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Covid-19 Response

Frequently Asked Questions

From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, January 2021

Several decades ago, tissue harvested from the bodies of aborted babies was used to create certain cell lines for research purposes. The cells in these lines are, in effect, the descendants of those cells that were originally harvested.

These cells have been made to replicate themselves, and some cell lines can be reproduced indefinitely. These abortion-derived cell lines are used as a “factory” to manufacture certain vaccines (eg. rubella, chicken pox, some Covid-19 vaccines, etc.).

The cells themselves, however, are not present in the vaccines that patients receive.

The Holy See, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Academy for Life, has provided guidance on this topic on four occasions. This guidance has made it clear that:

• It is wrong to create abortion-derived cell lines and for pharmaceutical companies to utilize them
• The use of vaccines produced with such cell lines should be avoided if comparable alternatives with no connection to abortion are available
• Grave reasons (e.g., serious health risks) may justify the use of vaccines produced within these cell lines when there are no such alternatives
• Everyone concerned for the sanctity of life should protest the use of these cell lines and advocate for the development of vaccines with no connection to abortion.

As of the date of this writing, hundreds of vaccines for Covid-19 are in development worldwide, and more than a dozen are in the final stages of testing. Some do not use abortion-derived cell lines at all, some have used such cell lines to test the vaccine’s efficacy, and some are using such cell lines in the development and/or the production phases.

There are currently two vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – being distributed for use in the United States, and there are others that are likely to be made available in the coming months (e.g., AstraZeneca, Janssen, etc.).

Neither Pfizer nor Moderna used an abortion-derived cell line in the development or production of the vaccine. However, such a cell line was used to test the efficacy of both vaccines. Thus, while neither vaccine is completely free from any use of abortion-derived cell lines, in these two cases the use is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion.

The AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines raise additional moral concerns because an abortion-derived cell line is sued not only for testing, but also in development and production.

Given that the Covid-19 virus can involve serious health risks, it can be morally acceptable to receive a vaccine that uses abortion-derived cell lines if there are no other available vaccines comparable in safety and efficacy with no connection to the abortion.

If it is possible to choose among a number of equally safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. If a vaccine with no connection to abortion-derived cell lines is not readily available, vaccines that used such cell lines only for testing would be preferable to those that use such cell lines for ongoing production.

Such choices may not be possible, however, especially in the early stages of vaccine distribution. In that case, one may receive any of the clinically-recommended vaccines in good conscience with the assurance that reception of such vaccines does not involve immoral cooperation in abortion.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has noted recently that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health but also on the duty to pursue the common good.”

It is also said that “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic,” vaccination may promote the common good “especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.” For a vaccine to be effective in protecting society, most people need to be vaccinated in order to break the chain of disease transmission from person to person throughout the community.

The Congregation also said that those who refuse to get vaccinated must do their utmost, by taking all the necessary precautions, to avoid “becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”

First, inform yourself and others about how some vaccines are connected to abortion through the use of abortion-derived cell lines, and about which vaccines use such cell lines.

Second, inform your doctor about this connection and ask him or her to provide ethical vaccines, when possible.

Third, urge pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers to discontinue using abortion-derived cell lines, and thank them when they do.

The bishops are not and do not claim to be authorities on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. People should rely on information from authoritative sources in the field of medicine and public health, such as the Food and Drug Administration and qualified health care professionals.

The FDA affirms that the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. have met all the safety and efficacy standards required for such authorization.

UPDATE: Masks No Longer Required at Mass Beginning on May 22-23, 2021

Protocols approved by Bishop Mark L. Bartchak on May 19, 2021

The Governor’s Office recently announced the relaxing of some state mandates that have been in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also indicated that it may be possible to ease some of the restrictions that have been in effect in public places, shopping venues, and businesses.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, safety measures were adopted for the celebration of the sacraments, religious education, and social events in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. These measures were utilized in view of the pastoral good of parishioners, the circumstances of parish communities, and the common good. All are commended for their efforts.

The response to COVID-19 was based on the scientific expertise that has been provided by the CDC, the PA Dept. of Health, and others. The scientific understanding of the nature of the virus; the manner in which the virus is able to spread; and the methods needed to treat or prevent infections has been ongoing.

Development and distribution of vaccines has occurred in record time. The learning curve is ongoing, and these developments have impacted the responses to the pandemic within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

People from across the diocese have expressed their appreciation for various safety measures (e.g. wearing masks, social distancing, use of sanitizers, etc.), without which they would have not attended Mass in person. Many persons are grateful for the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The observance of these safety measures has been of real benefit. At the same time, health experts are indicating that certain precautions should continue to be observed, even as some may be reduced or removed altogether.

