Conscience, COVID Vaccines and the Common Good

The Church helps us to find a common ground between the good of each and the good of all.

A medical worker prepares a vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center on Sept. 15 in Erfurt, Germany.
A medical worker prepares a vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine against COVID-19 at a vaccination center on Sept. 15 in Erfurt, Germany. (photo: Jens Schlueter / Getty Images)

We have come to a new chapter in the COVID-19 crisis and conflict that has gripped our Church, this nation and the world. The new chapter involves vaccinations, and the increasing mandates to receive them “or else.” The price of refusal ranges from the irritating weekly testing to fines, and all the way to job termination and banishment from places of trade and restaurants.

In the Church, our response to this has been generally to encourage getting the vaccine but also to reaffirm that vaccination cannot be mandated. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, largely quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says:

“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.’ … 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.”

The bishops of Colorado, writing jointly, “affirm that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances.” But they more deeply develop the inadmissibility of mandates:

“We understand that some individuals have well-founded convictions that lead them to discern they should not get vaccinated. We are pleased to see that in the case of the most recent Denver vaccine mandate there is accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs. This is appropriate under the laws protecting freedom of religion.

“We always remain vigilant when any bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping requirements on a group of people in areas of personal conscience. Throughout history, human rights violations and a loss of respect for each person’s God-given dignity often begin with government mandates that fail to respect the freedom of conscience. 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 also assert that “a person is morally required to obey his or her conscience.” They state further, “A person’s assessment of whether the benefits of a medical intervention outweigh the undesirable side-effects are to be respected unless they contradict authoritative Catholic moral teachings.” (See also the Catechism, Nos. 1782 and 1790.)

Strangely though, other bishops and dioceses, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, along with numerous Catholic Universities and schools are mandating vaccines for clergy and employees. To refuse may result in any number of punitive measures.

Hence, we see a house divided. While Church teaching on conscience is not unclear and has been restated by the Vatican, the USCCB and other bishops, how strange it is to see some dioceses and Catholic institutions adopt the language of the world and speak of mandated vaccines without reference to conscience protections and religious liberty.

Part of the reason for this is that many have grown accustomed to vaccine “mandates.” Almost every school district mandates a number of childhood immunizations. When parents enroll their children in these schools, they are typically required to submit proof of vaccination for these mandated immunizations. Most of us remember getting measles, mumps and rubella vaccines along with other shots to prevent polio and smallpox. But these “mandates” usually had exemptions for those who had medical, moral or other conscientious objections. It was understood that if most were vaccinated, things were safe enough. It was the unvaccinated themselves who were most at risk and there was little thought that the risk of anything could be reduced to zero, as some unreasonably expect today.

Nevertheless, whatever “familiarity” vaccine mandates may evoke, we in the Church still have a stance and have been teaching that conscience should be respected and that mandates “must be voluntary.” This tradition and teaching should not be controversial in Catholic circles, and it certainly should not be violated within our own institutions.

But there also arises the issue of what Catholics who object to the civil mandates should expect from the Church. Generally speaking, the Vatican and the bishops of the United States have chosen a position that is supportive of receiving the vaccine, often speaking of it as important for the common good. This position has been the usual stance of the Church since vaccines first appeared.

Legitimate moral concerns about the use of cell lines from children aborted in the 1970s have also been answered in a manner consistent with previous teaching; namely, that the cooperation in the evil origin of the cell lines is material but passive and remote. Hence, for a serious reason, Catholics may make use of vaccines and other medicines derived from such research or production.

It is granted that some Catholics do not think the risk of COVID-19 is grave enough to warrant its designation as a serious or grave situation. Others do not think the vaccine effective enough, and still others do not consider the vaccine safe, or too experimental. It has been my experience that those who share some or all these concerns are not limited to the “religious right.” Many I know are African American and have an historical distrust of government-mandated medicines and procedures. Other people I know prefer natural remedies and distrust chemicals of any sort being introduced into the body. And yes, there are also religious conservatives who object for some of the reasons stated. To simply dismiss the objectors as “conservative” is incorrect and unnecessarily divisive.

All that said, the bishops have chosen to emphasize the permissibility and goodness of receiving the vaccine. Reasonable people will differ on the medical and moral premises of this approach, but this is the current lay of the land.

Hence a Catholic who has objections to receiving the vaccine should do so on a personal basis. The real battleground on mandates is currently in the courts and in the political process. Catholics should avail themselves of their constitutional, civil and legal rights, but they should do so by engaging in individual or class-action lawsuits.

Some have expressed concern that the Vatican and bishops have not said or done enough to speak boldly against vaccination mandates. This may be true. But to be fair, in most of the documents released so far, mention is made that vaccines cannot be mandated, but that they must be received voluntarily. Collectively, the bishops have chosen to emphasize getting the vaccination, but more could be said to clarify that, according to Catholic teaching, vaccines “must be voluntary.”

It remains a matter of deep concern that any Catholic diocese or institution would simply or uncritically use legal and economic pressure to compel fellow Catholics, or any human being, to receive vaccines or disclose personal medical information. This is against our traditions and teachings. Government mandates ought to be refuted as a violation of human dignity and the right of individuals to follow their conscience.

At the same time, Catholics must recall that resisting the world will often lead to persecutions and sufferings. There are many injustices in this life, and those who fight them will suffer. In this case, the fight must be more personal, as well as legal and political. The Church’s bishops have chosen to balance the common good of public health with the rights of individual conscience. Some dispute that the balance is right, but this is where we are.

In this matter, mutual respect is also essential.

Those who encourage the vaccine and emphasize the common good should acknowledge that some of their brothers and sisters have grave concerns and have chosen to engage a battle that upholds conscience and medical and moral concerns, and which emphasizes the teaching that vaccines must be voluntary.

Those who seek to engage this battle ought also to accept that others see the priorities differently arrayed, and that they emphasize an urgency rooted in the teaching of the common good.

What is of God will grow, and what is of man will falter. Meanwhile, our tensions (though irksome) help us to remember and balance the fundamental principles such as the common good and individual rights. Both are important and necessary. Church leaders do well to speak to both, and to call for the balance that orthodoxy most frequently requires.

Nicolas Poussin, “Sts. Peter and John Healing the Lame Man,” 1655 — “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” ... He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.” [Acts 3:6, 8].

No Reason for Being Sad

“For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in his happiness.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 21)