Catholic College Campuses Facing the Great Vaccination Debate

Administration and students alike face many issues this fall, with COVID-19 vaccination pros and cons figuring prominently.

The University of Dallas never considered requiring its students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated, leaving it up to individuals to make a conscience-informed decision.
The University of Dallas never considered requiring its students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated, leaving it up to individuals to make a conscience-informed decision. (photo: Peter Burleigh / University of Dallas photo)

Colleges and universities across the United States, including many Catholic institutions, are contending with a myriad of issues this fall as they are requiring proof of COVID vaccination from students, and often also faculty and staff, to ensure their safety. 

As the Delta variant cases rise, states are weighing in on organizations requiring masks and vaccinations. Some schools also face legal challenges to their mandates, while other colleges and universities that do not have mandates experience pushback from faculty and students who want them. 

The FDA’s full approval last month of Comirnaty, Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, has influenced some of the estimated 730 college campus locations to mandate vaccinations, according to a database maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education. But others said they had already made their decisions. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccines are also expected to receive full approval within months. 

Catholic colleges and universities are enacting mandates first and foremost because their locality requires it, said Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. 

The ACCU has 180 U.S. members, along with member schools in Canada and other English-speaking colleges around the world. The second reason, he said, is that members “are just being cautious for the sake of the vulnerable.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that 600,000 to 1.9 million new COVID-19 cases are likely to be reported the week ending Sept. 18. To date, in the U.S., more than 641,000 people have died from COVID-19. Overall, the CDC reported, 52.7% of Americans were fully vaccinated as of the start of September. 

An August survey by TimelyMD of more than 1,000 college students showed that 82% of students who attend institutions with vaccination mandates were already vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated when their colleges or universities mandated it. Less than 5% applied for an exemption. 

 

Various Challenges

The states for and against mandates vary across the nation. 

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Aug. 26 that because of an uptick in Delta variant hospitalizations, vaccinations are mandatory for all health-care workers, college students, schoolteachers and staff from pre-kindergarten through college. Illinois residents aged 2 and older are also required to again wear masks indoors. 

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning any state or local mandates requiring vaccination against COVID-19.

In addition, at least six lawsuits against vaccine mandates have been filed this summer, while one challenge to Indiana University’s mandate was not taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

At the same time, students and staff at a number of colleges and universities are calling for stricter COVID-19 protections, including vaccine mandates. 

North Orange County Community College District’s (NOCCCD) board of trustees felt a vaccine mandate was the best way to protect the safety of employees, students and the community, said Kai Stearns, director of public and governmental affairs for the district, which has nearly 78,000 students at Cypress College, Fullerton College, and North Orange Continuing Education in southern California. The board made its decision after the fall semester had already begun and will require faculty, staff and all students who attend in-person classes to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, she said. 

The CDC recommends that when all students, faculty and staff are fully vaccinated before the start of the semester, colleges and universities can return to full-capacity, in-person learning without required masking and physical distancing for the fully vaccinated. But when not everyone on campus is fully vaccinated, schools must make decisions to protect the unvaccinated. 

After doing extensive analysis that involved consulting with the state health department and other local colleges, Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas decided in August to mandate COVID vaccines for safety, said Wendy Wyatt, vice provost of academic affairs. 

Another factor in the decision was the importance of the university’s 9,100 undergraduate and graduate students (enrollment numbers are approximate) having the university experience of in-person classes, student activities, clubs and organizations, said Karen Lange, University of St. Thomas’ vice president of student affairs. 

“That was so critical: that we take every mitigation effort possible in order to have the best St. Thomas experience that students could have,” she said.

The Pfizer approval also didn’t have much impact on The Catholic University of America’s (CUA) decision not to mandate vaccines because the decision hasn’t been driven by doubts about the scientific efficacy of COVID vaccines, said President John Garvey. The Washington-based university has about 5,360 undergraduate and graduate students. 

The fact that more than 86% of students, staff and faculty are already vaccinated impacted the decision not to mandate vaccination, he said. 

“We’re a little bit of an outlier among universities in the district,” Garvey said. “We’re not requiring vaccinations, although we are requiring people to say what their status is, and we have been strongly encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

Matthew Baun, 22, attends the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, which, like CUA, doesn’t have a vaccine mandate. But Baun received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine this spring out of concern for his older family members. He recently uploaded his vaccination card to the university. 

The political science senior said he believes getting vaccinated fits with Catholic teaching on love of neighbor. The idea of a mandate isn’t new, he added. 

“I do believe requiring a vaccine is necessary and giving up individual liberties to help out the overall collective is necessary in certain situations,” said Baun.

The University of Dallas never considered requiring its students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated at its Irving, Texas, campus, said Clare Venegas, assistant vice president for marketing and communications. 

“We trust that certainly individuals and families are going to make a prudent judgment about what is the best way that they can protect themselves or their loved ones if they’re at risk,” she said. “That’s really where we think the best decision is going to be made, by the individual.”

