Covid-19 vaccination should not be mandatory

The bottom line is that whether to get a Covid-19 vaccine is, in the nature of the case, a prudential matter.  But fanatics on both sides want to turn it into something more than that.

(Image: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash.com)

In a recent post on my personal blog, I argued that a Catholic can in good conscience take one of the Covid-19 vaccines, but also that such vaccination should not be mandatory.  In a follow-up post, I expanded on the first point.  Let’s now expand on the second.

Thomistic natural law theory and Catholic moral theology are not libertarian, but neither are they statist.  They acknowledge that we can have enforceable obligations to which we do not consent, but also insist that there are limits to what government can require of us, and qualifications even where it can require something of us.  In the case of vaccine mandates (whether we are talking about Covid-19 vaccines, polio vaccines, or whatever), they neither imply a blanket condemnation of such mandates nor a blanket approval of them.  There is nuance here that too many hotheads on both sides of the Catholic debate on this issue ignore.

In order to understand the ethics of vaccine mandates, it is useful to draw a comparison with the ethics of military conscription.  Both mandatory vaccination and military conscription involve a grave interference with individual liberty.  Both are nevertheless in principle allowable.  But the grave interference with liberty also entails serious qualifications.

Military conscription

What does the Church teach about military conscription?  On the one hand, there is a recognition of its legitimacy in principle, given the obligations we have as social animals who have a duty to defend our country.  Pope Pius XII taught:

If, therefore, a body representative of the people and a government – both having been chosen by free elections – in a moment of extreme danger decides, by legitimate instruments of internal and external policy, on defensive precautions, and carries out the plans which they consider necessary, it does not act immorally.  Therefore a Catholic citizen cannot invoke his own conscience in order to refuse to serve and fulfill those duties the law imposes.  (Christmas message of December 23, 1956)

Note that the principle here is that it can be legitimate in this case for the state to require something of the citizen even though it involves putting him at grave risk, and despite the fact that he might think his conscience justifies refusal.

But does that entail that every citizen is obligated unquestioningly to take up arms in just any old war that a government claims is justified, and ought to be forced to do so?  Absolutely not.  For there are two further considerations which need to be taken account of.

First, the obligation to take up arms applies only in the case of a just war, and natural law theory and Catholic moral theology set out several criteria for a war’s being just: the war must be authorized by a legitimate authority; the cause must be just (for example, the aggression being responded to must be grave enough to be worth going to war over); the motivation must be just (for example, the publicly stated justification, even if reasonable considered by itself, must not be a cover for some hidden sinister motivation); the means of fighting must be just (for example, they must not bring about harms that are even worse than those that we hope to remedy through war); and there must be a reasonable hope of success.

Now, a private citizen does not have all the information required in order thoroughly to evaluate any particular war in light of all of these criteria.  In a reasonably just society, he therefore has to give some benefit of the doubt to the governing authorities.  All the same, he also does have a duty to make at least some investigation to determine whether a war really is just before going along with it.  And naturally, the more corrupt a given government is, the stronger are going to be the reasons for doubting the justice of a war that it undertakes.  There is, as Pius XII’s teaching makes clear, a presumption in favor of complying with the government’s requirements, but that presumption can be overridden.

That brings us to the second, related point, which is that although appeals to conscience do not by themselves suffice to excuse a citizen from military service, they nevertheless ought to be taken very seriously by the state.  As Vatican II teaches:

It seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way.  (Gaudium et Spes 79)

This basic principle here is this.  Though a person’s conscience can certainly be in error, at the same time one ought not to act in a way that is positively contrary to one’s conscience.  For one would in that case be doing something that one sincerely (even if wrongly) thought to be immoral, which would itself be immoral.  Suppose I sincerely thought that it would be gravely immoral to eat meat.  In fact it isn’t immoral, and so if I do eat meat, the eating of it is not itself wrong.  But violating my (mistaken) conscience would be wrong.  So, for that reason, I shouldn’t eat meat until I come to see the error of my opinion on this matter.

Of course, people abuse this principle all the time.  Catholics who want to get abortions like to pretend that they can justify themselves by appealing to conscience – as if the trip to the Planned Parenthood clinic was analogous to Thomas More’s refusing to swear allegiance to the king as supreme authority over the Church.  This is, of course, absurd, and not only because the arguments for the legitimacy of abortion are worthless.  To swear to recognize the king as supreme authority over the Church is to do something that is intrinsically evil.  Merely to refrain from getting an abortion is not to do something intrinsically evil, because it is not to do anything at all.  It is not a kind of action, but rather, again, a refraining from action.  Hence no one who is prevented from getting an abortion is being made to act against conscience in the relevant sense.

