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Theologian Brett Salkeld on COVID Vaccines and Religious Exemption


With so much in the news about rising COVID-19 cases and vaccination efforts, Theologian Brett Salkeld stops by the show to discuss the ethics of vaccines, government mandates, and religious exemptions in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came out with the note saying that all vaccines developed to this point are morally permissible,” Salkeld explains. “The cooperation with abortion is very remote. In early 2020, we learned that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were connected to the cell line called HEK 293. Cell lines can be derived from human tissues or any tissues, but in this case, human tissue, specifically, fetal tissue.”

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Salkeld provides some context for understanding this cell line. “HEK 293 is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. Once you start looking, everything is tested on it: soft drinks, cosmetics, almost every drug in your medicine cabinet. We don’t actually know for sure that the fetus from which this cell line was derived was aborted. It seems probable given what we know about the circumstances in the lab. So the two overwhelmingly dominant vaccines in the United States and Canada have the same connection as Tums and Tylenol. Almost anything else you have in your medicine cabinet, and probably some things in your pantry, were tested with these cell lines.”

Salkeld explains why the Church allows us to receive these vaccines even though they were not produced from an ethical cell line. “The basic category is what we call ‘remote material cooperation with evil,’ which is something we do every day. When we are on Facebook, we are remotely and materially cooperating with evil. Facebook donates to Planned Parenthood, and by using their service you’re contributing in some tiny way to future abortions. This happens almost every time you shop; It is basically unavoidable.”

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“The Vatican notes this cooperation with the vaccine as passive,” Salkeld continues. “You’re not contributing to a future abortion. You’re benefiting from an evil act in the past. Can you benefit from an evil act in the past if you didn’t intend it, and you’re not perpetuating it? We all do it. And in this case, the proportionate good that comes from vaccinating an entire society so that we can end a pandemic is way higher than Facebook. If we’re doing it all the time without worrying about it, the Vatican has to underscore that yes, we can benefit from a past evil act when proportionately, the good that comes from it is so good. When you benefit from a historically evil act, the thing to be conscious of is that you don’t then justify the act. Just because you benefited from an act does not mean you think it was good. 

Here’s the most obvious example for Christians: the crucifixion. The fact that you benefit from that [event] does not mean that you turn around and say it was good for Jesus’ friends to betray him. As Christians, we know that God brings good out of evil, but it does need to be proportionate. The question of proportion here is a foregone conclusion. If you’ve ever taken Tylenol for a headache and not had qualms, we’re saying a headache is proportionate. Then stopping a pandemic is easily proportional. It’s not even close.”

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Salkeld touches on vaccine mandates. “The Vatican document noted that as a general rule vaccines shouldn’t be mandatory. Medical interventions are not mandatory according to Catholic teaching because there’s always proportionate balancing. You have to do cost-benefit analysis, and the Church doesn’t impose that on individuals because it recognizes the uniqueness of certain situations… Vaccines should not be mandated by the government. Here’s where we get into really tricky territory because the Catholic Church says you need to follow your conscience. It also says that you need to properly form your conscience. And we’re in a really difficult situation right now in terms of conscience formation because of everyone who’s talking about conscientious objection to vaccine mandates. They’re mentioning the abortion connection, and there is so much misinformation spreading about the vaccine.”

“The Church doesn’t say every Catholic must get the vaccine. Pope Francis has certainly encouraged us to get it. You can’t say that because I’m a Catholic, I don’t get a vaccine because it’s against my religion. You can’t lean on a religious exemption because that would mean that the Church says that you shouldn’t get it. And that is not what the Church is saying.”