COVID Mandate Logic

EDITORIAL: The decision whether to vaccinate or not should be a free and informed choice, not something that’s mandated or coerced by our governments.

People demonstrate against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in Huntington Beach, California, on Jan. 3.
People demonstrate against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in Huntington Beach, California, on Jan. 3. (photo: ROBYN BECK / AFP via Getty Images)

Catholic teaching regarding the moral duty to be vaccinated is straightforward — it should be a free choice. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) noted in a December 2020 guidance explaining the moral acceptability of using COVID-19 vaccines, “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and … therefore, it must be voluntary.” 

Over the course of the ongoing COVID pandemic, political leaders and public-health officials in the U.S. and other developed countries have conformed only to a limited extent with this moral principle. True, vaccination itself has not been universally mandated, except in Austria, which is poised to do so next month. But in many jurisdictions, including the Vatican, the principle of voluntary vaccination has been egregiously compromised by the imposition of mandates requiring vaccination in order to participate in a wide range of public activities — with exceptions often available only for medical reasons, not on grounds of conscience. 

Government-imposed mandates for workplaces are particularly problematic. Vaccination can hardly be regarded as a voluntary choice when the state decrees that declining to get vaccinated means the loss of your job and the ability to provide for yourself and your family.

That’s why it was somewhat heartening earlier this month when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s bid to impose a vaccinate-or-test mandate for larger private-sector employers. The court did not rule directly on the morality of the administration’s workplace mandate, rejecting it instead primarily on the grounds that such an action needed to be legislated by Congress rather than instituted by executive fiat. Nevertheless, the decision provided welcome relief to unvaccinated people who feared they were about to be turfed out of their jobs en masse because of their principled decisions not to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, the court didn’t provide the same relief to health care workers; in their case, it ruled that the federal government does have the authority to mandate vaccination for them.

Still, the judgment regarding private-sector employers reflected an underlying assessment that even though the pandemic remains an enormous public-health issue, it isn’t a grave enough threat considering what we now know of the disease and treatment to warrant bypassing the legislative process. If millions of lives were in imminent jeopardy of being lost because of the presence of unvaccinated people in the workplace, it’s highly likely the Supreme Court would have reached an opposite conclusion.

This same logic is of fundamental importance to a Catholic reassessment of the morality of COVID vaccination mandates at this point in time. If universal vaccination against a particular disease is a desperately needed public health measure, then the general rule that vaccination is voluntary would not automatically apply. In fact, it can be assumed this specific reasoning was what motivated Pope Francis’ comments in January of 2021, when he declared, “I believe that, ethically, everyone has to get the vaccine” in order to protect their own health as well as the health of others.

The Holy Father made this informed judgment on the basis of the majority view then prevailing among scientists and public-health experts that the new vaccines would serve to prevent transmission of the virus to the vast majority of vaccinated people and thereby, over time, bring the pandemic to an end. It was also believed vaccines would have the additional benefit of greatly reducing the severity of symptoms in the relatively rare “breakthrough cases” of infection that could occur in vaccinated individuals. 

Yet even given these circumstances, many Catholic ethicists asserted that while love of neighbor and concern for the common good should strongly incline everyone toward vaccination, as the Pope recommended, the right of conscientious objection should not be abrogated for the minority who continue to decline the vaccines because of their utilization of abortion-derived tissues or because of other concerns about their efficacy and potential side effects.

The virus’ shift of direction in recent weeks has strengthened this case. The existing COVID vaccines have proven so ineffective in stopping the spread of the Omicron variant that public-health authorities now are concluding it’s futile to try to halt its transmission throughout the entire human population. This inefficacy undermines the strongest argument originally made in support of morally obligatory vaccination. Fortunately, Omicron’s symptoms appear to be considerably less severe than with previous variants, but this positive development further undermines the case for imposing workplace vaccination mandates and other harsh restrictions against those who have decided in good conscience that they won’t get vaccinated. It’s also now the case in most developed countries that, unlike a year ago, everybody who is at high risk of serious symptoms has had ample opportunity to be fully vaccinated. And on Jan. 19 the Centers for Disease Control released new data indicating that prior COVID infection appeared to have conferred better protection against reinfection than did vaccination, providing support for people like Catholic ethicist Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who rejected vaccination and was fired from his job for this specific reason. 

Another important point is the reality that private employers have successfully kept operating and ensured the safety of their employees and customers over recent months without heavy-handed state interventions. Such factors undercut the case for sweeping measures like the federal workplace mandate that the Supreme Court set aside this month, but the Biden administration and other pro-mandate proponents continue to press for their implementation. An area of particular concern, especially for parents who have decided against the vaccination of their children, is the possibility that schools might impose vaccine mandates on their students. Many of these parents are vaccinated themselves but oppose it for their kids on the grounds that COVID virtually never makes young children seriously ill and because of a fear of potential serious side effects. 

Catholics should find the notion of school vaccine mandates doubly objectionable. Not only do they transgress against the parents’ right of conscientious objection, exercised on behalf of the children God has entrusted to their care, but they violate the principle of subsidiarity by allowing the state’s authority to intrude unjustifiably into the realm of the family.

At the same time, some extremely persuasive arguments continue to favor the choice of vaccination. Probably the most significant one is that the latest data sets indicate the vaccines continue to be highly effective during this Omicron wave in reducing the incidence of severe illness and death among those who become infected. This fact alone should incline the elderly, and others who are at similarly high risk because of underlying health problems, toward vaccination. 

There are a number of other significant arguments in favor of receiving a vaccine, as well as others against doing so. Space does not permit a comprehensive recapitulation of all of them here. The key thing for Catholics in the U.S. to remember is that this very personal decision should be a free and informed choice, not something that’s mandated or coerced by our governments.