But suppose someone is forced to take up arms in a war he sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) to be immoral.  Then he would in that case be made to act against his conscience, and in that sense be made to do something immoral (even if the war is not in fact wrong).  It is out of sensitivity to this problem that the Church allows for conscientious objection.

Naturally, this raises problems of its own.  What if a very large number of people decided to opt out of fighting in a war that really was just and necessary?  That’s a good question, but one we can put to one side for present purposes.  Suffice it to say that even if there is a presumption in favor of the state’s having the authority to coerce citizens to take up arms in a just war, the state should nevertheless allow for exemptions, as far as it reasonably can, for citizens who demonstrate sincere and deep-seated moral reservations about the war, especially if they agree to some reasonable alternative public service.

Application to vaccine mandates

The application of these principles to the case of vaccine mandates is pretty clear.  A society might be threatened by a serious disease, just as it might be threatened by an armed aggressor.  We can have duties to help do what is necessary to repel the threat in the former case just as in the latter, even if this entails some risk to ourselves.  Hence, just as it is in principle legitimate for the state to require military conscription (despite the fact that this entails putting people’s lives at risk in defense of the country), so too can it be legitimate in principle for the state to require vaccination (even if this too involves some risk, insofar as vaccines – many vaccines, not just Covid-19 vaccines – can have occasional bad side effects for some people).  Hence, it will not do merely to appeal to a concern for individual liberty as an objection to vaccine mandates, as if that by itself settled the issue.

However, that is by no means the end of the story.  For there are, with vaccines as with war, two further considerations.  First, with vaccines as with war, the state has no right to impose on the citizens just any old obligation that it wants to.  A vaccine mandate, like a war, can be just or unjust.  As with a war, the state must determine that there is no realistic alternative way to deal with the threat it is trying to counter.  It must have the right motivation, rather than using the health considerations as a cover for some more sinister motivation.  There must be a reasonable chance that the mandate will successfully deal with the threat to public health.  There must be good grounds for thinking that the mandate won’t cause more harm than good.  And so on.  And as with war, if a citizen has well-founded reasons for thinking that the conditions on a just vaccination mandate are not met, he thereby has grounds for resisting it.

That brings us to the other point, which is that as with war, so too with vaccination mandates (and for the same reasons), the state ought to be generous with those whose consciences lead them to have serious reservations about vaccination, even if their consciences happen to be mistaken.  The state should as far as possible allow those having these reservations to contribute to dealing with the threat to public health in some other way (just as, as Vatican II teaches, those who refuse to take up arms should “agree to serve the human community in some other way”).  This is why, in its affirmation that the Covid-19 vaccines can be taken in good conscience, the Vatican also stated:

At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.  In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good.  In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.  Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.  In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable. [emphasis added]

End quote.  The applicability of the principles I’ve been setting out to the specific case of Covid-19 vaccines is, I think, also obvious.  As I said in my initial post, while I think some case could be made for a mandate, I don’t think it is a compelling case.  I don’t think state or federal governments have met the burden of proof.  I also said that there are reasonable grounds for preferring not to take the vaccines, and that it is also perfectly understandable that many citizens do not trust the judgment of public authorities.  Many such authorities today are committed to manifestly lunatic beliefs on other topics – that the police should be defunded, that the distinction between men and women is merely a social construct, and so on.  Many governments have earned the public’s distrust, and a wise statesman, knowing this, would strongly urge against heavy-handed actions that are guaranteed only to increase this distrust.

For such reasons, and also because of the general principle that the state ought as far as possible to avoid forcing people to act against their consciences, there should be no Covid-19 vaccine mandates, and where they do exist there should be generous exemptions for those who object to them in conscience.

In all things charity

Some readers of my two earlier posts on this subject have reacted in a predictably unhinged way.  One blogger insists that “one’s position on the vaxx is a litmus test,” and avers that I have now revealed “on which side [my] loyalties lie” and joined “the enemy” (!)  Another declares that I have “switched sides from that of God to anti-God” (!!)  They thereby illustrate my point that too many right-wingers have been led by the very real crisis we are facing to fly off the rails and land in the same paranoid fantasyland mentality that has overtaken the Left.  Or perhaps they simply demonstrate that they don’t know how to read.  For in my initial post, I explicitly criticized the mandates, explicitly acknowledged that there are reasonable concerns about the vaccines, explicitly said that public authorities have damaged their own credibility, and explicitly affirmed that those who put themselves at risk in resisting the mandates deserve our respect.

