What does the Church REALLY teach about vaccines?

An outbreak of the measles virus has focused attention on a small but growing number of American parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated, citing a variety of medical and ethical concerns. This post is agnostic on the merits of that question. 1 I want to focus on a different and precise point: Whether Church teaching requires Catholics to take a particular position on that question. In an article for the Catholic News Agency, Mary Rezac tells us that the answer is yes:

[T]he National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), a non-profit research and educational institute committed to applying the moral teachings of the Catholic Church to ethical issues arising in health care and the life sciences … , along with the Pontifical Academy for Life [“PAL”]—a Vatican body established to provide information about issues in law and biomedicine—have studied the moral issues surrounding vaccines and have determined that it is morally licit, and even morally responsible, for Catholics to use even those vaccines developed from aborted fetus cells … [PAL] determined that the good of public health outweighs the distanced cooperation in the evil of the abortions performed in the 1960s from which the cell lines were developed. No new abortions have been performed to maintain these vaccines, and no cells from the victims of the abortions are contained in the vaccines.

Currently the vaccine lines for rubella, chicken pox, and hepatitis A are the remaining vaccines that have been developed from aborted fetal cells and for which there is no alternative available.

“One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion,” reads a document from the NCBC based on the findings from [PAL, although the] … document goes on to say that Catholics should express their opposition to vaccines developed from aborted cells, and that there is an obligation to use alternative vaccines, should they exist. 2

If the Church has answered the vaccination question, as Rezac’s headline implies, then Catholics must (we will stipulate) give way. 3 The problem here is that neither the NCBC nor the PAL has the authority to answer the question for the Church, and Rezac identifies no answer from any person or body which does have that authority. 

The magisterium sets out to answer many questions of faith and morals. Inevitably, however, there are gaps. Aside from the obvious case in which the Church simply has no teaching at all, there many concrete questions on which somewhat-applicable magisterial teaching is underdeterminate. Briefly-stated, law is underdeterminate in relation to a concrete case when the sum total of legal rules applicable to that case confine the constellation of possible results but allow for more than one result, requiring the decisionmaker to supply a rule of decision from some other source. 4 “2+2″ is determinate; “2 + x where x is undefined” is indeterminate; “2 + where x ≤ 3″ is underdeterminate. Similarly, the magisterium, or any particular magisterial teaching, may be underdeterminate as applied to a concrete question because, for example, the magisterium may never have pronounced on the precise question at issue, or it may not have promulgated teaching of binding force on the topic, or binding teaching in the general area of the question may be too abstract to provide a rule of decision or so remote that the analogy required to apply it vitiates its binding character. 

When the Church has not spoken on a particular point, or if its teaching is underdeterminate, the question is necessarily remanded to the conscience of each believer to form their own judgment. When we confront an ethical problem, then, the first question is not “what is the right answer.” I have an opinion on vaccines; the anti-vaxxers have opinions on vaccines; I’m sure that the pope has an opinion on vaccines; and those opinions may be decisive as to our judgment if the Church has not spoken on the point. That is the first question: Whether the magisterium has preempted our judgment by promulgating binding teaching on the question. “Does the Church bind the faithful to a particular answer on this question?” And if not, does the Church bind the faithful to a particular inquiry, as she arguably does in, for example, the death penalty, where she does not bind the faithful to a simple yes or no, but instead prescribes the standard by which we must asses individual cases? 5

Nevertheless, although the Church can preempt the faithful and bind them to a particular answer, only the Church can do so. If Father Jazzhands of Rapid City, MI writes an op/ed in which he tells you his opinion on the question, that isn’t the decision of “the Church,” binding on all the faithful. It doesn’t become such even if Father Jazzhands styles it as a decision and claims the authority to do so. Why not? Because the Church has never authorized Father Jazzhands to make that determination. She might: She may, as a general matter, choose the agencies and instrumentalities through which she speaks. But whether or not she has done so is a question one must always ask when facing what purports to be a decision: Even if the promulgating body intends it to be a decision, does that body have the authority to issue that decision?

Neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor even the Compendium of Social Doctrine say a word about vaccines. I am unaware of any magisterial authority that addresses the question. And I should perhaps remark that because vaccines are inescapably a novel question, having come into existence only in recent centuries, we should perhaps be cautious about too-readily accepting claims that the Church has provided a binding answer on the subject. 6 

At any rate, the only authority cited by Rezac is PAL. And let’s assume that PAL intended to provide a definitive, binding answer on the vaccine question. PAL does not itself belong to the divine constitution of the Church, and so, if it has authority to answer that question, it must have been given that authority. So which pope gave it that authority? By which instrument? PAL was established by the motu proprio Vitae mysterium, 7 and nothing in that motu proprio confers on it the authority to wield binding, magisterial power. So on its face, Vitae mysterium doesn’t give PAL authority to answer the question. It may fairly be objected, however, that the effect of legislative lacunae depends on the backdrop against which the legislation is enacted. 8 There is no need to specify an attribute that the thing created possesses by its very nature; a curial Congregation, for example, is understood to exercise vicarious authority over the subject matter confided to its jurisdiction, and so we do not find a detailed elaboration of the nature and functions of a congregation in the apostolic constitution Pastor bonus, 9 just assignments of jurisdiction. If in 1994 a Pontifical Academy was ordinarily understood to wield magisterial authority, then PAL would posses that authority unless Vitae mysterium specifically withheld it. Were they? I don’t know. 10 But I would suggest that it is the burden of those who would insist that the teaching is binding to show the basis on which they would preempt the decisions of more than a billion Catholics. 

