In the discourse about COVID vaccines online in Catholic circles, there was immense debate about the astronomically remote connection to abortion. In explicitly Catholic forums, this raged on for months. It seemed like almost 50% of Catholics were not vaccinated over this. But in actual surveys, the vast majority of Catholics who regularly attended Mass seemed to be vaccinating against COVID.
In fact, by the best estimate I can do, probably under 1% of Mass-attending Catholics rejected COVID vaccines primarily due to the astronomically remote connection to abortion.
The standard I could find in surveys was dividing Catholics by those who attended Mass once a month or more, vs those who attend less often. I think weekly attendance is a better dividing line between active and inactive Catholics, but I did not find good-quality survey data for that.
I want to filter out those who rejected COVID vaccines primarily for other reasons, even if they also argue about the remote connection to abortion. If other reasons were true, they often seem much more compelling. For example, if I believed COVID vaccines were more dangerous than COVID or made my DNA no longer human, I would not vaccinate.
Before getting to the likely under 1%, let’s briefly note how contrary to tradition, theology, and magisterium the argument for rejecting vaccines over astronomically connections to abortion is; and then let’s do the math.
Good Theology about Vaccines
Almost every bishop in the world said vaccines were ethical. The one notable statement to the contrary was theologically problematic. The Vatican has supported conscious exemption over vaccines grown on fetal cell lines. But the main two US COVID vaccines were only tested on such lines and the wording of the CDF statement does not support skipping them over this. In fact, the CDF presumes no Catholics will skip these vaccines over this as the connection is so astronomically remote.
Even the SSPX, as an example of traditionalist Catholicism, has said vaccines are moral. Before the COVID vaccines were out, the SSPX said that women pursuing marriage have a moral obligation to be vaccinated against rubella for the sake of future unborn children. Rubella causes almost no deaths to born humans, but it can cause miscarriages and birth defects if a woman gets it while pregnant. The best estimates on Rubella say it causes 1 death per 5900 infections. Given the COVID vaccines are significantly more remote and COVID has a significantly higher mortality (1 in 75 to 1 in 200), applying the same principles would indicate COVID vaccines were a fortiori (all the more) mandatory. Also, rubella vaccines are grown on fetal cell lines, not just tested like COVID vaccines, which again provides a second level of a fortiori for the COVID vaccines.
I personally argue vaccines like Covid are a general, but not absolute, obligation, as they are ordinary means.
This connection is so remote that to reject all like that would mean leaving society, and the Church has never required that, and never even recommended it for most people.
How Many Catholics Are Vaccinated?
Catholics are the most-vaccinated religious grouping in the USA. By late January 2022, 85% of Catholics were vaccinated: that’s about 5% ahead of nones in second place. (I cannot find a newer survey.)
But, you say, lots of people say they are Catholic on surveys but are essentially secular in practice. That is a reasonable concern. Let’s compare those who attend Mass regularly to those who don’t. In 2021, Catholics who attend Mass at least monthly were 2% more like to be vaccinated than those who go less often. This bucks the national trend of less religious people being more vaccinated. I generally prefer once a week as the cutoff, but I cannot find a solid source for that data.
So, putting these two together, and assuming the 2% difference carries over, by January 2022, we can assume about 86% of regular Mass attendees were vaccinated, far from the 50-50 it appears online.
Why Do Catholics Reject COVID Vaccines?
In late January about 14% of regular Mass attending Catholics weren’t vaccinated. Now, this can be for reasons unrelated to Catholicism or specifically for the connection to abortion. Some may reject the vaccine for multiple reasons, but if the remote connection to abortion is added after the fact to justify one’s rejection of the vaccine for other reasons (post-facto) or is some minor factor, that is not really rejecting vaccines for this reason.
Among the general public, 7% believe the COVID vaccine has a microchip, 8% believe it can alter your DNA, 8% believe it will make you infertile, and 14% believe it can give you COVID. All of these are radically inaccurate and seem to be contradictory so it would hard to believe all of them. None have anything to do with Catholicism. If we were to assume Catholics believed this at the same rate as the average population and half who believed a statement had it as the primary reason that they rejected COVID vaccines, that would add up to 18.5% rejecting vaccination for these reasons. That is quite a bit more than the 14% unvaccinated of active Catholics. I hope Catholics who regularly attend Mass are more immune from such nonsense, and evidently, there seems to be at least some protective effect. Plus, this does not even include people who don’t see the need to be vaccinated as they don’t think their risk for COVID is significant (I know people in this latter group, especially regarding children).
There is no serious survey I’ve seen that examines what percentage of Catholics are rejecting COVID vaccines solely or primarily for the remote connection to abortion. But given the small number who reject vaccines and the wide variety of other reasons they reject it for, it seems like a tiny percentage who reject it primarily for this reason. It is most likely below 1%.
We can see how many who claim this remote abortion connection, seem to reject vaccines for other reasons. For example, Pamela Acker, who wrote the largest book arguing for rejecting vaccines over remote connections to abortion argues that vaccines are contrary to health more broadly. If this were true (it isn’t), it seems like a solid reason to reject vaccines. LifeSiteNews, which is a bit of the epicenter of this argument also posts a lot of articles claiming you should not get vaccinated for other reasons (which are unconvincing). In fact, after I noted that there was a vaccine seeking US approval that was completely free of any abortion connection (Covaxin), LifeSiteNews’s only subsequent article on this vaccine was against supporting it for other reasons, showing that it isn’t all about fetal cell lines. (The other reasons given seem inadequate &/or pseudo-scientific but you can read scientists and doctors on that: they are more expert [I took a college immunology course at the beginning of the pandemic to understand it better, but that’s not much compared to a doctorate], and I don’t want to make this too long.)
We should not abandon those who reject vaccines due to an astronomically remote connection to abortion in pastoral care, but we must also recognize what a small group they are. If they were 1% of those attending Mass at least monthly, that would be about 268,000 Catholics. We should also not reject pastoral care for these rejecting vaccines for other reasons: but we should probably be supporting efforts to inform them, not spearheading such efforts as we should with the very remote abortion connection, as doctors and scientists have much more expertise and data than us theologians.
Vaccines have been repeatedly supported by the Church ever since it first appeared in Europe. For example, Pope Pius VII said the smallpox vaccine was “a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence.” Active Catholics are one of the most vaccinated groups – which is good – but we cannot rest on our laurels and should keep encouraging people to seek the common good through vaccination.