PROVIDENCE — Dr. Tim Flanigan received the first of two COVID-19 vaccine doses just before Christmas. After receiving his second dose in mid-January, Flanigan had a sore arm and a minor headache that went away with a little Ibuprofen.
“Those are common side effects for vaccines,” said Flanigan, a professor of medicine at the Alpert School of Medicine of Brown University who also works in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Miriam and Rhode Island Hospitals.
Flanigan, who is also a permanent deacon at St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parishes in Tiverton, has been encouraging lay Catholics to receive the COVID-19 vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna. Based on the available scientific literature and guidance from the Vatican and U.S. bishops conference, Flanigan said those vaccines are safe, effective and morally acceptable for Catholics to receive.
“They were developed as rapidly as possible but following all the same safety protocols and safeguards that were used in other vaccine developments,” Flanigan said. “I do not think there was any compromise in safety.”
Dr. Gina La Prova, who is also a professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, agreed with Flanigan, adding that those COVID-19 vaccines still had to undergo three clinical trial stages with 30,000 participants before being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“There is enough (information) to support the safety and efficacy of the vaccines,” said La Prova, who is also the new president of the Rhode Island Catholic Medical Society. La Prova said she was scheduled to receive the first dose of the Moderna vaccine in late January.
“It’s an individual decision for people, but I think our job as (healthcare) providers is to give them the information that they may be misinformed on and to try to educate them that this is a safe vaccine from what we can gather,” La Prova said.
“I feel that part of our job is to educate them but not to pressure them into getting something they don’t want, because ultimately it is their decision,” La Prova added. “But I think just from the sense of being part of a country that has given so much to us, that the least we can do is to help protect the country from this pandemic and part of that I feel is getting vaccinated.”
Church leaders, including Pope Francis, as well as theologians and individual bishops have also made a point to emphasize that receiving the COVID-19 vaccine should be seen as an act of caring for one’s neighbor. On Dec. 14, two bishop-chairmen from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement where they said being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus “ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community.”
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin noted that USCCB guidance in a recent statement where he said that individuals “should be encouraged to receive the vaccine to promote their own health and safety and that of others.”
“This is consistent with the Catholic commitment on promoting the common good. Nonetheless, if individuals have serious moral objections to, or health concerns about, receiving the vaccines, those concerns should be respected and the individuals should not be forced to be vaccinated if so doing is contrary to their conscience,” Bishop Tobin said.
Some Catholics have raised moral concerns about COVID-19 vaccines because cell lines derived from fetuses that were aborted in the 1960s and 1970s were used in various stages of their development. In the case of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, a cell line derived from an aborted child in the 1970s was used to test their efficacy.
“I think it’s important to make that distinction, that we’re not talking about fetal tissue. We’re talking about cells that were created in a lab from a cell that was taken from an elective abortion in 1973 in the Netherlands,” La Prova said. “It’s very remote. People shouldn’t feel as if they are not doing something morally correct according to their Catholic faith.”
In a Dec. 21, 2020 note, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it is morally acceptable for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses when alternatives are not available.
The CDF said that receiving COVID-19 vaccines like those developed by Pfizer and Moderna is morally licit when the “passive material cooperation” with the evil of an abortion “from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote.”
The USCCB statement from Dec. 14 also explained that the reasons to accept the COVID-19 vaccines are “sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.”
Flanigan and La Prova both said they are hopeful that the country will begin to turn the corner and emerge from the pandemic as more of the population is vaccinated in the months to come.
“I am very hopeful, and I do think the vaccine will be effective,” Flanigan said. “I think it will have a large impact, and I think we will begin to see that, not over the next few weeks, but for sure the next few months.”
“I think it’s going to take months, but I do feel that the vaccine is really a godsend for the population,” said La Prova, who as the new president of the Rhode Island Catholic Medical Society hopes to increase membership and provide a forum for Catholic physicians to share their passion for medicine and faith convictions. She would also like to see the society present the Catholic perspective on various important medical topics, especially on the social inequities in healthcare that have been brought to light during the pandemic.
“My long-term goal is to have the Rhode Island Catholic Medical Society to have more of a presence nationally,” said La Prova, a parishioner of St. Augustine Church in Providence.
Flanigan, who is also a member of the Rhode Island Catholic Medical Society, said he also hopes that the society will work closely with nursing and medical students to support their faith and to help them see that having a vibrant Catholic faith and being a disciple of Jesus Christ is “totally synergistic and beautiful” in the healthcare professions.
“I think our job is to help get that word out and to also be a witness,” Flanigan said.