Separation of Church and State: Why Ecclesiastical Tenets Have No Place in the Public Square

On March 2, 2021, the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota, issued the following unsigned statement:

“The recently approved (FDA 2-27-2021) vaccine produced by Janssen/Johnson & Johnson used abortion-derived cell lines in the design, development, production, and lab testing. This Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised and therefore unacceptable for any Catholic physician or health care worker to dispense and for any Catholic to receive due to its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion. No one should use or receive this vaccine, but there is no justification for any Catholic to do so. Two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used. As always, no one is bound to receive this vaccine, but it remains an individual and informed decision.” (

Catholic Diocese of Bismarck North Dakota

Such a pronouncement, lacking any valid medical reason for such cautions, is based purely on Church doctrine opposing abortion. This stems from Johnson & Johnson’s use of fetal cell lines derived from lawful abortions in the 1970s and 80s in their development process.

As a doctrinal pronouncement made from the pulpit during Mass, I would have no issue. But when the Diocese sees fit to publish such a statement—and contends that “No one should use or receive this vaccine“—it must withstand the rigors of public discourse.

The Diocesan statement follows the Church doctrine issued on February 22, 1987, entitled Donum Vitae (Respect for Human Life.) Within this document is the bedrock contention that life begins at conception and is entitled to all other human rights and protections.

This is not based on any scientific standards for a “human” life and conflicts with the fact that abortions under certain conditions are lawful with the US and other countries. This conflict threatens secular necessities for protecting the health of living humans.

The concept of when life begins is the subject of great debate. This article is not the place for such a discussion. But Church doctrine is diametrically different from secular law. We can discuss what I perceive as the danger of ecclesiastical interference in matters of society’s health and welfare, particularly when threatened by a pandemic that has killed millions of once live humans.

Those who defend the Church’s position and see no harm in such pronouncements made in the public square try to smokescreen their position by arguing that mRNA—a fairly recent development in vaccine production, although the technology has been around since 2011—has potential yet unidentified long-term risks.

That mRNA research has been ongoing for almost 10 years with few long-term risks identified argues in favor of the efficacy of the technique. While every vaccine or medical procedure comes with risks, the ones often associated with mRNA (and other vaccines) are more disinformation than reality.

Social media is inundated with false or unsubstantiated claims that mRNA vaccines can alter the recipient’s DNA, cause infertility in women, are full of toxins, or can cause autism. These can be disproven with readily available research studies yet people looking for confirmation of preconceived fears embrace them enthusiastically.

Some benefits of mRNA research are not only encouraging but life altering.

“Examples of mRNA vaccines include CureVac’s rabies vaccine, which has announced positive data from an interim analysis of safety and immunogenicity in its Phase I study; Moderna’s mRNA-1647, which has positive interim results from a Phase II study for cytomegalovirus infections; Moderna’s mRNA-4157 for solid tumors, which is in Phase II for metastatic melanoma; and BioNTech’s BNT-112, which is in Phase II for prostate cancer.

Potential risks from mRNA vaccines include local and systemic inflammatory responses, which could lead to autoimmune conditions, and the toxic effects of any synthetic nucleosides or vaccine delivery components. However, modifications made to the nucleosides have been found to drastically reduce the immune system’s response to the synthetic nucleosides.”(

Thus the Church, and those who would defend such intrusions into secular matters, do a great disservice in the single-minded pursuit of supporting doctrinal, rather than sound medical, policies. The Church would contend, should a vaccine be developed with stem cell lines derived from abortions that can treat metastatic melanoma, it’s “moral indefensibility” makes it unacceptable for the faithful. In their interpretation, God made it so and it is a moral imperative we accept this rather than use such a medical treatment.

Better to preserve the Church’s concept of morality than extend one’s life, or prevent the risk to others.

And yet, the Church also offers what we can describe only as a flexible morality. The Vatican offers a compromise that if the only vaccines available are those it categorizes as “morally indefensible” than the faithful can choose to receive the vaccine. It would seem the Church recognizes, even if it refuses to acknowledge it, a difference between someone who is conscious and alive and one who was never born.

The other risk of non-scientific rationalizations for refusing to get vaccines using mRNA derived from fetal lines is the amplification of the anti-vaxxers position that vaccine cause autism. Such scientifically bereft positions have led to a rise in once eradicated, and still sometimes fatal, diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox.

The Church can say what it wants from the pulpit without our criticism, but from the public square they are fair game.

Joe broadmeadow

This from an article in Christianity Today.

“For certain Christians, the decision of whether to vaccinate comes down to the origins of the vaccines themselves. Some pro-life parents cite a moral disgust and a deep lament over the use of 58-year-old aborted fetal cell lines in development for several recommended immunizations, including MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and chickenpox.
“The use of fetal cells in vaccine study and creation is one of the primary reasons we do not vaccinate,” said Mandy Reynvaan, a mother of five in Oregon, where a measles outbreak has flared over the past few months. “The methods used to obtain these cells are horrifying.”
“Across the country, there have been over 600 cases in 22 states, spurring several state proposals that, in an effort to protect against the spread of disease, would restrict parental rights and religious freedoms for families who skip immunizations due to their faith convictions. Measles has seen a 30 percent increase globally, something the World Health Organization (WHO) attributes to vaccine hesitancy in countries that had practically eliminated the disease.” (

If the Church wishes to interject itself into the public square, it must face the same rigorous review as any scientifically supported recommendations for medical decisions.

Some will also argue the Church’s position, absent an alternative, recognizes the seriousness of the pandemic and offers a solution. But this is disingenuous since they transfer the risk onto the conscience of the adherents. The implication is it is still morally indefensible, but the choice is up to you. This could lead to a sizable number of congregants accepting the risk of contracting COVID-19—and the risk to others of spreading the virus—instead of risking their souls.

The Church would also offer the power of prayer as a solution. Yet every single study that tested the efficacy of prayer found little benefit. It was more placebo than actual alteration of a medical condition or improvement of recovery..

The best way to place prayer, and the lack of efficacy for medical procedures, is to use the words of Neuroscientist Sam Harris.

“Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.”

In all the centuries of anecdotal evidence of the miraculous power of prayer to cure the incurable. To astound doctors into silence. To extend life to those on the doorsteps of death. Not one has ever regrown a limb.

I have no issue with people turning to prayer. What they believe as to its efficacy and power is purely an unreproachable matter of choice. But when a powerful religious organization like the Catholic Church interjects itself into matters that will directly affect not only those who adhere to that faith but to those who hold the thousands of other faiths, or no faith, it is incumbent on society to enforce the wall of separation for the good of the whole.

The Church can say what it wants from the pulpit without our criticism, but from the public square they are fair game.

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