This story brings “getting a dose of your own medicine” to a new level: months after donating $1 million to help develop the Moderna vaccine, Dolly Parton received her shot of the vaccine this week. She also recorded a version of her classic song “Jolene” before receiving her shot, singing, “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate.”
In other vaccine news, the newly approved Johnson & Johnson (J&J) single-dose vaccine is “absolutely” a game changer, according to a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We should all be encouraged that we now have three excellent vaccines available to administer to Americans all across this country,” he said. “I expect we’ll be moving a lot faster with J&J on board.”
However, the archdiocese of New Orleans is urging Catholics to avoid the J&J vaccine, calling it “morally compromised.” Their statement claims that it “uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing.”
Arguments for and against the J&J vaccine
When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed several months ago, I reported that they used cells from the HEK293T fetal cell line in the testing process, though neither included such cells in the vaccines themselves. This tissue was acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s, but records pertaining to its origins were lost. As a result, it is not known whether the tissue came from an elective abortion or a spontaneous miscarriage.
By contrast, the archdiocese is now claiming that the J&J vaccine makes “extensive use of abortion-derived cell lines” and urges Catholics to opt for the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines if given the choice. Several Christian leaders wrote to the US Food and Drug Administration in April 2020 warning that Janssen Pharmaceuticals (which produced the J&J vaccine) was developing a vaccine “using old cell lines that were created from the cells of aborted babies.”
J&J responded, asserting that “there is no fetal tissue in our Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.” Other ethicists state that the cells in question are clones and are not the original fetal tissue. They also note that, at this point, most people in the US and elsewhere do not have a choice as to which vaccine they receive. One ethicist warns, “This kind of moral scare-mongering can cost lives, especially among people who might not have access to the vaccine otherwise.”
Numerous moral theologians add that Catholics should feel confident taking the J&J vaccine since it could help protect vulnerable members of society. The president of Notre Dame University, for example, stated, “The Notre Dame community remains committed to doing our part to help fight the pandemic on campus and beyond. The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be provided to those who meet the state’s age and other eligibility guidelines at the time.”
Since the J&J vaccine is vital to vaccinating all adults in the US, this issue is significant to our nation’s health and future.
What do we do when experts disagree?
My purpose today is not to offer medical advice or to claim scientific knowledge I do not possess. Rather, it is to ask the question: What do we do when experts disagree?
The New Orleans archdiocese asserts that we should not take the J&J vaccine if given a choice, claiming that it is tied too closely to abortion. But what if we do not have a choice? Are we risking the lives of Americans to protest the taking of lives through abortion? If so, which lives should take precedence: those who have died or those who are still alive?
In addition, scholars seem divided on the degree to which the J&J vaccine is related in any way to abortion. If we assume that the vaccine is tied directly to abortion, we might ask whether, by saving lives, the vaccine is redeeming lives lost to abortion. When a patient receives a heart transplanted from a murder victim, this does not make the patient complicit in the donor’s death.
If you are offered the J&J vaccine, my advice is for you to consult your physician and to seek wisdom from God’s word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people. This is an approach that applies to far more than the vaccine.
Imitating my favorite church
Over the years, people have occasionally asked me to name my favorite church in the New Testament. My answer is always the same: the Bereans. I have led several study tours to this ancient Greek city; each time, we read that when Paul came to them, “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
As a result, “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (v. 12).
In a culture that is growing more and more secularized and opposed to Christian morality, it is vital that we imitate the Bereans. News media are distrusted as partisan; the cancel culture of our day is being described as a dangerous “cultural revolution”; the recent public failures of several Christian leaders are causing many to wonder who, if anyone, they can trust.
Here’s the answer: Jesus told his followers, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). “Abide” in (live in, remain in) the word of God, viewing everything you experience through the lens of Scripture. Then you will know the truth, and that truth will set you free.
Jesus’ promise is not that we will never suffer for such biblical obedience—it is that we will experience the freedom and joy of the Lord even when we suffer for him. And our faithfulness, like that of the Bereans, will plant trees we’ll never sit under and make a difference in this world for the world to come.
Three heroes of the faith
One of the daily readings to which I subscribe is titled “Saint of the Day.” Yesterday’s entry focused on three martyrs named Eutropius, Cleonicus, and Basiliscus.
In AD 308, their pagan governor tried to turn them from Jesus. He invited Eutropius to dine with him, but the Christian refused, quoting the biblical statement, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1). The ruler offered the three a large amount of silver, but they refused, telling the governor that Judas lost his soul for silver.
The governor then subjected them to torture, but they refused to abandon their Lord. Finally, he crucified Eutropius and Cleonicus, for which they gave thanks that they had been found worthy to die in the same way as Jesus did. Basiliscus was held in prison in hopes that the deaths of his companions would weaken his resolve. When he remained steadfast, he was beheaded.
When we know and live by biblical truth, “the truth will set us free”—in this life or the next.
How free will you be today?