On Thursday, Vatican News confirmed that both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have received the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, themselves providing an example, ostensibly, for the Church as a whole. In the world’s eyes, I suspect this spells the end of any claim a Catholic might otherwise make for religious exemption to required reception of the current vaccines. If abortion-tainted vaccines are mandated, either formally or by informal social incentives such as the widely-proposed possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine be a prerequisite for travel, conscientious Catholics could not say, “but my Church objects.”
Corporations and governments will not hear a careful explanation about the difference between, say, the magisterial authority of the Pope and bishops when they teach ex cathedra in contrast to the things our leaders might say or do as individuals. They simply won’t sell you a plane ticket or issue you a visa. The pope and former pope’s actions here may make life difficult for Catholics whose personal conscience recoils at the irreconcilable dissonance of the Vatican press office statement that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and productions process.”
Yet, the Catholic conscience is resilient, if often misunderstood, sometimes even by those who possess it—and most certainly by the world. It bears two features which are especially misconstrued. First, it can not ask less than what the Church requires, but it can ask more. For instance, one person may feel bound to heroic charity in a situation where another does not. Second, in order to function at all, the conscience must be formed (and informed) by truth—the truth of Christ Himself and an accurate understanding of the surrounding world. Otherwise, we don’t have a conscience to follow, but simply our own inclinations.