What the bishops are saying about vaccine mandates

A Pillar Explainer

Controversy surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is nothing new, but the most recent chapter of pandemic controversy is about vaccine mandates. 

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The virus’ Delta variant has led to increased hospitalizations and deaths, especially among unvaccinated Americans, leading to calls for vaccine mandates in schools and workplaces across the country.

On July 30, the Archdiocese of New York issued a brief memorandum to priests regarding religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The memo directs priests of the archdiocese to refrain from issuing or assisting Catholics in obtaining a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate.

The memo generated considerable controversy and confusion among Catholic and non-Catholics alike, particularly for its directive that “there is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the [COVID-19] vaccine” and that priests “should not be active participants” in assisting Catholics in obtaining a religious exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Other bishops have issued memos with a different take on the whole thing, generating some degree of confusion.  

This Pillar Explainer aims to bring some clarity about the application and implications of the guidance from bishops — both in New York, and elsewhere.

What exactly does the New York memo say?

The memo begins by acknowledging the serious concerns that many Catholics have raised about the connection between the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use in the United States and fetal cell lines that were derived from tissue of unborn babies who were electively aborted decades ago. 

The memo explains that those concerns have been voiced by many “who are strongly pro-life and very loyal to the teachings of the faith.” 

The memo also reiterates statements from both Pope Francis and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, which say that acceptance of any of the COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible, and that also that Catholics have a moral responsibility to be vaccinated.

The memo’s stated intention is to provide guidance to priests of the Archdiocese of New York on responding to requests from Catholics who seek the Church’s support for their objection to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. That might include parishioners who need a note from a religious authority in order to be exempted, at work or at school, from a requirement to take the vaccine. 

The guidance says priests should not sign religious exemption forms for Catholics who seek them. It also says priests should not actively support a Catholic in obtaining a religious exemption to a COVID-19 mandate. 

To do otherwise, the memo says, would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the Pope” and “participating in an act that could have serious consequences to others.” 

The memo concludes by referring clergy to the CDF’s 2020 “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines,” presumably to guide moral and spiritual counseling for Catholics who approach them for support in seeking a religious exemption.

Why did the Archdiocese of New York issue this memo now?

The archdiocese likely issued its memo in light of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s anticipated implementation of a city-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for residents who wish to dine indoors, utilize indoor public and private gyms, or attend indoor events and performances. 

The mandate is expected to go into full enforcement on September 13, 2021. The archdiocese may have anticipated the need to prepare priests to address potential state, local, university, and employer vaccine mandates.

News of the New York City mandate comes amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. over the past two months, as the more transmissible “Delta variant” of the virus has become the dominant strain in the country. Similar mandates have also been discussed in other areas of the country.

Does the memo say that all Catholics must accept the COVID-19 vaccine? In other words, is this memo a vaccine mandate for Catholics?

To be  clear: The memo is not a mandate that Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York accept the COVID-19 vaccine. The memo was directed only to clergy in the archdiocese – specifically, pastors, administrators, and parochial vicars. It gives no mandate or directive to Catholics generally in the archdiocese. Further, the memo is not a vaccine mandate for pastors, administrators, and parochial vicars. 

The memo is solely focused on how priests in the Archdiocese of New York ought to respond to requests from Catholics seeking a religious exemption to a state, local, school, or employer-instituted vaccine mandate.

The memo’s use of the term “religious exemption” is significant. A religious exemption is a specific kind of non-medical exemption from a mandated vaccine. It is a documented waiver that can carry legal weight. The memo’s focus is on religious exemptions from potential state, local, school, or employer mandates, but not on the general ethics of refusing a COVID-19 vaccine. 

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What else has the Church said about vaccine mandates?

Vaccine mandates are common in childcare services, educational institutions, and places of employment where risk of transmission of vaccine-preventable diseases may be high (e.g., hospitals, food service industries). 

Every state in the U.S. mandates a set of childhood immunizations, roughly in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended childhood immunization schedules. Local school districts typically adopt and enforce these mandates, as do many private institutions of learning — when children or adolescents enroll in these schools, they are typically required to submit proof of vaccination for these mandated immunizations. 

Such mandates are common at Catholic as well as secular schools. Franciscan University of Steubenville mandates that any student living in dormitories provide proof of receiving meningococcal and hepatitis B vaccines, in accordance with Ohio state law. Ave Maria University mandates that all students provide evidence of having receiving multiple vaccinations, including the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR), a vaccine which - like the currently FDA authorized COVID-19 vaccines - has connections to fetal cell lines derived from the tissue of an aborted fetus. Both universities require that students who wish to be exempt from these mandates obtain and submit a signed waiver. 

Vaccine mandates typically allow for exemptions. 

Medical exemptions are granted to those with a clinically documented health condition that places them at higher risk of adverse effects from some vaccines. In most jurisdictions, the exemption is obtained from primary care clinicians, municipal or county health offices, or state-designated health clinics. 

Some, but not all, states also allow non-medical exemptions, which are most commonly either “personal belief” or “religious” exemptions. While most states allow parents to obtain a non-medical exemption to childhood vaccine mandates with little effort, others such as California, Mississippi, and New York do not allow personal belief or religious exemptions to these mandates.

Regarding the COVID-19 vaccines specifically, Pope Francis has described vaccination as a moral responsibility, but did not say so as a teaching that would bind Catholics. 

In its 2020 “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines,” the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith’s 2020 states that “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. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

However, the CDF’s note indicates that “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” The Catechism teaches, “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” The Catechism teaches that one’s conscience must be well-formed, as ignorance can lead to erroneous judgements.