But one can say all that and, with perfect consistency, also hold that the Covid-19 vaccines are not connected with abortion in a way that would make it wrong to use them, and that those Catholics who decide to take the vaccine do not sin in doing so.  And that was the point I was making in those earlier posts.  Contrary to what some Catholic churchmen and writers have been saying over the last few months, opposition to abortion and fidelity to the Catholic faith do not oblige Catholics to “die on the hill” of Covid-19 vaccination.  These churchmen and writers have no business usurping the Church’s teaching authority and claiming otherwise.  But that by no means entails that there aren’t other reasons to object to vaccination mandates.

The bottom line is that whether to get a Covid-19 vaccine is, in the nature of the case, a prudential matter.  But fanatics on both sides want to turn it into something more than that.  One side says that as a Catholic, you must not get the vaccine – never mind what the Church says, what three popes have said, and what decades of orthodox Catholic moral theology has said.  The other side says that you must get the vaccine, even if this violates your conscience.  Both sides gravely offend against justice and charity.  Both sides muddy the waters and stir up passions when what the Church and the world need more than ever are clarity and sobriety.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with his kind permission.)


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About Dr. Edward Feser 22 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

30 Comments

  1. Dr. Feser – your article is wise, calm and filled with grace, thank you for helping to dig deeper into this issue. Why we have abandoned the reasoned approach to these issues that are found in God’s law, natural law, reason, is beyond me – I continue to remind myself we are to be judged by the fruit we bear, and the data coming out from more transparent countries show the fruit born by the vaccine is simply bad for individuals and for us as a community. May God bless you and continue to inspire you to receive and share His word in full.

  2. Any government that can get away with mandating you to take a vaccine “for the public good” can mandate you to have an abortion “for the public good,” can mandate you to be sterilized “for the public good,” and can mandate that you have only one child “for the public good.” And the list goes on and on.

    The problem as I see it is that almost imperceptibly, our democratically elected government has morphed into totalitarianism. This is no longer about a vaccine.

    “HELLO GULAG AMERICA!”

    • Well said Deacon Ed. If they can tell us what they must put in our bodies there is absolutely no limit. They can put words in your mouth, thoughts in your head, and convictions in your heart. Or at least they’ll presume the power and the right to do so. All for the “public good” of course.

  3. I think it would also be a good idea to begin to examine this issue from the perspective of medical ethics. This vaccination debate has been so politically charged and heated that it is difficult to obtain accurate, non-conflicting information about the vaccination. I’d assert that making a fully informed decision about risks and efficacy in the context of one’s own unique circumstance (including medical history, underlying conditions, life style, etc.) is, put lightly, a challenge. There are other ways to work for the common good. People cannot and should not be put into a healthcare ‘cookie cutter,’ for every body is different and reacts differently to both COVID and the vaccine. I’d propose that this situation has posed medical ethics issues in terms of viewing every person and every ‘body’ the same in applying vaccine mandates. Not withstanding potential exemptions – this is a medical ethics issue that must be examined because it is a message implicit in the concept of a vaccine mandate. Further, what is wrong with someone wanting to continue to take necessary precautions until perhaps a vaccination that does not involve tainted cell lines emerges? Wanting to be fully informed, awaiting a vaccine that did not utilize tainted cell lines and continuing to work toward the common good by taking necessary precautions does not make for a radical “anti-vaxxer” that seems to be condemned in the public eye far too often these days.

    • I am most encouraged to observe the reasonable responses to avoid being coerced to take an experimental vaccine, inadequately tested, with unknown, and many known adverse reactions. I have followed and researched this experimental vaccine and its effect on those vaccinated. It has involved thousands of deaths and even more deadly adverse events. The virus should have been evaluated more thoroughly before an experimental vaccine with a totally different delivery system was mass produced. The total, long term adverse events have yet to be quantified. If honest reporting will follow, one day this vax experiment will be considered an abject failure. Always follow the money. The hundreds of billions made on the vaccines, tests, masks and much more are astronomical, not to mention the economic and individual disasters that have resulted from the government interference and shutdowns.

