For Catholics, Getting Vaccinated Is an Act of Charity
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IFYC via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and a nationally respected leader in Catholic higher education. The interview was conducted by Mary Ellen Giess for IFYC; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC): Thanks for talking with me today. To get us started, I’d love to hear a bit about your thoughts on faith and the pandemic in general. How have you seen the Covid-19 pandemic impact people’s faith over the past year?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider (DH): This is one of those moments where people come up against death in a way they can’t ignore. In moments like these, people can’t avoid thinking about the purpose of life and what makes life important … What are we going to do with the one life we have? There are lots of times we can forget about that in our daily life, but there’s no way to avoid it in [the Covid-19 pandemic]. These circumstances ask you to evaluate and think about what’s most important in the time we have. You name the ultimate—God—from whatever tradition you name that ultimate purpose, there’s a sense of “Okay, life is precious. You gave me life. How should I use it in this moment?” We get called to a very basic set of questions in historic moments like these.
IFYC: What have you observed about the dynamics within the American Catholic community around the pandemic? Understanding that the Catholic community is incredibly diverse, what are ways the Church’s internal diversity affects how American Catholics experience the pandemic?
DH: Martin Marty observed that all the major religions in the world have lines of division through them, and in similar ways—political and cultural. You can see those types of internal diversity in Judaism, Islam, and you can see it my church, too. In the U.S., much of our church is bifurcated the way the country is bifurcated, with Democrats and Republicans. We have immigrant communities, a community unto themselves but not monolithic. As with reaching out to all groups, culture matters. Starting points matter. Fears matter, especially in a pandemic. Naming fears, and trying to engage them, really matters. And convictions matter, especially when it comes to faith. The African American Catholic community is still an African American community that has been so mistreated over generations, so many people in that community rightfully start in a place of suspicion. Communities of Hispanic immigrants are working in multiple languages to convey scientific information that isn’t always conveyed in their languages. And then we try to navigate the political divides—separating people who are choosing not to be vaccinated because of their political commitments.
IFYC: What are your thoughts on what specifically Catholic messages might resonate with these communities and would invite them to think positively about the vaccine?
DH: From the perspective of the Church, I try to lower the rhetoric and get back to the heart of the story of the Good Samaritan, a story where a man cares for someone on the roadside that he doesn’t even know. Vaccination is a story about not just self-care, but care for the community. The story of the Good Samaritan is a story we can all latch onto, no matter our political starting points. Within the Church, we have a responsibility to connect our faith convictions to the moment, so that people can understand how to apply our values in this moment. There is space for the Good Samaritan story right now, caring for people we don’t even know the names of, and this is one of the teaching stories that Jesus gave us.
IFYC: Do you think there are untapped opportunities for how religious communities, and Catholic communities in particular, might support vaccination on a national level?
DH: A coalition of Catholic institutional leaders are speaking with one voice on this issue [of vaccination]. Sister Carol Keehan, who serves on the Covid-19 council established by the Vatican, helped shepherd that coalition to put out a document called Vaccine for All: 20 Points for a Fairer and Healthier World. One of the points she wants us to understand is that we have to use our voice. The Catholic community has a voice … and we need to use our voice to say, “For the sake of each other, for the sake of the world, and for your own sake, please accept the vaccine. Have a heart too for those in the world who don’t have easy access to the vaccine.” The document also says to put everything you’ve got at the service of healing. In other words, use your networks, in my case, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, but also Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Relief Services, Catholic Medical Relief. The Vatican called on us to utilize these networks in the service of healing and, in this case, vaccine efforts. The pope is saying, don’t just work with Catholics, work with everyone; we can make a bigger difference together.
IFYC: Have you or do you intend to get the vaccine?
DH: Yes. I was offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so that’s what I received.
IFYC: What’s your understanding of some of the issues about certain Catholics saying that the vaccines might be problematic? What do you want people to know about the concerns that some people hold?
DH: Our church has a strong, across-the-board commitment to minimizing abortion. There are differences on the best way to go about fulfilling that commitment, but great unity on the importance of minimizing abortion where we can. Interestingly, that topic is wound up in this issue of vaccines. When it was first reported that creating the vaccines included use of stem cell lines from aborted fetuses, that was quickly debunked by the Vatican and the country’s moral theologians speaking together. That was not accurate information about the first two vaccines that came out, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. There was a fetal tissue line that was used for testing, but not in the development of the vaccines themselves. So that was a problem of disinformation, which the Church quickly addressed.
Now, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is different because it was developed with a different process; it was developed with lines of cells from an aborted fetus that died many, many years ago. In this instance, the Church is still saying clearly that, scientifically, those cells are gone and new cells have regenerated so many times since then, so these are not the same cells. But at a deeper level, the Church is saying, we would understand why you would want to say no to this vaccine: because doing that makes me a participant and beneficiary of someone else’s death. It sends a message about my benefitting from something really horrific. But the Church is offering guidance on how people should consider this question ethically, and clearly advocates for accepting this vaccine, too, because it promotes a greater good.
At a fundamental level, people wonder, “Should I be cooperating with a terrible human tragedy [abortion]? Am I participating in an evil by accepting these vaccines?” To address those concerns, the Church did a couple things. First, they said that if this vaccine is the only option, and the larger priority is keeping people in the world today alive and healthy, we should choose that greater good. This has long been church teaching—weighing and choosing the greater good—but people needed to have that clarified. U.S. Bishops as a whole have supported all the vaccines with this reasoning. A couple Bishops have gone rogue on their own, but the institutional church has been extremely clear: get vaccinated. It’s more important to keep people healthy and from dying now, instead of focusing on someone who died decades ago.
The Church has been clear that keeping people alive in a pandemic is a pro-life issue too. The Church has said that the lives in front of us are the lives we have to value first. It is a pro-life matter to get vaccinated.
IFYC: How would you advise someone who is wrestling with this moral question [of vaccination] to think about it?
DH: In the end, getting vaccinated is an act of charity. It’s taking care of yourself, for sure, but it’s also taking care of your family, and the person in the grocery store that you have no idea how sick they are, who, if they got Covid, it would be the end of their life. It’s an act of charity to care for people we know and don’t know.
The other factor at play here is that it’s not always just the answer you give, it’s who says it. The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative, Washington, D.C. based think tank organized a statement from leading pro-life scholars who have also clearly said, said, “Let’s get vaccinated.” Sometimes people need to hear from particular people—trusted voices—to know there are people across the political divide that are all making the same statement.
IFYC: As you see Catholic congregations, organizations, and individuals navigate this challenging time, what gives you hope?
DH: The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental healthcare provider in the world. Much of the care in Africa is delivered by nuns—sisters. While the U.S. is finally making good progress in vaccination, much of the world is not yet sharing in that progress. And the poverty and political situations in many international contexts complicate those matters mightily. My church is in the middle of those complicated circumstances trying to deliver healthcare in very challenging places. They’re working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Vatican —all together. So many people in my church have given their lives to caring for people in remote places on the Earth who need it most. It’s moving. To watch people do this hard work is very moving.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.