Before enumerating updated directives, it is important to remind everyone of the responsibility that we have for ourselves and for the care and well-being of others with whom we interact at home, at work, while shopping, and even when we gather for prayer and worship in our parishes.

As indicated by health experts, if you are able to be vaccinated against COVID-19, you are strongly encouraged to do so for the sake of your health and others. Even though it is no longer mandated, individuals may wish to continue wearing a mask when they gather with others in their parish for Mass or other activities. This may be the case for persons with chronic health issues and those who simply want to be extra-careful.

Where We Are Headed

After consultation with the Presbyteral Council, the Deans of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, public health officials, and other advisors, the following directives are issued for the celebration of public Masses (and other liturgical rites celebrated in churches/chapels) within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

These updated directives are intended to correspond with the recent directives issued by the Governor’s Office and CDC guidelines according to the presumed vaccination of a greater number of persons. Some of them are new and some are continued best practices that remain in place, either as a directive or a recommended protocol.

Many pastors are reporting a significant increase in the numbers of people who are returning to Mass in person now that they have been vaccinated.

While restrictions are being eased, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday and holy day Masses remains in place. For this reason, parishes are encouraged to continue livestreaming Mass as an option wherever feasible.

It is anticipated that all the dioceses in Pennsylvania will end that dispensation at the same time; probably after the summer season is over. This is to allow persons to become more comfortable with attending Mass in person. Some persons are uncertain and others have a serious concern, especially due to personal health issues or the concern they have knowing that a family member or friend has been infected with COVID-19.

With that in mind, parishioners who have not been attending Mass are encouraged to begin again. Maybe the first time back could be a weekday Mass with fewer people. It could also be a time to attend a different Sunday Mass than the usual time an individual or family attended prior to the pandemic.

Parishioners are also encouraged to make use of the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. For many, it has been awhile since they last received the sacrament. In addition to providing forgiveness of sins, it is called a sacrament of healing, confession, and conversion (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1420-1424).

The old saying, “confession is good for the soul,” is appropriate in our time. One’s sins and the impact that this time of COVID-19 has had on a person mentally or spiritually can and should be brought to the sacrament. It is a place to find a fresh start or to regain one’s spiritual balance.

The accompanying Updated Directives/Protocols are to be followed in implementing a general return to Mass and the reception of the sacraments.

Updated Directives/Protocols

The following directives/protocols take effect with the vigil Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost, that is, the evening of Saturday, May 22, 2021.

These directives/protocols pertain especially to liturgical celebrations within a church. However, they apply to other functions (e.g. Bible study groups, prayer groups, faith formation programs and activities, dinners, festivals, bingo, etc.) with necessary adaptations.

Common sense should apply and each person may continue to observe precautions that are no longer mandated. This may be the case for those who are waiting to be vaccinated.

Questions concerning these directives/protocols should be brought to the attention of the Vicar General or the Bishop.


· Individuals, including priests, deacons, and liturgical ministers are no longer required to wear masks when in church or other church facilities.

· Pastors and parishioners should respect the return of others to regular worship at Mass and other liturgical and non-liturgical functions. No one should inquire of anyone as to whether or not they are vaccinated.

· Those who are not fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks while in church, both for their protection and that of others.

· Parents should make an informed decision about whether their children participating in liturgical ministries need to continue wearing masks.

· Parishes should have a supply of disposable masks available for individuals who need one.

· Persons who are feeling ill should stay home.

· Masks are recommended when a priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister brings Holy Communion to shut-ins, especially when it is known that the recipient is ill.

· Parents should make an informed decision about whether their children participating in school Masses need to continue wearing masks.

Seating Arrangements

· The use of all pews in churches is now permitted.

· Spacing between pews is discontinued.

· The practice of reserved seating at Mass is discontinued.

· Choirs may be seated together in their usual place.

· Altar servers, lectors, song leaders, and musicians may be seated in their usual places as they resume their functions within the church.


· Wiping/sanitizing pews and other hard surfaces in between Masses is discontinued.

· Hand sanitizer is to be available at the church entrance for parishioners.

· Hand sanitizer should be available for use by clergy and extraordinary ministers in the sanctuary and near the places where Holy Communion is distributed.

· Hand sanitizer should be available for use by the people as they approach to receive Holy Communion.

