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Portland Bishop: Catholics Can Vaccinate Against COVID-19 Without Moral Conflict

Gabe Souza
Portland Press Herald via AP/Pool

Bishop Robert Deeley of the Diocese of Portland has said that people should receive the new coronavirus vaccine as a means of keeping each other safe when it becomes available.

He spoke with Morning Edition host Jennifer Mitchell about how the faith community is intersecting with this pandemic here in Maine.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: What were some of the questions that your parishioners had about the ethics around the vaccine?

Deeley: Many medical advances are grounded in materials that are connected to abortions that took place in the 1970s. Fetal stem cell line has become a source of much experimentation and some scientific development. And we consider that to be immoral, because that’s using human tissue for experimentation purposes. What I wanted to say is that the two vaccines that are presently available, the Moderna and the Pfizer, are developed from chemical substances, not from living tissue.

Now, if that vaccine had been sourced differently, perhaps from a source that you found difficult to get behind morally, would your advice have been different?

Well, I think it would have been more nuanced, which it is, for instance, with the AstraZeneca. The AstraZeneca is developed from that cell line. And therefore it is questionable morally. But the fact of the matter is that we have to weigh the benefit. And those I consult in these matters would indicate that the health and safety of the public is a very important consideration, and therefore would permit someone under those circumstances, since they are not actively involved in the development of these vaccines, they are the recipient of it, to receive that vaccine.

What have you heard from your parishioners this year regarding the pandemic and just trying to keep the faith and stay on track?

It’s been a struggle, because our faith is community based. Prayer requires us to gather, the mass itself gathers us together. It’s been very, very difficult. It’s not just a question of choosing not to go, it’s a question of feeling impelled to be together for mass. But we also have to be conscious of the health and safety of people. And for that reason, I have absented them from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, and we’ve pumped up our capacity for livestream and to make it possible for people to attend in some way.

There have been outbreaks linked to many gatherings, including gatherings at other churches. So has the right balance been struck between public health and the need that some people feel to attend church or to assemble with others, and what would you like to see happen?

I think it’s important to note that in the Catholic Church, in Maine, we have been gathering for public worship since June 1, and no one has gotten sick. We’ve encouraged people who are vulnerable in a special way to perhaps attend a livestream. But fundamentally, we’ve worked hard in our parishes, our priests and the staffs that assist them to create a safe environment where we can gather.

So what are you doing differently then? Because there have been outbreaks linked to other churches and other gatherings of any type. Some people would say, ‘Well, it could happen anywhere where people are.’

It could, and that’s why we follow the health and safety guidelines. For instance, we’re singing very little, there are no choirs, and we’ve minimized the number of people, we’ve stripped everything down to its bare minimum so that there are less people in the sanctuary, less people involved in the celebration of the Eucharist, we’re wearing masks and there hasn’t been an outbreak as a result of that.

Now Christmas is approaching, of course, a fairly important date in the Christian calendar. And it’s a time where lots of special concerts and services and things happen. And sometimes it’s the only dates that some Catholics actually go to Mass. So what’s it going to be like this year?

We had to take reservations because we are limited by the state to 50 people with our larger facilities. Where there would be an alternate space, they can have more people in a side hall or something as long as it has separate entrances and all the rest of that. But the reservations are pretty much already spoken for. So we do have livestream, we have those possibilities for other people. We’re also reminding people that Christmas for us is such a feast that it lasts for eight days, it runs from Christmas to New Year’s, there will all be Christmas masses through that period of time.

What is the plan to get back to “normal”? Will anything be different going forward? Is there a timeline on this, or we just don’t know?

A number of us are beginning to realize that there’s no such thing as normal. And that we are not going back to where we were. If we think about this, it’s highly unlikely that people are going to feel comfortable attending mass in the same way that they would have attended mass last Christmas, shoulder to shoulder. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that next summer, we’re going to be opening the churches and just allowing people to come in as they have in the past, I simply don’t think that’s going to happen.

If you could go back and have another crack at 2020, and the pandemic — and you know, really, there’s no reason to suppose that this won’t happen again at some point in the future, as you pointed out, there have been pandemics since the beginning of mankind — what have you learned from this year? What’s the pandemic taught you? And what would you like to maybe see done differently next time?

We have to figure out how to balance the values that we hold on to in society. Basically, what we have to think about is how we live with a pandemic. We’re very blessed by the reason of the fact that we have this vaccine. And some people are complaining because it was developed so quickly. Well, the fact of the matter is, this vaccine is built on 10 years of scientific research on vaccines related to COVID. So it’s not developed as quickly as people think. The science has been there, and it’s now applied to this particular virus. But we don’t always have a solution so readily available to us as that in the future. People need to be together. Health and safety, and the isolation we’ve been invited to take is only one part of solving the problem.