What is the Catholic Perspective on Vaccines?

Living as a parent in today’s world can be difficult. With so much information courtesy of parenting books, blogs, and the advice (wanted or not) of those around you, it can sometimes be difficult to know what are the best choices for your children and your family. The topic of vaccines is one of the more controversial topics that comes up around parents, and with increased outbreaks of measles in recent years, it has become a hotly debated topic.

But does the Catholic Church have any guidance or perspective on vaccines? Yes, in fact! In 2017 the Pontifical Academy for Life issued an updated document on the moral considerations related to vaccinations. Monsignor Stuart Swetland recently discussed this document and the Catholic perspective on vaccine on an episode of Go Ask Your Father™. 

“There is, in my opinion, some misleading news out there that says the Catholic Church discourages vaccination,” he said. “That isn’t true. This new document out from 2017 says, ‘The Catholic Church has not opposed vaccinations in principle, but does consider as morally illicit the development of vaccines from aborted fetal tissues.'”

“In many ways this isn’t a new statement,” Msgr. Swetland continued. “It’s a reiteration of an old statement, one that was made in 2005 about the fact that we should vaccinate our children. And that’s because it’s part of serving the common good as well as serving the health of our children.”

The effectiveness of vaccines in eradicating certain diseases depends on “herd immunity,” which stops the spread of the contagious disease and protects those who should not be vaccinated, such as those with compromised immune systems or other medical concerns. However, for Catholics there is concern about the development of certain vaccines that are prepared using cells from aborted human fetuses.

“There are, as far as I know, three vaccines that use human cells from aborted fetuses,” Msgr. Swetland explained. “One is against rubella, and the other ones are the Hepatitis A and the chicken pox one that is most commonly used. The Vatican addressed this, and has a lengthy discussion of why it is a remote material cooperation in evil to use these lines. It is allowed, it is licit because it’s so remote. Now, the 2005 document encouraged us who avail for our children of these vaccines to write to the manufacturers to say they wish there was another alternative to, to make that known, but that it was well within the parent’s rights and duties, since there was no alternative vaccines, to use those.”

Because the Catholic Church affirms the dignity of all human life, ending a life through abortion is still a grave evil, even if it helps bring about advances such as vaccinations. So for parents who would prefer not to participate in this practice, no matter how remote the cooperation in evil is, would refusing these vaccinations be the morally right choice?

“It is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole to undergo significant risks of their health,” Msgr. Swetland explained. “However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with more problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis.”

“So they’re saying it’s not illicit to use because it is a passive material cooperation, which is licit,” he said. “And therefore, for the sake of the common good, particularly in those cases where it puts the children and others at risk, you have a proportionately good reason to use it.”

“So I hope that’s clear that we should vaccinate our children,” Msgr. Swetland concluded. “It’s what the 2005 document encouraged and it’s what the 2017 document at the Vatican’s Academy for Life further encouraged. It seems to me the Church is encouraging us to properly protect our children and the common good by having them vaccinated.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

Go Ask Your Father airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.