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Catholic bishops discourage faithful from Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre joined

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre joined the church's bishops' conference in discouraging the faithful from taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine "on moral grounds." Pictured is the diocese's St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rockville Centre. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre is discouraging the faithful from taking the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine "on moral grounds" because cell lines derived from fetuses aborted decades ago were used to develop it.

In an open letter sent this week to clergy and laity, the diocese that oversees Long Island churches said the vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are preferable, and that it is following guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"On moral grounds related to their connection to the evil of abortion, it is recommended that, of the alternatives available now or in the very near future, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferred to the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines," Dr. Lisa Honkanen, director of the diocese’s Office of Human Life, Family & Bioethics, wrote in the letter.

The diocese, home to 1.4 million Catholics, joins several others around the country as well as the bishops' conference in discouraging Catholics from using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if possible.

The bishops did not go as far as prohibiting the one-shot vaccine, authorized for emergency use in the United States last week.

That stance contrasts with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's — a Roman Catholic who has promoted and hailed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a welcome addition to the tools the state can use to try to bring the virus under control.

Johnson & Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Cuomo’s office.

The diocese’s position even differs from other denominations, including the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, which is encouraging people to take that vaccine, or any that is approved, and criticized clergy members casting doubt on the science.

"For any bishop to call into question a vaccine that has the potential of saving hundreds of thousands of lives is misguided," said Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.

"It’s a morally bankrupt argument that is being portrayed here, and I think it is irresponsible," he said.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the diocese, rejected Provenzano's argument in a statement.

"It is the position of the Catholic Church and the responsibility of all Bishops to instruct the faithful in the truth that abortion is a violation of natural law," Dolan said. "It is a gravely evil act because it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. The Church teaches that corpses of all human embryos and fetuses, directly aborted or not, must be treated with the same dignity and respect as all other human remains."

He added that the Church "teaches that the sacrifice of human life for therapeutic purposes is wholly immoral and incompatible with human dignity because it is the exploitation of one human being in the involuntary service of another. Therefore, abortion is a morally evil act which cannot be voided or reduced in gravity even by the good intention to help others (i.e. as vaccine production)."

David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, a Catholic Jesuit university with main campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, said any issue connected with abortion "is a real third rail for the church’s teaching."

But he said the vaccines’ connections to abortion are "remote" and the debate "really clouds, I think obscures, the central message. What the pope has said is the main obligation is to defend the health and life of people today."

Honkanen, who reports to Catholic Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said in the letter that "ideally, a vaccine will have no connection at any stage of development or production with the use of cell lines initially derived from an aborted fetus."

She said all three vaccines as well as AstraZeneca, not authorized for use in the U.S., have some link to the cell lines, to various degrees. Cell lines are replicated and grown in labs.

"The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, using mRNA technology, do NOT use morally compromised cell lines in the design, development, or production of the vaccine," she wrote. "A confirmatory test, however, employing a cell line connected to abortion was performed on both these vaccines."

"Thus, while neither vaccine is completely free from any connection to abortion, in this case the connection to the initial evil of abortion is very remote and ended."

In contrast, she wrote, the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines use viral vector technology and "are more morally compromised because they rely on cell lines produced from a past abortion in the design, development and production stages of that vaccine as well as in a confirmatory test. Therefore, their connection to abortion, albeit remote, is both greater and on-going."

For those reasons, the church recommends Pfizer or Moderna, if possible, she wrote.

However, she noted that the bishops' conference and other Catholic groups say "it can be morally permissible for Catholics to receive a vaccine remotely connected to the evil of abortion if there are no reasonable alternatives available and they make known their objection to the use of morally compromised cell lines."

She also noted that getting a vaccine "could be viewed as an act of self-love and charity towards one’s neighbor in limiting a serious infectious disease."

Provenzano said that the remote connection of the vaccines to fetuses aborted decades ago is outweighed by their value in being able to save lives.

"It is not as if women are becoming impregnated and abortions are happening in order to create cell lines to produce the vaccine," he said. "The cell lines that are being used are the result of abortions that had already taken place."

Gibson, of Fordham, said any concern that abortion-derived cell lines were used in vaccine research or production must be balanced with the moral good of taking the vaccine.

"The problem with all this moral theorizing is that the main issue gets lost," Gibson said. "I think it’s a black eye for the Catholic Church, but it’s also potentially harmful to the common good and people’s lives."

Gibson pointed out that the bishops' conference in a statement Tuesday did not tell Catholics not to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Dolan, of the Catholic diocese, said that despite the church's position against the use of abortion derived-cell lines, "being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good."

A recent Vatican statement says that "when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process."

In a Jan. 10 interview with an Italian news program, Pope Francis said, as translated in the National Catholic Reporter: "I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others."

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