OPINION | Mixed messages: COVID-19 versus Catholicism


Maggie Pasterz

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine stirs up controversy in the New Orleans Catholic Church

Zachary Schultz, Staff Writer

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine stirs up controversy in the New Orleans Catholic Church. (Maggie Pasterz) | Layout Editor

In an official statement released last week, the Archdiocese of New Orleans admonished the new Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, labelling it “morally compromised,” because an “abortion-derived cell line” was used during the testing, development and production of the vaccine. In the same Feb. 26 statement, the archdiocese gave its blessing to the two other mainstream COVID-19 vaccines being distributed across the nation. The distinction is due to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines bearing an “extremely remote” connection to the practice of abortion and the post-partum byproducts thereof.  

The timing of the archdiocese’s statement is suspect. Just 72 hours prior to the statement’s publication, a vital deadline was set to expire in Orleans Parish. March 1 was the last chance for victims of clerical sexual abuse within the archdiocese to affix their names to the ongoing class-action suit against the archdiocese. 

The peculiar timing of that statement comes into greater focus when one considers that the archdiocese’s written condemnation of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine had the effect — whether intended or not — of eclipsing what would otherwise be the main headline on the local news, one unfavorable to the archdiocese and the Catholic Church in general.    

In the wake of the Feb. 26 statement, such titans of the printed work as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times covered the archdiocese’s statement warning Catholics to avoid receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, with a plethora of local publications following suit. A notable omission from such saturated coverage was the apparent parallel between the archdiocese’s ongoing clerical sex-abuse litigation and the release of the vaccine statement. 

Although some might dismiss this supposed insidious connection as a matter of happenstance, or as deriving from the author’s animus toward the Catholic Church or Catholic Faith — to that point, it bears mentioning that the author is himself a practicing Catholic and ardent adherent to the doctrine and dogma — such initial apprehensions will fade with what follows. 

Upon revisiting the Feb. 26 statement with heightened suspicion and greater attention to detail, hidden motivations and Machiavellian tactics seem to have undergirded the archdiocese’s argument. To begin with, the statement is incoherent, violating the same standards which it sets. In labeling the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines with the Catholic insignia of moral permissibility, the archdiocese predicates that decision, in part, on guidance solicited from the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Bioethics Center. However, the letter treats this same criteria as informing its decision to do the opposite with respect to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.  

Against the assertions of the archdiocese, the Vatican has issued an official statement clarifying its position on vaccine use. In stark contrast to the archdiocese’s representation of the official position of the Holy See on this matter, that statement asserts that it is permissible for Catholics to receive vaccines made from aborted cell tissue. 

With respect to the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the most that can be said is that the verdict is still out. For one who is unfamiliar with the complex relationship between holders of ecclesiastical office, this might seem puzzling, but for the Catholic Church it is business as usual. Indeed, it is quite common for bishops even within the same region to espouse mirrored assertions with the same force of Catholic dogma.  

At this point, little has been done to help Catholics navigate the cloud of confusion to arrive at one of the exits of the maze. However, that will be achieved when addressing the final source the archdiocese sought for guidance prior to throwing its weight against receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine: The National Catholic Bioethics Center. Despite that organization’s finding that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was developed from an “abortion-derived cell line,” Johnson and Johnson denies using aborted cell tissue in the development of its vaccine. 

From the outset of this pandemic, citizens throughout the world — and, indeed, in the U.S. — have long awaited the moment when a vaccine would be developed to combat the effects of the coronavirus and at last put an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, three vaccines are in the distribution phase in the U.S. — the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson vaccines — and, while prospects for a mask-free future are improving, the finish line is still far in the distance. However, the American resolve has grown stronger as a result of seeing the positive decline in infection rates following the nationwide distribution of these vaccines. 

Catholics have long sought guidance from church officials about how to live their lives, seeing them as their spiritual guides for obtaining salvation in the life to come, and have based an extensive amount of their conduct upon the information received from that process. The pope, however, cannot maintain a close relationship with each Catholic comprising the 1 billion adherents to the faith for whom he is a shepherd. For this reason, the Catholic Church is a hierarchical church, wherein bishops and archbishops, among numerous other clerical offices, are installed for the sole purpose of maintaining a closer relationship with the faithful in diverse and distinctive regions across the globe.  

The onus is on the Archdiocese of New Orleans to provide the Catholics residing within their jurisdiction a reasoned answer to the moral dilemma involved with vaccines. It appears, however, that the archdiocese’s decision was more opportunistic than a genuine concern for the souls of their brothers and sisters in Christ. It seems that the archdiocese manipulated the immense respect and power entrusted to it, once again, to advance self-serving interests: the diversion of media attention from unfavorable news coverage that might have unsurfaced even more lurid, reprehensible conduct occurring within the confessional and beyond.

For the archdiocese to urge its faithful believers to eliminate one of these from consideration and to do so on questionable science and mixed messaging is shameful and in the simplest terms, sinful. The disturbing, faith-shaking accusations survivors have been vocalizing against members of the Church, from local parish priests and deacons to the highest office holders in the Vatican, illustrate the immense degree to which Catholics trust church officials, in some instances granting unmitigated access to their children and then, according to some accounts, refusing to believe their own child’s claim of abuse over the word of the priest. When the archbishop, then, comes out with a statement of this magnitude, Catholics listen and often do not question their spiritual advisor. 

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