      Then there remains the fact that aborted future human beings have been killed and used for production of the experimental vax. One individual who worked in one laboratory for the production of the vaccine has publicly stated that in order to keep the cell lines usable for continuous production there are live aborted tissues (cells) needed. That information negates the relaxed conscience to minimize the abortion of 30+ years ago. Vaccines can now, and have been produced without killing the unborn. There is currently a plethora of statistics available on the lucrative abortion business. It is a multi-million dollar enterprise that is well financed by our government sending your tax dollars. We have become hard-hearted and immune to the brutal and savage procedures taking place in abortion clinics.
      Surely, we have not become so barbarian that we could not have delayed production of a vaccine a little longer which would no doubt have now been successful. Also, it has been well-documented those who contract the virus have substantially more immunity than the vaccinated. Last week a newspaper reported 30% of deaths in one hospital were the fully vaccinated. What doe that portend?? The vaccinated are now requiring booster injections, and how long will that continue?? Again, great profits for Big Pharma who wield tremendous power and donations in electing our government legislators. I will reiterate this boondoggle will be considered one of The United States’ largest, disastrous catastrophes in its history. Afghanistan’s simultaneous tragedy compounds the pitiful State Of The Union. Lord have mercy!!

  4. In a reasonably just society, he therefore has to give some benefit of the doubt to the governing authorities.
    And also the contrary
    Also the question of what is a vaccine is unanswered

  5. After more than 115 years of vaccine “mandates” we can finally put this issue to rest. Scientists haven’t proven that the germ theory of disease is correct. In addition, profit-seeking drug companies, most likely corrupt government officials, and TV media companies which one can easily note take plenty of advertising money from pharmaceutical companies can’t be trusted to not have conflicts of interest.

    In fact, in matters of health the only way that there can’t be a conflict of interest is if the patient himself has absolute say over all medical decisions except for those that are clearly immoral (e.g. assisted suicide). The risks and benefits are born by the patient, so he has the natural right to make his own medical decisions. In fact, I don’t believe that parents should be able to override the rights of their sufficiently mature (i.e. age of reason) children.

    The problem with the analogy the author give is that war is a human matter while disease is not. If there were no human beings, there wouldn’t be any wars, but there would still be diseases. An epidemic (Assuming that it exists.) is something that could be accurately compared to a natural disaster.

    With regards to war it is easy enough to draw a “bright line” distinction. There is an obvious difference between a defensive and offensive war. Judging the war to be just is much easier in the former case.

  6. Thank you Dr. Feser for your level headed reasoning on this topic. I have taken the vaccine for covid 19 after having read the church’s statements about the morality of taking the shot and then praying about it. I’ve also signed petitions requesting that pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines not connected with aborted fetuses. My wife is dependent on my staying in decent health and in good conscience I believe my being protected from this disease was the right thing to do.

  7. I would simply like to point out that even with 100% vaccination rates, that it would not end the pandemic. Vaccines are to PREVENT pandemics, and vaccination while a pandemic underway merely gives a fertile breeding ground for mutations to survive the vaccine.

    Ponder this….how many folk did it take entering the US to ignite the pandemic? Now, consider how many fully vaccinated are still catching and spreading this virus. Studies in Vietnam and Israel show fully vaccinated are infecting fully vaccinated and unvaccinated.

    My state latest figures show in last 30 days, 18.7% of all hospitalized virus cases were FULLY vaccinated. That is nearly TWENTY percent.

    Cases are already in steep decline, again, vaccine or not, while state vaccination rates have only risen from 48% at peak of Delta (which coincided with vaccine roll-out, strangely) to now only 58% but numbers crashing again.

  8. If the “vaccine” kills me, or fails to protect me from the virus, who pays? Biden? Pfizer? The employer? Where is the justice?

  9. No, one cannot take the death shot in good conscience, absent invincible ignorance, which is hard to have with all the evidence of death and sickness around us due to these poison shots. Can a Catholic actually tell the full truth in our day? Thank God for Archbishop Vigano for his truth telling on the greatest crime against humanity.

  10. Use of these products; which are not vaccines but a form of therapy do involve considerations of conscience. But there’s far more to it than that. There may be serious health risks associated with them. Further, they are experimental. For any medical products but especially for those that are classified as experimental, informed consent is essential yet it has not be forthcoming for these products. Information on long term side risks is unavailable. Further prior trials of Covid vaccines ended when the lab animals died after exposure to the virus in the wild. Is the general public being well informed as to these facts? Not in this new era of censorship of anything other than the “party line”.

    Btw, some will claim that the Pfizer product is now formally FDA approved and therefore non-experimental. That’s false since the “approved” product is marketed under the brand name Comiranty, and it’s not available anywhere. But it does allow the unscrupulous to lie, and fool the public.

