The Covid vaccine and the holy innocents

A woman holds a small bottle labeled "Vaccine COVID-19" in this illustration photo. (CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

by Fr Neil Vaney SM

Recent statements from Rome, endorsed by our own New Zealand bishops, have made it clear that there is no moral objection to the use of vaccines developed to block the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Pope Francis, and our local bishops, have gone further, saying there is a moral obligation for Catholics to take up the inoculations as they become available.

Some Catholics, especially in the United States of America, had been concerned that some vaccines were morally compromised by using stem cells from aborted foetuses. On December 17, 2020, Pope Francis declared that there was no question of formal cooperation with the evil of abortion in the production of such vaccines, and that the older lines had undergone many alterations in later development. This judgement was very quickly endorsed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on December 21, 2020, and shortly after by our own bishops (January 13, 2021).

It is helpful to realise that such argumentation is not a modern novelty. Distinctions between formal and material, proximate and remote cooperation, go back to medieval theology, a millennium ago, with even earlier roots. They make it clear that, for cooperation in evil to be clearly immoral, those involved must know and desire the evil outcome and be directly responsible in bringing it about.

A Scriptural Parallel

Some people may still feel very uneasy, given their deep sense of repugnance at the widespread and growing acceptance of abortion. If that registers with you, I offer what is called a typological argument, a device often used by the fathers of the early Church (First to fourth centuries). It is based on Matthew 2:8-11.

You will recall that, in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, he includes the story of the visit of the wise men from the East. They go to King Herod, a notoriously ruthless ruler, who pumps the visitors for information about this infant, for any talk of kingship is interpreted as a challenge to his despotic rule. Having worked out a place and time for the birth, he decrees that all the male children born around Bethlehem in the past two years are to be killed.

In the Western Church, these infants have been proclaimed martyrs, and a feast in their honour (December 28) was instituted somewhere in the fourth-fifth centuries. They would never personally know Jesus, some of them just newborns. Yet Christians recognised that they had died in Christ’s place, innocent and unknowing, so that his mission could go on. It could be argued that they are archetypes of the huge number of children aborted in our time. We can make no judgement as to the motives driving the mothers to this extreme — they can be diverse and complex. But whatever the reasons offered: poverty, violent relationships, family and personal stress or personal inconvenience, it is still true that these lives were never given a chance to grow and blossom. They were sacrificed for the sake of others — just as the holy innocents were.

The fact that some of their genetic line might be used to rescue many others from death was never foreseen or intended — yet it is a gift for us now. So perhaps we should think of them not just as victims, but also as offerings bringing hope to others.

The Call to Get Vaccinated

The New Zealand bishops, following Pope Francis, have suggested that we have a moral duty to get vaccinated. This is not only because we are protecting our own lives, but also that we are lessening the danger that we might infect others. The more our citizens are inoculated, the lower the chance of infection for our brothers and sisters, the aged and those living in poor and sub-standard housing. Genetically and historically speaking, we are all profoundly interconnected. It may be that the tenuous link that we have with children aborted in the last 50 years can become part of a chain of thanksgiving and new awareness, rather than just a source of sadness and loss.

Fr Neil Vaney, SM, is pastoral director/chaplain of the Catholic Enquiry Centre – Catholic Discovery.

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NZ Catholic contributor

Reader Interactions


  1. Gregory says

    Lots of argument from authority in this opinion piece.

    You can’t argue formal non-cooperation and then go award merit based on “unforeseen” benefits, i.e. you can’t be credited for something that wasn’t co-operated in formally or proximately. I might as well take credit for winning the Rugby world Cup because I once, typologically, played rugby.

    If there is no “formal co-operation with evil” then what does it matter to soften the blow by drawing the analogy with the martyred “Holy Innocents”. The original involuntary and forced donor who was killed to supply the tissue is rendered a non-person by distance and technology. Where else do we see that?

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