As Biden Pushes Federal Vaccine Mandate Forward, Dioceses Have Varying Policies for Employees

Many dioceses have left the decision to be vaccinated to their employees, but Chicago, Lexington and El Paso have already moved to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

President Joe Biden speaks about combating the coronavirus pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House on September 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. As the Delta variant continues to spread around the United States, Biden outlined his administration's six point plan, including a requirement that all federal workers be vaccinated against Covid-19.
President Joe Biden speaks about combating the coronavirus pandemic in the State Dining Room of the White House on September 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. As the Delta variant continues to spread around the United States, Biden outlined his administration's six point plan, including a requirement that all federal workers be vaccinated against Covid-19. (photo: Kevin Dietsch / Getty)

WASHINGTON — As employees of Catholic institutions wait to learn what religious and conscience exemptions — if any — they may be eligible for in President Joe Biden’s recent vaccine mandate, U.S. bishops are somewhat divided over the question of enforced vaccination of diocesan workers.

Prior to Biden’s Sept. 9 announcement that companies with 100-plus employees must require vaccinations or weekly COVID testing, a few U.S. bishops had already issued policies requiring that all diocesan staff be vaccinated.

In contrast, many other dioceses had left the decision to be vaccinated to their employees. A joint statement by the bishops of South Dakota, for instance, emphasizes the right to freely follow the dictates of one’s conscience, which, they said, Catholics have a duty to form by right reason and Church teaching.

The bishops of Colorado, in addition to not mandating vaccines for diocesan staff, even went a step further by providing a template for Catholics seeking exemptions on religious grounds from their place of employment. 

It remains to be seen what this discrepancy among U.S. prelates will mean for Catholics employed by dioceses as the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate begins to take effect. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been called upon to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS), which could include exemptions on the basis of religious belief and conscience. However, it may be weeks before it is known how Catholic workers could be affected.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Dioceses of Lexington, Kentucky, and El Paso, Texas, employees were facing this question of mandatory vaccinations weeks before Biden’s mandate. 

A letter obtained by the Register to employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago, dated Sept. 1 and signed by Cardinal Blase Cupich, states that vaccinations are mandatory for all staff and volunteers, with exemptions being offered for medical and religious reasons. 

An earlier version of the same letter explicitly prohibited religious exemptions. 

However, an archdiocesan employee told the Register that this religious exemption does not apply to Catholics.

“If you are Catholic in Chicago, it is considered a ‘moral obligation’ to get the vaccine, as the vaccine is not to be considered morally questionable,” the employee told the Register, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Likewise, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington is quoted as saying that COVID vaccines are a “moral obligation” — citing Pope Francis — in an Aug. 17 statement issued by the Diocese of Lexington, which declares that all diocesan staff must be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso also issued a directive for employees to be vaccinated, while allowing exemptions for reasons of health. 

“I would certainly hope that Church workers and ministers are willing to follow these prudent directives in order to serve in the Church — out of love for God and charity for the people they serve,” the Aug. 6 statement reads.

And on Sept. 14, Bishop Kevin Sweeney of Paterson, New Jersey, wrote a letter that he described as “one step short of a mandate” to his clergy, to “strongly encourage” all of them to be vaccinated voluntarily.

“This is an essential time when you must be vaccinated to protect yourself and the health of others,” he wrote, adding, “Exemptions from vaccination for clergy, other than those for legitimate medical reasons, will be minimal.”


Conscience Concerns

The assertion that Catholics are morally obligated to receive the COVID vaccine comes at odds with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-Covid-19 Vaccines,” which states that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

The CDF’s December 2020 statement affirms that it is morally permissible to receive a COVID vaccine that had been tainted by use of cell lines of aborted children in production or testing, but does not negate the legitimacy of refusing vaccines for reasons of conscience.

The use of aborted cell lines in the COVID vaccine’s development is not the only point of conscience for many Catholics, however. 

“While the issue of cooperation — however remote — with abortion is a major issue for many Catholics, it is by no means the only ethical issue for conscientious Catholics with regard to these new biologicals,” said Mary Anne Urlakis, a bioethicist and executive director and co-founder at Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life, Inc.

