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Faith leaders encourage coronavirus vaccinations among Southern California worshippers

As hospital and health-care workers across Southern California began lining up this week for the much-anticipated coronavirus vaccines, excitement over the potential antidote to the virus’s ferocious spread this winter has been dampened by skepticism over the safety, efficacy and morality of the treatments.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in late November and early December, as Pfizer and Moderna prepared to roll out their vaccines, about 71% of survey respondents said they would get a shot, up from 63% just a few months prior. Poll results indicate the increase in willingness to take the vaccine was across all racial and ethnic groups and transcended political party lines.

But when it comes to matters of faith and morality, there’s a sharp split among those who support the vaccines and those who worry about how the treatments were developed — specifically whether aborted fetal tissue was used for testing or in manufacturing.



Nationwide, there have been reports of pastors urging the faith to reject vaccines as amoral. Some pastors such as Guillermo Maldonado, founding pastor of the Miami-based King Jesus International Ministry, who gone as far as promoting conspiracy theories about the vaccine altering DNA and being used to track people. The Pentecostal preacher has also suggested that the COVID-19 vaccine would help lay the ground for the coming of the Antichrist.

Such extreme views have been espoused by only a minority of religious leaders, however. In Southern California, the vast majority of leaders in various faith traditions are working to put to rest moral qualms about the vaccine, and many are actively encouraging worshippers to get their shots.

‘Trust God is working’

Roman Catholic dioceses in the region have unequivocally stated their support for the COVID-19 vaccines after the California Catholic Conference deemed both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “morally acceptable.” Southern California regional dioceses are working to spread the word to millions of Catholics encouraging them to take the vaccine.

The Diocese of San Bernardino, in addition to putting out a statement on its website in favor of the vaccines, will also put clergy on the radio to reach Spanish-speaking communities, such as farm workers in the Coachella Valley who are at high risk of contracting the virus because of their jobs, and those who may have lingering doubts about the moral aspect of the vaccine, said John Andrews, a spokesman for the diocese.

“We’re going to do a message that includes urging the health and safety practices that have been encouraged, for everyone to get tested and then to take the vaccine,” he said, adding that the diocese is working on messaging in indigenous languages such as Purepecha to reach Native American communities in Riverside County.

Several parishes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have served as COVID-19 testing sites and have hosted flu vaccination clinics, Andrews said.

“We’re definitely going to be involved in the encouragement and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as well,” he said. “For some communities, their church and their parish is a trustworthy place. If we can provide that place where people can be more comfortable getting a flu shot or the (COVID-19) vaccine, we want to be that for them. In our diocese, it’s a feeling that we really need to trust God is working through healthcare providers and the people who are working to develop the vaccines.

“We need to view this as being part of respecting and honoring life.”

‘Common good’

The Diocese of Orange is taking a similar stance and has been promoting the vaccine after its leader, Bishop Kevin Vann, was recently diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“We don’t believe the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were made using tainted (fetal) cell lines,” said the Most Rev. Timothy Freyer, one of the diocese’s auxiliary bishops. “I’m on the county’s vaccination task force and I’m happy to go on camera or be photographed while taking the vaccine. Ultimately, it’ll be the individual’s choice.”

But, Freyer said, another ethical issue for the faithful to consider is the “common good.”

“I run into so many people who’ve lost their jobs,” he said. “With this vaccine, we could possibly celebrate Easter normally with a gathering and beautiful music. The sooner we all get vaccinated and take safety measures, the sooner we’ll be able to get our life and economy back.”

Maureen Bricken, a longtime Santa Ana resident and devout Catholic, said she would have liked to see more about how the vaccine was made. But, the 83-year-old said, she is “not too concerned about it.”

“I have cancer and heart problems and my doctor has told me that I have to take it,” she said.

Preservation of life

In Judaism, the central concept of preservation of life aligns with expert medical opinion — that the vaccines will help preserve life — said Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County.

“I’m planning to take them,” he said. “As faith leaders, it is important for us to make this statement. We have to be strong advocates and role models in this regard.”

Eliezrie said the preservation of life, in fact, supersedes all other religious dictates in Judaism. He said if fasting on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and repentance, is harmful or life-threatening to someone, that person would be excused from fasting.

“Better you eat on Yom Kippur and save a life than fulfill the dictates of Judaism,” he said.

As long as the vaccines are safe and effective, there are no specific moral issues in Islam that would prevent someone from taking the COVID-19 vaccine, said Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove.

“In Islam, protection of life is very important,” he said. “Under the law of necessity, even something that’s forbidden under Islam, such as pork, can be taken, if it would protect life. We believe that while the disease and its cure are all in God’s hands, human beings should do their part and make an effort to control this disease.”

Moral dilemmas

In Christian theology, because fetuses are viewed as persons with full rights to life, use of tissue from aborted fetuses could raise moral questions among the faithful, said Scott Rae, professor of Christian Ethics at Biola University, a private evangelical Christian institution in La Mirada.

“The COVID-19 vaccines we have so far are made from immortalized cell lines begun with the tissue from aborted fetuses in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said. “Once the cell line has begun and has matured, it no longer contains fetal parts although they were used to start it.”

He noted that many today deem it moral to use data from Nazi experiments conducted during the mass genocide of Jewish people because those inhumane experiments are no longer occurring.

“Similarly, aborted fetuses are not being harvested for their tissue today,” Rae said. “Current fetal remains are not being used in these vaccines. Still, we see there is debate about it in some faith communities. Some hold they are morally tainted and shouldn’t be used. I’m of the view that they took place so long ago and therefore, can be used.”

A more immediate ethical issue when it comes to vaccines is that of equity, said Shira Shafir, associate professor of epidemiology and the faculty assistant vice chancellor for research ethics at UCLA.

“The question is how to distribute a good like a vaccine,” she said. “Gov. Newsom has been clear that the highest priority will be healthcare providers who have taken the greatest risks during the pandemic. We also have an obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable such as elderly residents of nursing homes.”

There is also a “real ethical concern that individuals will try to jump the line based on their resources available,” Shafir said.

But what concerns Shafir the most is the amount of disinformation about the vaccines on social media, she said. The pandemic will not come under control if a sufficient number of people don’t get vaccinated, she said.

“Vaccines don’t save people, vaccinations save people,” Shafir added. “Getting vaccines to the arms of those who need it is going to be our next monumental task.”

Source: Orange County Register

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