I understand the desire to invest PAL’s conclusion with an unearned authority. Anti-vaccination sentiment seems to be getting out of control with worrying consequences, and any stick to beat a dog, right? If the Church has preempted the question, that’s a good stick. But overreading PAL’s authority for convenience isn’t a sound position to take, first and most importantly because it’s unprincipled, second because, if taken seriously, it would bind us to every stupid utterance that comes out of any pontifical institution, and third, and perhaps most troubling, it asserts an unjustified power over the consciences of the entire body of the faithful. The question that you have to ask is, by what authority or right may the independence of each believer’s conscience be preempted? A few days ago, I remarked in another context that if your best answer to the question “how do we know X” begins with “Our lady of Y said,” your real answer is “we don’t know X.” In the same way, if the answer to that question begins with the words “[t]he Pontifical Academy of Y” or “the pontifical council for Z,” then it seems to me that the real answer is “we don’t know X.” And both for the same reason: Neither has the power to bind the assent of the faithful. 11 I disagree with the anti-vaxxers on the merits. But by what right or authority would I bind them to a different answer? Symmetrically, by what right or authority would they bind me to their answer? I cannot insist that they are at odds with the Church unless I can show clearly that there is actually a binding teaching with which they are at odds.

Put another way: Rezac’s expert, Dr. Cieslak, can say (and I would say) that “[a]s a Catholic I would argue that it’s a socially conscious thing to do,” so you ought to do it. But if he, or I, or Rezac, or anyone else wants to say that “as a Catholic you have to do it, you foolish anti-vaxxer,” that “you’re not just wrong about this, you’re actually defying the teaching of the Church,” then we had better be able to show the existence, content, and, ideally, the source of that teaching. If you don’t have an authority, all you have is an opinion! And I have no right to demand that someone else change their opinion to match mine, any more than they have a right to demand that I change mine to match theirs.

So what does the Church really teach about vaccines? I think that the safest answer is that the Church teaches nothing at all about vaccines,  as yet, and the question is thus left to the conscience of individual Catholics. 


  1. For the record, however, I am not myself agnostic on that question. The “Anti-Vax movement is kooky, and I urge parents to have both children and pets vaccinated. See also Kendall Breitman & Manu Raju, Where 2016 GOPers stand on vaccinations, Politico, Feb. 3, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/ted-cruz-vaccinations-114862.html (last visited Feb. 3, 2015).
  2. Rezac, Measles are making a comeback, so what does the Church teach about vaccines?, CNA, Jan. 29, 2015, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/measles-are-making-a-comeback-so-what-does-the-church-teach-about-vaccines-38175/ (last visited Feb. 3, 2015).
  3. See CCC 2039.
  4. See, e.g., Lawrence Solum, Originalism and Constitutional Construction, 82 Fordham L. Rev. 453 (2013); Randy Barnett, The Original Meaning of the Commerce Clause, 68 U. Chi. L. Rev. 101, 108-110 (2001); Solum, On the Indeterminacy Crisis, 54 U. Chi. L. Rev. 462, 473 (1987).
  5. See Encyc. Evangelium vitae, no. 56, 87 AAS 401, __ (John Paul II, 1995). The binding authority of this teaching is not clear, cf. Antonin Scalia, God’s Justice and Ours, First Things, May 1, 2002, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/05/gods-justice-and-ours, but I assume without deciding that it is  binding.
  6. The magisterium is not a batphone; the pope doesn’t call Commissioner God-don for advice. The First Vatican Council helpfully teaches that “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.” Dog. Con. Pastor aeternus, 6 Acta Sanctae Sedis 40, 46  (1st Vat. Co., 1870). Old doctrine unquestionably applies to new phenomena, but its application to such is likely to be more intricate or analogical than its application to old, familiar phenomena, especially those that existed when the teaching was first given. A degree of caution is therefore warranted, and, I might suggest, ought to be assumed: We should not hastily presume that the Holy See has tromped in where angels have yet to tiptoe.
  7. 86 AAS 385 (JP2, 1994).
  8. See, e.g., Abuelhawa v. United States, 556 U.S. 816, 823 n.3  (2009); Meyer v. Holley, 537 US 280, 285 (2003); United States v. Bailey, 444 U.S. 394, 415 n.11 (1980).
  9. 80 AAS 841 (JP2, 1988).
  10. It seems doubtful. A pontifical academy would seem to reside in the general category of pontifical institutions such as Pontifical Councils and Pontifical Commissions which typically exercise advisory or research functions, and occasionally (as in the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, for example) delegated authority. Consider that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is presently headed by Werner Arber, nominally (at most) a protestant. See Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontifical_Academy_of_Sciences#President; Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Arber. Does Dr. Arber ex officio speak for the magisterium? Consider that prior to Humanae vitae, 60 AAS 481 (Paul VI, 1968), there was the June 1966 “final report” the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, which concluded that contraception was okay. See, e.g., Richard Fehring, An Analysis of the Majority Report “Responsible Parenthood” and its Recommendations on Abortion, Sterilization, and Contraception, http://uffl.org/vol13/fehring03.pdf. Between that report in June 1966 and Humanae vitae‘s promulgation in July 1968, was the teaching of “the Church” that contraception was okay? If you’re going to suggest that the decision of a pontifical institution has the authority to settle the vaccination question, you really can’t avoid getting into the long grass of “why.”
  11. See, e.g., Colin Donovan, Apparitions/Private Revelations, EWTN, 2001, https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/apparitions.htm.