Rome Theologian Discusses the Vaccine Mandate, ‘Green Pass’ and Conscience Exemptions

Father Mauro Gagliardi, a professor of dogmatic theology, is a self-professed ‘free vaxxer.’

A police officer stands inside Porta Nuova Station on Sept. 1 in Turin, Italy. Italy has imposed a 'Green Pass' for the use of means of transport such as buses, trains, airplanes and ferries as of Sept. 1.
A police officer stands inside Porta Nuova Station on Sept. 1 in Turin, Italy. Italy has imposed a 'Green Pass' for the use of means of transport such as buses, trains, airplanes and ferries as of Sept. 1. (photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images / Getty Images)

ROME — Vaccine mandates and COVID-related restrictions imposed by state and diocesan authorities, sometimes without exemption rights, are causing considerable concern for many Catholics. 

The Archdiocese of Chicago is requiring all its employees to receive the vaccine for COVID over the next few weeks, while others won’t issue letters of exemption on religious grounds, despite many Catholics conscientiously objecting to the vaccines because they are abortion-tainted or considered by some to be unsafe

In Rome, three pontifical universities are mandating the “green pass” — a vaccine passport in Italy that from Sept. 1 will be needed for long-distance travel and other reasons, while the Pontifical North American College is requesting its seminarians to receive the vaccine.

But how much is such pressure to have the vaccine in conformity with Church teaching? In this Aug. 30 interview with the Register, Father Mauro Gagliardi, professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, questions the moral legitimacy of such coercion. A self-confessed “free vaxxer” as opposed to “anti-vaxxer,” Father Gagliardi also examines exemption rights in light of 2020 Vatican guidance and argues “we can be in favor of convincing people, not of forcing them.” 

Father Gagliardi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Salerno, Italy, is author of Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology, a volume that presents for beginners a comprehensive, organic view of the Catholic faith.

 

Father Gagliardi, what are your concerns about the way governments, institutions and businesses are trying to mandate vaccines?

The main concern is about the personal responsibility of every individual regarding the most personal dimensions of one’s life, such as health care. If governments and other institutions impose an obligatory treatment, that’s a sign that the person is not considered responsible. 

That is a measure usually taken for mentally ill people. A different case is that of children. Parents, who hold and exercise parental responsibility on them, can and should decide in place of their child that he must receive a medical treatment, e.g., a vaccination. 

National rulers, especially in a democracy, do not hold and thus cannot exercise any parental responsibility on citizens. Democratic rulers are, on the contrary, at the service of citizens, as their representatives. Governments should work to support, not to substitute, people’s personal responsibility. In this case, governments should make the vaccines available, and they can even offer incentives for citizens who want to take them, but governments should not force people, directly or indirectly, to receive the jab. Rulers should work for the common good (in this case, public health), but the principle of subsidiarity cannot be denied. This always leaves room for a conscientious objection on the part of citizens.

The EU, in Resolution 2361, adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly on Jan. 27, 2021, with respect to ensuring a high vaccine uptake, mandates: “Ensure that citizens are informed that the vaccination is not mandatory and that no one is under political, social or other pressure to be vaccinated if they do not wish to do so” (7.3.1), and “Ensure that no one is discriminated against for not having been vaccinated, due to possible health risks or not wanting to be vaccinated” (7.3.2). 

 

How does the authoritarianism we are witnessing with regards to the COVID vaccines, especially the widespread dogmatist approach to mandating vaccines for everyone, despite questions over their safety and ethical production, square with Catholic moral teaching? 

Some speak of a “moral obligation” to take the vaccine. Pope Francis said in an interview that being vaccinated is an ethical duty. But when the Pontiff approved and ordered the publication of the official CDF note that declares the use of the COVID vaccines morally acceptable, he also approved the passage of that document that specified vaccination should not be mandatory.

A principle of moral theology is that negative laws oblige always, while positive laws not in all cases. There is no exception, for example, to “Thou shall not kill,” as it is in the negative. But there are many exceptions to “Honor your parents” (and this commandment applies to authorities of all kinds). Even if vaccination were really a moral obligation, it would certainly not be mandatory in the strict sense. Otherwise, the CDF could have not said it must remain non-obligatory.

 

You are referencing the 2020 note on the vaccines, in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” It also states that those who “for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses” must do their utmost to avoid contracting or spreading the virus using other means, especially among the most vulnerable. Why is this guidance not being heeded by some, including bishops in the United States, who argue that their priests should not aid in providing religious exemptions?