Of the university’s 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students, those who participate in the university’s Rome study program are subject to more rigorous Italian COVID requirements, including the country’s vaccine passport, introduced in August, Venegas said. It is a balancing act between the two locations, she said. 

“We’re just hopeful that we can rely on the trust and goodwill that individuals will have in exercising whatever measure they need to take for their own health and well-being of their loved ones,” said Venegas. 

All the schools have sought the guidance of local and state government and are monitoring community COVID cases and hospitalizations. Dallas County, where the University of Dallas is located, has recently experienced a high level of cases and hospitalizations. 

Due to a spike in positive COVID cases at the end of August, the university announced that, from Sept. 1-12, it was pausing in-person classes and many in-person activities on its Irving campus.

Orange County in California also has an elevated number of cases, Stearns said, although the NOCCCD has not had a COVID outbreak.

While safety is a key factor in vaccine decisions, the ACCU also helps members understand the Church’s teaching on protecting the right of conscience as well as the fact that the Church has investigated and advised the faithful on the ethical questions around the vaccines and abortion, Father Holtschneider said.

He also noted that as the Church is the largest provider of health care in many locations, it’s not surprising it would take health care and public health seriously. 

In a December statement on vaccines, the Vatican said, “It is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” and “the kind of cooperation in evil (passive material cooperation) in the procured abortion from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote. The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent — in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.”

The Vatican has also said that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and … must be voluntary.” The Vatican stressed that care for the vulnerable is important to safeguard by those who are not vaccinated.

Roberto de Mattei, University of Rome professor and author of the book On the Moral Liceity of the Vaccination, commented in an essay for Corrispondenza Romana that it is licit to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with vaccines that use cellular lines coming from aborted fetuses because the Church assures of this, through its most authoritative doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Mattei wrote: “At the level of the individual, each person is free to make a cost-benefit analysis, weighing diverse elements: age, physical health, the advice of one’s personal physician, one’s personal attitude towards sickness and death. But governments, whether they be good or bad, have as their purpose the well-being of the collective.”

Students and staff who choose not to be vaccinated can seek medical and religious/conscience exemptions on most campuses. The University of Dallas also considers natural immunity of those who’ve recovered from COVID-19, Venegas said.

“We’re also considering certainly those individuals who have recovered from COVID and already have kind of a natural immunity: We consider those individuals in the same manner as those who were vaccinated.” 

Joan (not her real name, for fear of reprisal), 30, has not been vaccinated because she doesn’t support the vaccines’ links to abortion. Entering her final year of law school at the St. Paul, Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas, she sought a conscientious exemption from the university’s vaccine mandate. “To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic; it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are,” she said. 

“If you deeply hold that you don’t feel you should get this vaccine, we should respect that — and for them, as a Catholic university to mandate it. … I’m very pro-life. I’ve always been. I refuse to have anything to do with anything linked to abortion.”

Another 20-year-old student who also chose not to give her real name for fear of reprisal and who also attends the University of St. Thomas, has sought an exemption from the school’s vaccine mandate on conscience grounds. She also had COVID-19 earlier this year and believes she has antibodies to the disease. 

“I looked at some studies that showed that natural immunity sometimes is actually better, compared to the vaccine, so that was a huge factor for me,” she said. “And then, also, I didn’t really feel comfortable with mRNA [the genetic-based mechanism of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines]. It’s a new technology for a vaccine, and people are unsure about its long-term effects.”

Teresa also is concerned about the long-term effects of the vaccines on fertility. 

“I had to really choose to stay true to the Catholic faith and my conviction about life, about things that could be factors in the future, and question my morality,” she said.

As of Aug. 20, 13,627 deaths and 623,343 adverse reactions were attributed to COVID-19 vaccines, according to data from the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), which is co-managed by the CDC and FDA. 

Lange said the University of St. Thomas will reevaluate its vaccine exemptions after the fall semester, paying attention to whether Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines receive full FDA approval. 

The unvaccinated are required by some schools to be tested for COVID periodically, quarantine if they test positive, and wear masks. However, all the institutions interviewed were requiring masks for all students and staff, at least for the first weeks of the semester.

While Father Holtschneider said the unvaccinated may be accommodated by many online options, some schools interviewed said they are planning to focus more on in-person learning and have limited online offerings. However, most classes are still remote at Orange County Community College District; students who study remotely are not required to be vaccinated, Stearns said. 

CUA President Garvey said that while he frequently encourages students and staff to get vaccinated, he is sensitive to the 15% who have strongly held concerns about the vaccines.

“One of the difficulties of dealing with the crisis has been dealing with social aspects of this,” he said. “A mandate casts aside a large number of very real concerns about the vaccine.” 

Garvey has called for respect on both sides of the issue at CUA. “We’re asking one side to respect the concerns of the other side and those who have not been vaccinated to respect the great threat on the health of the community that they pose by not being vaccinated.” 

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

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