The CDF also says that any Catholic who refuses the COVID-19 vaccine must still fulfill the duty to promote and protect the common good: “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, 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.”

Why does the New York memo say that priests have no “basis” to issue a religious exemption for COVID-19 vaccines?

The moral framework that the Church employs to evaluate the act of accepting the COVID-19 vaccines was initially developed by Pope Benedict XVI’s CDF and Pontifical Academy for Life and applied broadly to vaccines developed, tested, or produced utilizing fetal cell lines derived from tissue of aborted fetuses. 

In 2005, 2008, and 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the CDF issued clear moral instructions on the morality of accepting childhood vaccines with this connection to past abortions, such as the Rubella portion of the MMR vaccine, the Varicella vaccine, the Hepatitis A vaccine, some polio combination vaccines, and one varietal of the rabies vaccine. 

Pope Francis and the CDF have introduced no novelty in their application of this framework to the COVID-19 vaccines. The roots of this moral teaching extend back to St. Alphonsus Liguori’s development of the Church’s conception of formal and material cooperation in evil. 

The Church has taught consistently that acceptance of such vaccines is very remote cooperation in evil, and the moral badness of this remote cooperation is outweighed by the manifest benefit to the common good and vulnerable persons that immunization programs have indisputably produced. 

In saying there is no Catholic basis for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine, the memo cites the the Church’s moral authorities on the permissibility of accepting the vaccines. Because the Catholic Church permits the use of the vaccines, the memo says, there is not a particularly Catholic grounds for seeking an exemption from a vaccine mandate. For priests to assist Catholics in obtaining a religious exemption would be to suggest that the Catholic Church states otherwise that what it has officially and manifestly taught. 

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Does the memo discuss other types of conscience-based exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine?

Although the memo says that Catholics would be giving an “inaccurate portrayal of the Church’s instructions” by claiming a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine, it expressly notes that Catholics may refuse the vaccine on other grounds. Catholics who object to receiving the vaccine on the basis of conscience are not fulfilling the requirements for a religious exemption, because the Catholic Church is not opposed to the use of the vaccine, the memo argues. 

But it says that Catholics could still hold objections on a personal basis. In cases where vaccine mandates permit personal belief or philosophical exemptions, Catholics seem free to avail themselves of that option.

The memo does not forbid priests from counseling or advising Catholics who seek guidance on fears or doubts surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Nor does it prohibit priests from refusing the vaccine at their own discretion. Instead, it stresses that the priests themselves cannot provide direct support for a religious exemption from a state, local, school, or employer COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Have other dioceses issued messages on vaccine mandates?

Several other dioceses have begun to weigh in on the question of vaccine mandates, with statements that have taken on varying tones. Last week, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego sent a letter instructing priests in his diocese to deny requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, echoing the approach of the New York memo.

And on Aug. 16, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles issued a short statement saying that “the archdiocese is not providing individuals with religious exemption letters to avoid vaccination against COVID-19.”

But other dioceses have offered a different way of looking at things. 

 In an August 6 letter, the bishops of Colorado stated, “In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are convicted that the government should not impose medical interventions on an individual or group of persons. We urge respect for each person’s convictions and personal choices.” 

The Colorado bishops provided a template religious exemption letter for pastors, directly contradicting the Archdiocese of New York’s claim that objections to the vaccine must be based on personal conscience rather than Catholic belief. 

So the Colorado bishops said a religious exemption is possible for Catholics? 

In their letter, the Colorado bishops focused on the freedom and responsibility to follow one’s conscience, which they describe as an important principle in Catholic teaching — thus framing an objection of conscience as a religious objection.

“The Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse a medical intervention, including a vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision,” they say. If Catholics have decided they have objections of conscience to the vaccine, the bishops of Colorado see it as a matter of religious principle to help ensure that they are able to follow their conscience.

“Vaccination is not a universal obligation and a person must obey his or her own conscience. Therefore, if a Catholic comes to an informed judgment that he or she should not receive a vaccine, then the Catholic Church requires that the person follow this judgment of conscience and refuse the vaccine,” reads the letter template released by the Catholic bishops.

These concerns were echoed by the bishops of South Dakota, who described in an Aug. 10 statement objections by Catholics to the COVID-19 vaccine as a matter of “religious conscience.”

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 South Dakota bishops said.

Both of these statements reflect ideas presented in a message from Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on July 30, the same day the New York memo was released.

“Catholics and all persons are called to discern in conscience, using the best information available and according to their own personal circumstances, if they should or should not take one of the COVID vaccines,” the NCBC message says.

“There is freedom on this matter and no strict moral obligation one way or the other. At the NCBC, we agree that the best ethical decisions are made ‘in the moment’ based on a good understanding of the facts, when people are not subjected to pressure, or in the grip of powerful emotions. That is why we do not approve of coercive pressure tactics or vaccine mandates, particularly ones without generous medical, conscience, and religious exemptions.”

Will the Vatican weigh in?

It seems unlikely that the Vatican will weigh in on American bishops offering differing interpretations of the guidance the CDF has already given. And it’s not clear whether other bishops will weigh in — some have told The Pillar they intend to give guidance on an individual basis, rather than weighing in with statements or letters. But if it becomes clear that bishops continue to disagree, and if the pandemic continues to intensify, it is possible the U.S. bishops’ conference could take the matter up for discussion, and possibly the CDF, or Pope Francis, could eventually decide to offer some clarity.