There are also other interesting passages in the same document. In the first place, the CDF states: “We do not intend to judge the safety and efficacy of these vaccines, although ethically relevant and necessary.” As appropriate for a magisterial text, the congregation speaks only about faith and morals, not about scientific evaluations, which in themselves do not form part of the proper object of the magisterium, even if such evaluations can on occasions be of great help to pronounce a moral judgment. A consequence is that the CDF has taught that the COVID vaccines may be taken, but the congregation has neither said that they work, nor that they are safe. It has not said that, and it could not have said it. 

A second precision of the document is that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” but this “when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available.” Thus, the congregation adds: “Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health-care providers or the people to be vaccinated.” 

It would therefore be important that the Church asked for, and endorsed, a prompt production of “ethically acceptable vaccines,” as the document calls them. The CDF speaks of “vaccines that do not create a problem of conscience.” This way, the congregation, notwithstanding its moral, prudential judgment on the issue, is acknowledging that it is legitimate to have doubts of conscience. I opine that such doubts can be addressed not only to the process of production of the vaccines, but also to their potential future outcomes, and to the political-mediatic process that aims at imposing them.

 

Given the CDF’s instruction, would you say it is immoral for Church leaders and institutions, and also other organizations, not to allow religious exemptions?

I don’t think that this is a strictly religious matter. That vaccination should be freely chosen is not only a Christian moral stance, but a position that is demonstrable by way of natural ethics. There is no shortage of non-Christians and nonbelievers who are in favor of a free vaccination, and they can argue their stance. However, like other matters such as contraception, abortion and euthanasia, these are, strictly speaking, not only Christian values, but also human values. Nonetheless, religious exemptions are conceded to Catholics regarding these values, and so probably religious exemptions should also be conceded in this case. I am not sure that it is immoral not to concede them, but I would suggest bishops and Catholic institutions allow them.

 

In the U.K. and in some other countries, the government is planning to, or going to, allow children over the age of 12 to receive the vaccine without parental consent. Is this immoral, given their age and the fact that young people are least likely to be affected by COVID and more at risk of rare but serious side effects?

I am not a doctor or trained in medicine, but it is clear that these are not just vaccines in the classic sense of the word. Although the authorities insist that they are safe, no one knows for sure their effects in the medium and long term — neither the pharmaceutical companies that produce them, nor the governments that, at least in certain cases, impose them. I am not saying that the vaccines will produce consequences. Hopefully not. This is also not to say that those who have chosen to be injected with the anti-COVID agent have made an error. I am saying that vaccines might produce consequences, and this cannot be overlooked by those seeking to form their conscience in view of such an important decision. I don’t have the truth in my pocket. The point is: Should a person of good and formed conscience evaluate these aspects in order to make a decision?

Some countries declare other vaccines obligatory for children. But those are classic vaccines, which have been tested for decades, and the illnesses they aim to prevent are life-threatening for children; hence such laws can be considered proportionate. In the case of the COVID vaccines, however, the two elements I just mentioned are missing. First, we don’t know if these drugs are really safe in the intermediate and long term (again: I am not saying that they are not; we just don’t know). Second, the COVID-related mortality rate for young people, especially children and teenagers, is practically zero. So why have them vaccinated? Third, the FDA has recently approved one (not all) of these vaccines, stating at the same time that this one “also continues to be available under emergency-use authorization (EUA), including for individuals 12 through 15 years of age.” This implies that: 1) all other countries have, for now, only an EUA for COVID vaccines; 2) one country alone has approved only one among the many vaccines; and 3) even this one is still injected under EUA for teenagers 12 to 15 of age. As a consequence, billions of people worldwide are being vaccinated with a drug that has received only an emergency-use authorization and, in that sense, can be considered experimental.

Does this not mean that we still need reflection and study and that it is prudent for a person to discern if in his case he should receive the jab? How can vaccines that are clearly still under scientific scrutiny be made mandatory? As soon as the FDA approved that one vaccine, an Italian virologist declared that now it should be made obligatory. But there is no reason to support such a stance. Not all approved drugs are supposed to be imposed on people, and the low death rate of COVID does not justify such an imposition. We can be in favor of convincing people, not of forcing them.

 

The Pope again spoke on Aug. 27 about the effectiveness of the vaccines and the need to distribute them to everyone, seemingly without exception. He has also spoken of an ethical duty to take them. Does his position undermine anyone who wishes to refuse the vaccine on religious or moral grounds? Is it wrong for a Catholic to disagree with him on this?  

