COVID-19 vaccines can end the pandemic but they’re also causing a crisis of faith.
“I have to read about vaccines every day because it’s the number one question that we get in the office,” Regina Archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld said, speaking over Zoom.
“Can we take these vaccines? What’s their connection with abortion?”
University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Mujaharine studies community health and epidemiology. He’s been tracking vaccine hesitancy since the pandemic began.
His research shows some people who say they won’t get vaccinated cite religion as the reason why.
“We have about 70 per cent of people saying they are ready for their vaccine shots,” he said, speaking via Zoom.
He told Global News the remainder evenly report they are either still deciding or say they will not get vaccinated.
Those in the last group give three explanations as to why that is.
Some say they want more information about the vaccines and others say they don’t think a vaccine is necessary.
Mujaharine described the final cluster as a “catch-all group,” wherein some people say they have religious reasons for not receiving the shot or just don’t believe in vaccines.
His research didn’t identity the religion of respondents.
But Salkeld, who works as a theological and ethical advisor to Regina’s Archbishop Donald Bolen and the broader Regina Catholic community, said getting the shot has become a point of discussion within the Church.
So much so that he now regularly keeps in touch with several doctors so he can answer questions from Church members.
The conversation is so widespread the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops even issued a statement on March 9 on the subject — and then issued a clarification a few days later.
In the second note, the bishops said good Catholics can receive any approved COVID-19 vaccine but, “the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should always be preferred and chosen when possible.”
Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson developed their vaccines with cell lines originally derived from the kidney of a fetus nearly 50 years ago.
“The cell line was originally derived from fetal human embryonic kidney cells from 1973 and has been maintained in cell banks across the world ever since to help researchers develop new medical treatments,” said Carla Mastrangelo, a spokesperson for AstraZeneca Canada.
A cell line is a group of cells taken from an animal that researchers maintain and replicate for scientific purposes.
In an emailed statement, Mastrangelo said, “HEK293 cell lines are grown in a laboratory… and are not the same as fetal tissue.”
Mastrangelo said Oxford University scientists chose those specific cell lines because they’re easy to grow and maintain, which is why they’re among the most commonly used cell lines in biological research. Vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox use similarly derived cell lines.
He also said cell lines have contributed to medical advances in treating arthritis, cystic fibrosis and hemophilia.
“Several current human cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue,” Mastrangelo said.
“The final vaccine product does not contain human-derived cells.”
Salkeld said Catholics should receive whichever vaccine is available to them.
“We have to always repeat that established Catholic teaching makes it clear that it is justified to receive any approved vaccine,” he said, “even if there might be fine details we might want to get into around questions of production.
“A global pandemic justifies the reception of these vaccines. In fact, more than justifies (it, for) our concern for our vulnerable neighbours, for our own health, for the common good.”
He emphasized the “established” nature of Catholic teachings, saying the Church’s positions haven’t changed.
“When the Catholic Church says reception of these vaccines is easily justified, we’re not saying abortion is justified… We’re saying that the moral structure of the universe is that God brings good out of evil.”
Evil, in this case, is less a term used to identify a devilish villain and moreso derived from Catholic moral philosophy. Salkeld clarified something is evil because it isn’t God’s will or design.
He also pointed out the belief that God draws good from bad is a central tenet of the faith.
“God saved the world through like a kangaroo court and a mob execution. We’re going to celebrate that in like a week, right?” he said, referring to Easter.
“So we want to encourage pharmaceutical companies and that kind of thing to move towards ethical practices in their production”
He said many misconceptions church members ask him about stem from the same online sources of misinformation everyone else sees — though theirs often come with a Catholic spin.
“People get this impression that there’s fetal cells in the vaccines. That’s just false,” he said.
Mujaharine said there was no reason someone should not get a vaccine.
In fact, he said citizens have a responsibility to get the shot.
“If I get a vaccine, it protects me, of course, but also to protect you as well,” he said.