooperation, however, would be exemplified by a shopper who purchases laundry detergent at a store whose parent company donates money to an entity that performs abortions. “In this particular example, the cooperation with any potential evil is quite remote and not in itself sinful,” write the bishops.

“Taking all of this into account, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has recently stated that the use of current COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible because of the remoteness of material cooperation,” they continue. “If a choice of vaccine is possible, the ones that are the least morally compromised should always be requested. However, when there is no choice, the Church teaches that it is morally permissible to receive the vaccine.”

The bishops go on to state that receiving the vaccine is not morally compulsory and “those who do not wish to be vaccinated should not become the victims of discrimination.” However, those who forgo vaccination must “continue to do all in their power to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that their decision does not directly endanger the lives of others.”

The bishops concluded the statement with a strong call for Catholics to “advocate for the development of vaccines that have no connection to abortion.”

“Catholics should examine vaccines and know about the use of abortion-derived cell lines in their testing and manufacture, as well as more ethical options in development,” write the bishops.

The statement is in lockstep with directives released by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which are all referenced in the WCC letter.

Kim Vercauteren, the executive director of the WCC, told the Catholic Herald that the Wisconsin bishops’ statement was crafted in response to a clear desire on the part of the faithful for a local response from their own shepherds on the issue of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I definitely think there have been a number of folks who want clarification and direction from their local leaders here, especially as the vaccine becomes more available to the general public,” she said. “We want to provide people direct access to some of the documentation that’s out there from the Church regarding the teaching (on vaccines) and centralize it all in one location.”

Teachable moment

What Vercauteren said the bishops hope most of all is that the interest surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines will inspire more advocacy on the part of Catholics in other areas of medical research.

“I think the bishops want to make certain people are aware of the moral and ethical considerations that are going on in medical research generally. This is something that we at the Catholic Conference have been advocating on, and that’s part of our everyday lives, but I think a lot of people don’t realize the connection that is out there to abortion-derived cell lines,” she said.

In September, national Catholic and pro-life leaders lauded vaccine producer Sanofi Pasteur for discontinuing their Poliovax vaccine, which utilized the aborted fetal cell line MRC-5. Sanofi Pasteur also announced a switch to ethical animal testing in their polio combination vaccines Pentacel and Quadracel. The manufacturer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is still in development, also reportedly does not rely on cell lines linked to abortion.

Sanofi Pasteur’s change in policy was a welcome sign that public pressure on pharmaceutical companies can result in vaccine development that is more respectful of human life, said Vercauteren.

“The more we can convince pharmaceuticals and other production companies and medical researchers to utilize those means, the more we don’t have to have these conversations (about vaccine ethics),” she said. “COVID actually presents us with a teachable moment where people who might not realize what’s going on in the field of medical research become aware of it.”