Cardinal Cupich Reportedly ‘Leaning Hard’ on Bioethics Center to Retract Stance on COVID Vaccine Exemptions

The center’s statement added that the novelty of the coronavirus and its vaccines “leave several medical questions unanswered,” which can impede free and informed consent for some persons.

The NCBC wrote in a July 2 statement that it “does not endorse mandated COVID-19 immunization” with any of the three approved vaccines,
The NCBC wrote in a July 2 statement that it “does not endorse mandated COVID-19 immunization” with any of the three approved vaccines, (photo: Unsplash)

CHICAGO, Ill. — Amid disagreement among Catholic leaders over whether there is a moral obligation to receive a coronavirus vaccine, board members at the National Catholic Bioethics Center have told CNA that Blase Cardinal Cupich has urged that the center retract its guidance against mandated immunization.

One board member told CNA that Cardinal Cupich has been “leaning hard” on the bishops and some prominent lay board members, but did not elaborate on specific names.The NCBC board members spoke with CNA on the condition they not be identified by name. 

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.

The board members who spoke with CNA said that they would oppose the change they say the cardinal is seeking.

One of the board members told CNA, “I think everyone should be vaccinated, and Catholics should be the first to give a good example. There are legal precedents in which the state has mandated vaccines in extreme circumstances, but the conscience of religious people should be respected.”

One of the board members said that Cardinal Cupich has been applying “a tremendous pressure” on the NCBC to retract its support for conscience or religious exemptions from coronavirus vaccine mandates, and to argue in favor of such mandates.

CNA understands that the center sees no reason to retract its guidance, and that its episcopal board members have expressed that it is not problematic.

Located in Philadelphia, the NCBC is a bioethics think tank, the mission of which is “to provide education, guidance, and resources to the Church and society to uphold the dignity of the human person in health care and biomedical research.” Its board of directors, chaired by Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, includes bishops, a deacon, and lay persons.

The NCBC wrote in a July 2 statement that it “does not endorse mandated COVID-19 immunization” with any of the three approved vaccines, citing a December 2020 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which says, in part, that “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

The center’s statement highlighted that the Church has consistently pointed out the ethical problems with vaccines produced and/or tested using abortion-derived cell lines, and that mandates exert severe pressure that can undermine the best ethical decision-making.

The center’s statement added that the novelty of the coronavirus and its vaccines “leave several medical questions unanswered,” which can impede free and informed consent for some persons. 

When vaccination is mandated, the NCBC urged “robust, transparent, and readily accessible exemptions for medical, religious, and conscience reasons,” but that given the importance of public health, “institutions that grant an exemption may require that recipients restrict their interpersonal interactions.”

The center has also made available a vaccine exemption template letter, and a vaccine exemption resource for individuals.

Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, declined comment when contacted by CNA.

In an earlier interview, on Aug. 2, Meany had told CNA that “it is Catholic doctrine that people’s well-founded conscientious objections are part of their religion … part of our Catholic doctrine is that you should have to follow your conscience. And if your conscience is telling you not to do this, then you’re not doing it not just from your conscience perspective, but also from your religious Catholic belief.”

“People objecting to this [ethically-tainted vaccines] are doing so from a very sound Catholic basis, and so I think they should get the support of the Church for doing so,” Meaney said.

He dicussed Church documents permitting the use of vaccines developed with the use of abortion-derived cell lines when no other options are available.

“To a certain extent, people have taken the statements that have come out … to be kind of an endorsement,” he said. “It’s more like a permission,” he said, “it’s a reluctant permission.”

A conscience exemption should not function like a “‘get out of jail free’ card,” Meaney cautioned, noting the responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences and make well-founded judgements. Those not receiving vaccines should do “everything in their power to make sure that they’re keeping others safe,” he added.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that the use of the vaccines with connections to the questionable cell lines is “morally acceptable,” but that Catholics should seek “ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines” when available.

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.” 

It said that the morality of vaccination depends on both the duty to pursue the common good and the duty to protect one’s own health, and that “in the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination.”

“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,” the congregation wrote.

The issue of conscientious objections to Covid vaccine requirements is quickly emerging as a source of intensifying conflict among Catholic leaders and institutions, particularly so in the United States where pressure is mounting against those who have not been vaccinated.

In a television interview in January, Pope Francis said, “I believe that, ethically, everyone has to get the vaccine.”

U.S. bishops have issued varied statements on whether there is an obligation to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

One NCBC board member told CNA that Cardinal Cupich’s pressure has created internal tension in the Church, and that some bishops in the US can soon be expected directly to contradict recent statements from the bishops in Colorado and South Dakota supporting religious or conscience exemptions from coronavirus vaccine mandates.

The Archdiocese of New York on July 30 instructed priests not to grant religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines, saying that doing so would contradict the pope.

By issuing a religious exemption to the vaccine, the archdiocese said, a priest would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the Pope and is participating in an act that could have serious consequences to others. Imagine a student receiving a religious exemption, contracting the virus and spreading it throughout the campus. Clearly this would be an embarrassment to the archdiocese.”

The bishops in Colorado in an Aug. 6 letter emphasized the need to respect those with conscientious objections to the COVID-19 vaccines and have provided a template letter for any Catholics with objections to mandatory vaccination. The bishops of Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo also welcomed the City of Denver’s vaccination mandate for including a religious exemption.

“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 Catholic Conference said.

The conference noted its previous affirmation that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is “morally acceptable under certain circumstances,” while adding that “we understand that some individuals have well-founded convictions that lead them to discern they should not get vaccinated.”

“We always remain vigilant when any bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping requirements on a group of people in areas of personal conscience,” said the bishops, adding, “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.”

The Colorado Catholic Conference on its website provided a template letter for pastors for Catholics who are seeking a religious exemption.

Similarly, the bishops of South Dakota said this week that Catholics whose well-formed consciences tell them not to receive a vaccine should be free to seek a religious exemption from any vaccine mandate. 

“[A] Catholic may, after consideration of relevant information and moral principles, discern it to be right or wrong to receive one of the available Covid-19 vaccines,” Bishops Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls and Peter Muhich of Rapid City said in a statement Aug. 10. 

“If he or she thus 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.”

In December 2020, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas told EWTN's Pro-Life Weekly that regarding whether to receive the Covid vaccine, “I think, like in everything, we need to pray. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and to make the right choice, the moral choice for us. And we have to weigh these goods: the good of protecting our health, the health of our loved ones, the health of the community.”

“And also at the same time, stand strongly to protect innocent human life and to bring an end to the culture of death and to abortion,” he said.

Archbishop Naumann said that while there is a “moral justification” to receiving the vaccine, “not everyone has to make that decision.” He said the available Covid vaccines are “licit and permissible,” though not obligatory.