Catholic Colleges Continue to Weigh COVID Vaccine Requirements

Catholic institutions of higher learning adopt different approaches to COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the fall semester.

A student receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic on the University of Washington campus on May 18 in Seattle.
A student receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic on the University of Washington campus on May 18 in Seattle. (photo: David Ryder / Getty)

WASHINGTON — Just under 30 Catholic colleges and universities are now requiring COVID vaccines for students returning to campus in the fall, with many citing concern for community health and safety. 

Other schools, like Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, North Carolina, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., have refrained from such requirements and emphasized the need for individuals to make their own prudential judgment in accordance with their conscience.

Bill Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey, recently told the Register about how the school reached its decision not to require COVID vaccines for students returning in the fall. 

“We have an obligation to have an informed conscience” as Catholics, he said, and to “do our best to seek the objective truth, to try to understand that to the best of our ability, and then to make a prudential decision with our conscience. ... I’m not going to stop anybody from getting vaccinated that has reached that decision — from a conscience standpoint — that it’s in their best interests to get vaccinated, but I’m also not going to force somebody to get vaccinated that has come to the opposite conclusion.”

He said that among the objections or reservations regarding vaccinations are the “connection to aborted fetus cell lines,” adding that while “the Vatican and National Catholic Bioethics Center have come out with statements on it and left it to prudential judgment,” someone could “have a very strong sense of the horrid act of killing a baby in the womb through abortion, and even though it may be very remote in terms of material cooperation with this evil, someone could just take a stand and say, ‘I personally in my conscience can’t take this vaccination.’” 

The Vatican said in a December statement on vaccines, “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 statement added that “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. ... 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,” and “In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and who are the most vulnerable.”


Colleges With Requirements

As of June, more than 400 U.S. colleges and universities have instituted some sort of COVID vaccine requirement for their returning students, and nearly 30 Catholic institutions of higher learning have announced such requirements. An NBC News analysis of U.S. colleges and universities requiring vaccinations found “75% of the schools analyzed allow for religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.”

Recently, Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington joined eight other Jesuit institutions that make up nearly a third of Catholic colleges and universities that have announced vaccine requirements. Factors cited in the decision included their “Catholic, Jesuit and humanistic mission, which focuses on the common good as well as one’s own thriving and development” and “the moral, ethical, and legal obligation to endeavor to create and support a reasonably safe and hazard-free campus and work environment for our students, faculty and staff.”

The University of Notre Dame was one of the first Catholic universities to announce a vaccination requirement in early April. Other colleges requiring the COVID vaccine include Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, Fordham University in New York, Marymount University in Virginia, Providence College in Rhode Island, and Marquette University in Wisconsin.

DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the U.S., is also among the schools requiring COVID vaccines. School officials referred the Register to a message from the university’s president, A. Gabriel Esteban, who wrote in April, “Why is DePaul requiring students to be vaccinated? Simply put: safety, mutual care and social responsibility. The health and safety of our community, and the communities in which our students, faculty and staff live, have driven DePaul’s decision-making throughout the pandemic. We know the threat of COVID-19 will not completely disappear before we convene in the fall. We also know that the COVID-19 vaccines have been proven effective at greatly reducing the spread of the virus, as well as preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19.”

The Catholic University of America is not instituting a COVID vaccine requirement in the fall, although it is requiring students to give the school information about their vaccination status. CUA’s president, John Garvey, told The Washington Post he believes most of the student body will get vaccinated before the fall semester. “We found that 70% of the community had already been vaccinated with at least one shot, and this was nearly a month ago,” Garvey said, referencing a recent university-wide survey that garnered about 2,500 responses. “It was clear we would get to 80, 85% in a couple of months.”

Garvey wrote in a May 5 letter that school officials have “strongly encouraged our students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated, and we will continue to do so,” but also noted that, despite this recommendation, “there will always be, here and elsewhere, members of the community who hold conscientious concerns about the vaccine, or who for medical reasons feel that they are at lower risk from the virus itself than from the vaccine.”


Vaccine’s Experimental Nature

Belmont Abbey’s Thierfelder said other concerns or reservations regarding the vaccine involve “the experimental nature of the vaccine, which has unknown long-term effects,” as “it has an approval from the FDA on an emergency basis, but it is experimental in nature.” He said that, for many, the fact that the vaccine “may be protecting me or my family or some vulnerable person” and the “relatively low number of adverse reactions” is enough to outweigh these concerns.

Two professors at universities that have instituted COVID vaccine requirements, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, professor of psychiatry and director of the medical ethics program at the University of California-Irvine, and Gerard Bradley, a law professor at Notre Dame, wrote Monday that such requirements are “unprecedented” and “unethical,” citing among other things the experimental nature of the vaccines. 

“Never before have colleges insisted that students or employees receive an experimental vaccine as a condition of attendance or employment,” they wrote. “In a case involving a vaccine against anthrax, a federal district judge held in 2004 that ‘the United States cannot demand that members of the armed forces also serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs absent informed consent or a presidential waiver of service members’ legal protections. The following year the judge held that an emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration was insufficient to meet the legal test. The FDA has issued such authorizations for three COVID vaccines, but it hasn’t fully approved any of them.” 

“Colleges’ vaccine mandates also ignore the huge number of students — thousands of them at Notre Dame — who have already recovered from COVID infection, and who thus possess natural immunity,” they added, “which studies have suggested is more robust and durable than vaccine immunity.”


Individual Decision-Making

Thierfelder cited the principle of subsidiarity, the idea rooted in Church social teaching that decisions should be made by the local authorities closest to an issue, not through excessive top-down government intervention. This idea that decisions should be made at “the lowest level possible,” Theirfelder said, in the case of vaccines, means the decision should be “on an individual basis.”

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, wrote in May that “vaccine mandates run counter to the wisdom of encouraging individuals to make careful and case-specific determinations regarding their personal health needs. Such mandates bolster the idea that the judgment of a higher authority, say a university president or a politician, should be substituted for their own free and informed consent.”

“Especially at Catholic universities and colleges, where we are seeking to form the next generation of society’s leaders and thinkers,” Father Pacholczyk said, “instead of imposing the requirement to get vaccinated, leaders would do better to share and explain to students the benefits and risks of vaccinations — scientific and ethical — to help them decide.”