As a general rule, every Catholic pays the greatest respect to the bishop of Rome, by reason of his office. His magisterial teachings, even if not proposed in a definitive way, need to be heeded according to a religious reverence of intellect and will. The Church, however, teaches also that not all pronouncements have the same weight and bind the faithful’s assent at the same level. In an interview earlier this year, the Holy Father had described being vaccinated as an ethical duty. More recently, he called it an act of love, which, in a sense, is even more compelling, but in another is less obligatory, if compared to strict duty. So far, the Holy Father has never said that vaccines should be obligatory.

In brief, given the low magisterial degree of the cited interventions, the object of the pronouncement (not directly a matter of faith and morals) and the need for more precision on what has been said, all Catholics will listen to the words of the Pope with the highest respect. Called to discern his words, they will seriously ponder them, but every Catholic can still decide not to receive the jab in good conscience.

 

Do you think, as many do, that these vaccine mandates (the Green Pass in Italy and other forms of vaccine passports elsewhere) are a kind of health tyranny that could lead to further restrictions on personal freedom, but that many Church leaders and an unsuspecting public in general haven’t woken up to this yet? 

Let me say, first of all, that I am not an “anti-vaxxer” (I receive every year the anti-flu vaccine) and I think a debate between pro-vax and anti-vax, between the “enlightened” and the “retrograde,” is simplistic. A better label, if one is needed, is that of “free vax.” I want to defend the possibility of making a free choice with a good and formed conscience, without being discriminated against because of it. Among the free vaxxers there are also many persons who have been vaccinated or will be soon. Therefore, it is not a question of a denialist or ideological position. Nor is it a question of defending libertarianism, but rather freedom — freedom founded on reason and on the possibility of an honest and responsible self-determination of persons, on the basis of a correctly formed conscience. Blind trust in authority, which itself is subject to the law, is a mistake. One cannot prudently offer total trust that suspends even the use of reason. It seems that even many intellectuals have forgotten the lesson of St. Augustine, not long ago reproposed by Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, 28: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? — If justice is removed, what are kingdoms but great thefts?” We cannot simply assume that rulers and leaders always work for the common good. Many times, they do, but errors, ideology and corruption do exist.

Not a few people are afraid that the imposition of the vaccination aims at legitimizing new forms of political tyranny. As of now, it is hard to tell whether this is true. Other explanations remain possible. What can be said is that, if that were true, the present situation would be coherent with that hypothesis. The Church — indeed, any person of goodwill — without becoming a conspiracy theorist, is called to keep their mind and eyes wide open and to use a capacity for critical thought, according to reason. 

 

Pietro De Marco, an Italian sociologist of religion at the University of Florence, recently criticized your position, saying that being a “free vaxxer” is not a legitimate stance and arguing that the vaccines aren’t experimental. Would you like to respond to his critique? 

I respect professor De Marco, and I have liked many of his interventions in the past. I was surprised when he published a bitter column bashing those who refuse to be vaccinated. I felt compelled to send a letter to Sandro Magister, who hosted De Marco’s article on his blog. Magister kindly published my letter, accompanying it with De Marco’s reply. At the beginning of his second text, De Marco appreciates my “reasoned remarks” and seems to rectify the tone of his first intervention by writing that “we should always apologize for raising our voices too much.” 

The rest of his reply, however, seems in a sense to be even harsher than the first one. I decided not to publish a detailed answer to De Marco’s reply, as I didn’t want to raise the umpteenth polemics on COVID. So I will not answer his text point for point here either. 

I will only say that I’m struck by the fact that such an erudite and intelligent man holds a radical position, supporting it in a very weak and dogmatist way — something you don’t expect from a scholar of his level. Of course, I cannot know what lies in professor De Marco’s heart, but the impression is that in this case he exceptionally speaks not according to his enviable mind, but to a sense of fear that might have overcome him.

This is not to say that we should play the brave hearts. I know that I, like anyone else, might get the virus and die tomorrow, and that, in that case, there might be haters on the internet who would feast on my fate, as we have seen happening too many times. Even if that occurred, it wouldn't make me change my mind. The virus exists and sometimes is lethal. But original sin also exists; it affects not only theologians, but also politicians, Church leaders, CEOs. We cannot blindly trust someone just because they are experts or in a position of leadership: As a consequence of original sin, mistakes and ideologies exist, and corruption, too. 

A formed conscience remains the place in which every person of goodwill can and should hear the voice of God, without denying the principle of authority, to which we pay every due respect. But as the Catechism (1778), quoting John H. Newman, reminds: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

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