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How Catholic dioceses are handling COVID vaccine employer mandates

Catholic dioceses will not be exempt from the employer vaccine mandates announced last week by the Biden administration - and responses to the mandate could bring into the spotlight already-existing divisions among Catholics over vaccine mandates.

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The new federal regulations, announced September 9, will be implemented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). They will require organizations that employ at least 100 people to mandate that their employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or take weekly COVID tests.

“The OSHA vaccine mandate applies to dioceses that employ more than 100 people,” Roger Severino, Senior Fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, told The Pillar.

He added that the religious exemptions included in the mandate “are so narrow that I question their legality.”

The federal mandate enjoys the support of about 60% of Americans, but has also prompted legal questions, with the state of Arizona filing a lawsuit challenging it, and other states threatening to do so as well.

But even before the Biden administration had announced the new rules, a clear split on the topic of vaccine mandates was beginning to develop among Catholic dioceses.

In recent months, dioceses have offered differing answers to Catholics on whether they will assist those seeking a religious exemption to a vaccine requirement from a school or employer.

But dioceses have also had to decide how they will act as employers - and what requirements they will place on the people who work for them. Some dioceses have released statements critical of COVID vaccine mandates, while others have issued these mandates for their own employees.

Requiring Vaccinations

In El Paso, Bishop Mark Seitz issued a policy last month requiring that Church employees be vaccinated. The bishop said that serving the Church by its nature requires interacting with others, and that those employed by the Church represent the Church, and therefore must lead by example.

“I would certainly hope that Church workers and ministers are willing to follow these prudent directives in order to serve in the Church — out of love for God and charity for the people they serve,” Seitz said in an August statement announcing his decision.

Fernando Ceniceros, director of communications for the Diocese of El Paso, told The Pillar that Christians should make an effort to slow the spread of a potentially fatal virus.

Ceniceros said diocesean staff were cooperative about the requirement “as a means to protect our people,” and most personnel were already vaccinated when the requirement was issued. He added that there are masking and testing accommodations in place for staff unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

“The community of El Paso stepped up,” he said. “Not just our Catholic community, but our whole community.”

According to the El Paso Times, more than 70% of the population of El Paso County, Texas has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Employees at the Catholic Center of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky also must receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment, Bishop John Stowe announced last month.

“This is an urgent matter of public health and safety. There is no religious exemption for Catholics to being vaccinated, and Pope Francis has repeatedly called this a moral obligation,” Stowe said in a statement, citing a public service announcement in which Pope Francis participated.

“The health care system is now overwhelmed by a crisis caused primarily by those who refuse to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated,” Stowe added. “This is unacceptable, and our diocese now joins those employers who have already made this basic commitment to the common good a requirement.”

Last week, Stowe added a new mandate - priests in the diocese must be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to minister to sick, elderly, and homebound individuals.

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that it will require vaccinations for all staff as of October. It will allow exceptions for medical reasons but will not consider religious objections.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is also requiring priests and deacons to be vaccinated, a move that could lead to a canonical appeal at the Vatican.

Canon lawyer Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, told The Pillar that the Vatican would not likely uphold a policy requiring clerics to receive vaccines. The priest noted that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has explicitly rejected the idea that vaccines can be mandated.

“I would hope the Holy See would respect the decision made by [Congregation Prefect] Cardinal [Luis] Ladaria, and remind the local bishop that he could not impose such mandates,” Pietrzyk said.

Pietrzyk noted that a bishop could not impose punitive measures on a priest for being unvaccinated and would be limited in the ways he could restrict the ministry of such a priest.

“Such restrictions would have to be related to public health. The bishop couldn't withdraw his confessional faculties, for example,” he said.

“Keep in mind, the unvaccinated priest would still have to abide by some health protocols to prevent the spread of the virus,” he added.

Objecting to Mandates

Other dioceses have voiced opposition to employer vaccine mandates.

In a joint statement, the bishops of South Dakota - Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls and Peter Muhich of Rapid City - criticized employer requirements to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, arguing that the Church should support those seeking a religious exemption if a Catholic “comes to the sure conviction in conscience that they should not receive it, we believe this is a sincere religious belief, as they are bound before God to follow their conscience.”

“We support any Catholic who has come to this conviction in seeking religious exemption from any Covid-19 requirement,” the bishops said.

A spokesperson for the diocese of Sioux Falls declined to comment about vaccination policy for staff, while a spokesperson for the diocese of Rapid City did not immediately respond.

The bishops of Colorado made similar objections to employer mandates, and circulated a letter template for Catholics seeking an exemption on religious grounds.

The Catholic bishops of Wisconsin issued a statement encouraging the faithful to get vaccinated, while also objecting to employer mandates.

“We encourage those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to do so because it is the most effective way to combat this virus,” the Wisconsin bishops said. “We are all morally responsible to protect our lives and the lives of others. This is an imperative of natural law that we treasure in our faith.”

The Wisconsin bishops added they believe that those who seek an exemption on religious grounds should be granted one, but those individuals should also take extra caution to slow the spread of the virus by other means.

“Every decision has consequences; and in this case, the person claiming a religious or ethical exemption should be ready to properly assume other scientifically recommended means of avoiding infection and contagion: face-coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing, periodic testing, and quarantine,” they said. “Employers should respect their employees’ consciences and make necessary accommodations, but they are also responsible for the protection of the common good. Consequently, employers should maintain safety by requiring other ways of preventing the spread of infection by conscientious objectors.”

In an August statement, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City praised the bishops of Wisconsin, Colorado, South Dakota and those “who urge employers to respect their employees’ consciences and make necessary accommodations, substituting other reasonable safety measures for mandated vaccination.”

School Employees

In some states, dioceses have also found themselves needing to respond to state-issued mandates for employees in schools - including Catholic schools.

In Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all school employees. The mandate, announced August 18, includes those in charter or private schools.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane issued a statement the next day, saying, “While we encourage vaccination, we do not intend on violating the consciences of our Catholic school teachers nor do we intend on vouching for another person’s conscience.”

He said the diocese was “in conversation with civic and health officials about government mandated vaccination requirements.”

In a follow-up statement, Daly clarified that parish schools must abide by the vaccine mandate, but added that both medical and religious exemptions would be permitted.

“The state recognizes two exemptions from this mandate,” he said. “The first is a medical exemption that one may obtain through his or her physician. The second is a religious exemption which, for us as Catholics, rests on the fact that a properly formed conscience is inviolable.”

On August 25, the state of Oregon announced that all school teachers and staff would be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID by mid-October.

The Archdiocese of Portland said in a statement that Catholic schools are expected to comply with this mandate, while also noting that applications for a conscience-based exemption would be considered on an individual basis.