Back to Forum

Moral discernment in the context of COVID vaccination

Currently, many decisions are in the political spotlight in Austria: Should the State invite refugees from Afghanistan? Should a general duty to vaccinate against COVID-19 be introduced, or only an occupation-specific one for those who deal with many other persons and especially vulnerable ones? Decisions must be made, but the question of how we arrive at a decision is often not as obvious, and the results are far from as consistent as we would like.

In this sense, the question is currently being asked why, despite the Pope’s unambiguous recommendation to vaccinate, not all Catholics who had access to a vaccine have been vaccinated. The Papal recommendation is based on the fact that a herd immunity protects everyone best against the occurrence of severe courses of disease with fatal consequences, and also protects those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons or because they are still too young. Vaccination, in turn, allows the majority of the population to lead a relatively normal life without too many social restrictions, as well as not limiting their professional life more than necessary. The medium- and long-term consequences therefore speak clearly in favor of vaccination.

Nevertheless, there are divergent decisions – not only due to personal health conditions which have been already presented as a legitimate exception from the rule. For example, to my surprise, an acquaintance said she did not want to be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine because the long-term consequences are not known and she did not want to take any risks with regard to future children. Yet the corresponding risk is normally completely excluded and even in the few, very specific situations in which it would be quite theoretically conceivable that an embedding of the mRNA in the DNA could occur, it is still extremely low.[1]

So what is happening here? The risks are subjectively assessed differently. Because the risk is statistically vanishingly small but cannot be ruled out absolutely, the scientific argument for vaccination is judged to be less weighty than the experts’ recommendation, and the medium- and long-term consequences are evaluated differently. This serves only as an example of how deviations from the rule can occur, which, however, could also be dispelled by good reasons: Namely, non-vaccination also offers major disadvantages, insofar as the increased risk of infection for the future mother can affect her health, and in the case of pregnancy, also the health of the unborn child. In addition, there are alternatives to the mRNA vaccine: with the conventional vector vaccines, the fear of a change in the genetic material can be completely ruled out.

Making a moral decision, it turns out, has many elements: weighing arguments; sensing feelings that point to experiences we have had in related circumstances; seeking other opinions; searching for information necessary to make the decision; considering the consequences of the various possible choices for myself and for others; asking how all these considerations relate to my Christian faith; and, finally, what my conscience tells me after all these considerations.

This active, moral work of thinking, feeling and perceiving is what was seen in medieval theology as the activity of conscience. The Dominican Thomas Aquinas relied on man’s rational abilities to discern what is morally right in a given situation. His counterpart in the Franciscan order, Bonaventure, referred more to the intuition and feeling of the heart. For both, reason and the heart pointed to God and thus showed the right way.[2] Today, depending on the context, reason and feelings are addressed from very many different sides and sometimes manipulated by groups and subcultures. The process of an honest examination of one’s own desires and motivations, the search for a balance between what is good for me and what is good for others, and the search for the best available knowledge, presents one side of the task. Listening to what widens the heart and does not narrow it, asking what is more generous and corresponds to a greater love and what brings peace to one’s soul, belongs to the other side. Ideally, if we take the two approaches to conscience as complementing each other, both sides should be present. A process of moral discernment, which is what the activity of conscience stands for, should, in the best of all cases, lead to an outcome which can be regarded as both grounded on reason and corresponding to the existential truth of a person.

[1] Jess Reid, Can mRNA vaccines affect my genetic code? ( (24.8.2021)

[2] Cf. Timothy J. Potts, Conscience in Medieval Philosophy, CUP 1980, 32-60.