  11. For anyone who is going to make a religious exemption request, I have the following observation:

    Many employers will do everything they can to reject a request and will not engage in a discussion to fully vet your religious objections. Instead, they will look for any ground to reject, even to the point of inviting a law suit. Therefore, please write your exemption request with this in mind.

  12. “But one can say all that and, with perfect consistency, also hold that the Covid-19 vaccines are not connected with abortion in a way that would make it wrong to use them,…”. How is anything connected to abortion not wrong to use?
    You need to clarify this statement, because anything connected to abortion IS WRONG to use. People have, for years, sought the end of testing cosmetics etc on animals, but the use of aborted fetal cells for certain vaccines and medications is ok?
    Ask a woman who has had an abortion and has realized her grave mistake, or a man who participated/agreed to an abortion for his wife, girlfriend, and ask them if they would want to inject anything in their body remotely connected to an aborted baby. The fetal cells in question are from a baby girl in 1973. Imagine how many people have been exposed to this, in most cases unknowingly, since then.
    If a person receives something ‘connected’ to abortion unknowingly and then discovers the truth, their conscience is without sin. But to knowingly accept an experimental injection, medication, etc. then that is a moral issue.
    The use of aborted fetal cells for various medical uses has been proven and exposed (eg. David Daleiden alone showed the world what is actually happening with aborted babies bodies and parts). It’s easy to close one’s eyes and say ‘it isn’t so’, but it is!

    • The most detailed (complete with many footnotes) explanation of why a vaccine may not be illicit for Catholics is right here at CWR:

      Cooperation, appropriation, and vaccines relying on fetal cell line research

      Some of you may not be familiar with Edward Fesser, a former atheist who keep right on reading (relevant virtue: perseverance) until he became a Catholic, and wrote a fine book about Thomistic theology. In case you are thinking, “OK, so Prof. Fesser can write fine articles when he has plenty of time on his hands, but there is no way he can possibly do this in real time, live, in front of an audience, well, I saw him do just that.

  13. No Mr Feser you are wrong this time. Unborn children are aborted to
    produce material for the production of vaccines. Aborted seems a too nice word for what is happening. A vivisection takes place! The Pope said the acceptance of vaccinations is an act of love. No, it is collaboration with murder. Besides that, there is no need at all for vaccinations to deal with this disease. There is very helpful alternative medication.

  14. I gather that these are not vaccines but therapeutic products, as Faithful says above.
    If this is true, why are the medical and government experts still talking about vaccination? Isn’t this misleading and unethical? How can we make proper decisions if we don’t have the correct information?

  15. I found the article helpful. Thank you for your analysis. One element that especially struck me was the comparison with a nation in the grips of its survival in war. While it is easy to argue that our nation/society is at war with the virus from the death count but that argument has been muddied by the very loose attribution of the virus with death. Even the CDC indicated that only about 6% of the deaths were directly from the virus. So many other factors are at play that the entire notion we are at war with the virus seems silly. Compared to being forced to swarm over the top of a trench in the face of machine gun fire, the danger of death from this virus is tiny.

  16. As a 78 year old pro-life Catholic, I believe that vaccinations can and should be mandatory. Lives are at stake. Many.

    • If they can and should be mandatory, then why are the manufacturers along with the government, immune from liability? And if mandatory, then I guess considerations of informed consent are moot. After all who cares if you are well informed of the risks if you can be compelled regardless. And as a “pro-life Catholic” what would you think if instead of murdered babies, the victims were adult labor camp internees, murdered for the harvesting of their organs? Do you think any manufacturer would have dared to make such or product, or that any church leader anywhere would recommend taking it? If the prospect is unthinkable, why is it any different if the victim is an unborn child? Are they not equally human, and just as entitled, per Church teaching, to protection in law?

    • As a Doctor, you apparently don’t comprehend that what is being sold as a “vaccine” isn’t actually a vaccine.

      Ever taken the time to look at VAERS, Eugene?

  17. The Church has convinced me of the evil of abortion. How can I accept anything, supposedly beneficial, that comes directly from abortion?

  18. Israel and India. Point, counter point. The vaccine route doesn’t work as well as a therapeutic route, but tons more $$$ can be made by vaccines and getting to some yearly mandated jab…

  19. What is the church’s position of receiving a tainted vaccine when one already has a degree of immunity after recovering from infection. My interpretation is that the tainted vaccines are only “morally permissible” when there is no other alternative. However, recovering from an infection and having natural immunity is an alternative to the vaccine. Thus would it not be morally permissible for one with natural immunity to receive the vaccine?

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