· Church cleaning should return to regular protocol. Those who are responsible for cleaning should utilize disposable gloves and sanitizer for their individual safety.

Worship Aids and Various Liturgical Actions

· Hymnals and other worship aids may be placed in the pews.

· Holy Water is permitted to be placed in the font(s).

· Entrance and closing processions are now permitted.

· A verbal exchange of the sign of peace is permitted among the faithful.

· Collection baskets may once again be utilized.

· Although the Holy Eucharist continues to be offered at Mass, the distribution of the Precious Blood to the faithful is not permitted.

· Clergy are to receive Holy Communion by intinction when concelebrating.

· Clergy and extraordinary ministers should use hand sanitizer before distributing Holy Communion.

· The faithful are recommended to receive Holy Communion in the hand. However the right to receive on the tongue is to be respected.

· The faithful are encouraged to sanitize their hands before and after receiving Holy Communion.

· Clergy and extraordinary ministers, at their discretion, may continue wearing masks when distributing Holy Communion.

· Permission remains in effect for priests to trinate on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and to binate on weekdays.

· The use of confessionals is permitted. If there is inadequate ventilation within the confessional, priests may arrange for another space in the church for hearing confessions.

· Clergy may greet the people before or after Mass, but should refrain from shaking hands.

Previous Updates

On March 2, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine recently approved for use in the United States.  

“The approval of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in the United States again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested, and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.

“Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production.  The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.’ However, if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”


On March 4, The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference responded to questions that many people have asked about whether it is permissible to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

When people have no choice about which COVID vaccine to receive, it is morally acceptable to receive any vaccine they are offered. This is based on the December 2020 guidance from the Vatican, stating that “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

The position of some bishops in Pennsylvania has been inaccurately reported in some news media, resulting in confusion among Catholics and the public.

Our position has never changed, nor has that of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said, “While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”

In essence, we recognize that at this time individuals are not given a choice of which vaccine to receive and that this should not prevent Catholics from getting vaccinated as soon as possible.  Catholics may in good conscience, receive any vaccine, in order to protect themselves.  Once again, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of PA’s Catholic bishops.

Bishop Mark Bartchak is joining other bishops in the United States in clarifying recent confusion regarding the “moral permissibility” of vaccines for COVID-19.

According to Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna did not involve the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue from an aborted baby.

Bishop Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine. Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City is the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The two went on to say that the vaccines are not completely free from any connection to abortion since Pfizer and Moderna used a tainted cell line for a confirmatory lab test.

“There is thus a connection, but it is relatively remote,” Bishop Rhoades and Archbishop Naumann explained. “Some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching.”

The bishops referred to studies by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005 and 2017, as well as a 2008 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding bioethical questions.

“These documents all point to the immorality of using tissue taken from an aborted child for creating cell lines,” they stated. “They also make distinctions in terms of the moral responsibility of the various actors involved, from those in designing and producing a vaccine to those receiving the vaccine. Most importantly, they all make it clear that, at the level of the recipient, it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.”

Bishop Mark echoed the message from Bishop Rhoades and Archbishop Naumann.

“Church teaching prohibits the direct use of cells taken from aborted babies, but that is not the issue here,” the Bishop said. “I am confident in advising people that based on research by qualified experts in moral theology and bioethics that the vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna appear to be acceptable for use by Catholics according to official Church teaching.”

In recent days, the Catholic Health Association has also stated that it finds nothing morally prohibitive with the vaccines and encourages Catholic health organizations to distribute the vaccines developed by Pfizer, BioNTech (Pfizer’s German partner), and Moderna.

“CHA applauds the work of the scientists who have developed these vaccines in a manner consistent with human dignity and will work to support efforts to educate the public about the importance of getting vaccinated,” commented Sister Mary Haddad, RSM, President and Chief Executive Officer.

Locally, Attorney Tom Forr of the Blair County chapter of Citizens Concerned for Human Life is not opposed to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“Most pro-life organizations do not have a problem with these vaccines,” Forr said. “I haven’t seen any direct criticism of these two.”

As vaccines become available in the near future, Bishop Mark expressed confidence that any additional moral questions will be answered by the appropriate USCCB office and the Vatican.

He also urged his fellow Catholics to remain vigilant.

“We must always continue to advocate for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, and the faithful should make known to researchers and pharmaceutical companies to observe this fundamental principle concerning human life and not use cells from aborted babies,” Bishop Mark urged.

Watch Bishop’s Discussion on Covid-19 vaccines on Proclaim! (December 6, 2020)

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