“For many Catholics, what is fundamentally at stake here is freedom of conscience,” she told the Register.

Addressing the relationship between employer and employee, wherein the human person is not meant to be “viewed as a means to an end,” Urlakis said, “As a human person made in the image and likeness of God, the employee has the right to conscience.”

“Even in the case of a medically indicated preventative measure, the employee ought to have the ability to abstain according to his or her conscience and uniquely personal deeply held religious beliefs,” she said.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, all priests and deacons are required to be vaccinated, although they may appeal a decision by the panel for medical exemptions, according to the note sent to employees. 


Canon-Law Guideposts

However, there may be other options for clergy wishing to make an appeal, according to Michael Dunnigan, canon law professor at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

“Any person who believes that he or she has been injured by a bishop’s decree or decision can challenge it through a procedure called hierarchical administrative recourse,” he said. “The case would begin at the diocesan level, but it eventually could proceed to the Holy See.”

With regard to mandates, Dunnigan said that the Code of Canon Law offers “some guideposts — such as the individual person’s right to privacy and the diocesan bishop’s role in governing his diocese.” 

In order “to address the questions related to vaccine mandates with precision,” however, “one would need to look outside the code to magisterial statements on conscience and on health care.”

Meanwhile, employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago who do not wish to obtain the vaccine are given the alternative of obtaining a medical exemption, but only under certain conditions.

A separate note to employees states that requests for medical and religious exemptions will be subject to review by a diocesan panel.

The same note states that unvaccinated staff who contract COVID-19 must use accrued sick leave or vacation days to quarantine, while fully vaccinated employees will be given 10 additional sick days by the archdiocese. 

“I feel like they’re trying to manipulate me into getting the vaccine, not because it is what is good for me, but because it is ‘for the greater good,’” the archdiocesan employee told the Register.


Safety and Efficacy Questions

Setting aside the question of conscience, belief in the safety and efficacy of the mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech is not unanimous in the medical community. 

“If you ever hear anybody say that ‘the science is settled,’ you know you’re not talking to somebody who’s a genuine scientist, because that’s the opposite of what science means,” said Dr. Patrick Lappert, a board-certified plastic surgeon and deacon for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. “Science is all about asking questions.” 

A physician for 40 years, Lappert expressed concern that mRNA treatments are novel therapies that aim to accomplish what vaccines accomplish, but whose results have not been observed over the long term and thus may have serious, unanticipated consequences.

“The vaccine, as it’s called, doesn’t inactivate or clear the virus out of the system,” Lappert said.

“What it does is it interferes with the infectivity of the virus, and it turns out that people who receive the vaccine actually carry a much higher viral burden than people who do not receive the vaccine.”

He added that there are several concerns associated with the treatment, including severe “breakthrough infections” resulting from a pathological immune response upon reexposure to the virus.

For employees who come to him for medical exemptions, Lappert sends them for tests to check for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. 

“I would write them a letter saying this person has natural immunity, does not require vaccination,” he said. “Why subject them to the risk of vaccination when they already have the antibodies?”


Seeking a Medical Exemption

The Chicago archdiocesan employee said she is seeking a medical exemption due to concerns about the potential health risks associated with the mRNA treatment. 

“I am dissatisfied with the research that has been done, specifically on women,” she said, citing — for instance — reports by thousands of women who say they experienced changes to their menstrual cycles after receiving the vaccine.

“Perhaps the vaccine is fine,” the employee said. “But it seems to still be in the experimental stages right now. We shouldn’t be a year into people receiving the vaccine and finally think it’s a good idea to study the effects that it has on women.”

The employee expressed feeling “defeated” and “abandoned” in the face of archdiocesan politics, which were present even before Biden’s new vaccine mandate.

“I know to be Catholic is to lay down your life for your friend. But it also means that you have a right and a duty to form your conscience well,” she said.

“I have researched. I have formed my conscience. And as a Catholic it is my right not to violate my conscience.”