COVID Vaccination and Conscience Debate Intensifies

Amid a spike of cases and concerns about the Delta variant, some U.S. bishops oppose a religious exemption, yet ethics experts caution against mandates.

Christian Cruz, 20, receives his Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Registered Nurse Amy Berecz-Ortega from AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, California on August 17, 2021.
Christian Cruz, 20, receives his Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Registered Nurse Amy Berecz-Ortega from AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, California on August 17, 2021. (photo: Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty)

An increase in COVID-19 cases sparked by the Delta variant has sharpened the divide among Catholics in the United States over whether individuals should be required to inoculate against the coronavirus or have the right in conscience to decline the currently available vaccines.   

Amid a wave of new vaccine mandates being rolled out by businesses and institutions in response to the spike, Catholics who morally object to the vaccines are finding themselves at odds with those who think the ethical obligation to protect public health should be the foremost consideration. 

Some of the latter are bishops who are going so far as to oppose granting religious exemptions for the vaccines. These include Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, who have told priests of their dioceses to decline requests for religious exemptions, even as the state of California is allowing for them as part of its vaccine requirements. 

Additionally, the Diocese of Monterey in California has announced it will not offer religious exemptions, and the Archdiocese of New York has directed all priests not to grant such exemptions, saying they would contradict Pope Francis’ directives. “Pope Francis has made it very clear that it is morally acceptable to take any of the vaccines and said we have the moral responsibility to get vaccinated. Cardinal Dolan has said the same,” stated a July 30 Archdiocese of New York memo.

Other advocates of mandatory vaccination have also cited Pope Francis, who said, in an Italian television interview last January, he believes that, “ethically, everyone has to get the vaccine.” And, in a pro-vaccination public service announcement released Aug. 18 by the Ad Council in collaboration with the Holy Father and several prominent Spanish-speaking bishops, including Archbishop Gomez, the Pope said, “Getting the vaccines that are authorized by the respective authorities is an act of love.”

Even President Joe Biden used the Pope’s earlier words to promote his administration’s vaccine campaign last April, saying the U.S. vaccination efforts met “what Pope Francis calls the moral obligation [to] get vaccinated.”

The Vatican’s official position, however, is more nuanced. While emphasizing that vaccination against COVID-19 can promote the common good, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stated in December that vaccination generally is not a moral obligation. “Practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary,” the CDF said. But it also stressed that those who do not receive a vaccine must take the appropriate actions to curb the spread of the virus and prevent risk to vulnerable people.


Support for Conscience Rights

Even as the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have instructed that Catholics can accept the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines without compromising themselves morally, both the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC)and the Catholic Medical Association favor conscience and religious exemptions for vaccination mandates, given the only vaccines available have connections to morally compromised fetal cell lines. Likewise, the bishops’ conferences of Colorado and South Dakota support such exemptions. 

Dr. Steven White, chairman of the Catholic Medical Association’s health-care policy committee, said that although he sees institutional mandates as a well-intentioned effort to minimize disease transmission, “It is imperative that conscience rights be respected in every situation.” 

He added that in talking with colleagues who have expertise in moral theology and bioethics, “We have concluded this is not an either/or question. Both the duty to follow one’s well-formed conscience as well as the duty to pursue the common good are moral imperatives, and it is our responsibility in any particular situation to work together in living out this truth in charity.”

However, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich reportedly is pressuring board members of the NCBC to retract support for religious-based conscience exemptions and to espouse vaccine mandates. And the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, has issued its own mandate requiring vaccines for employees, catechists, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and others who perform church ministries. El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz has said only those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons may seek an exemption. 

“The sad thing is that there isn’t unity in the Church on this,” Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told the Register. He said those who argue that public health should supersede individual autonomy are correct to a point, but that this should apply only in extremely severe situations. 

“The public-health aspects of this need to respect to the greatest extent possible people’s autonomy and individual choice and conscience,” he said.

On Aug. 17, as debate continued over the issue of vaccine mandates, the NCBC released a new statement stressing the need to respect both the common good and conscience, as well as charity. “It is extremely important to embrace both respect for the common good and conscience, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) did in December 2020,” the statement noted.


Exemptions Normally Allowed

Melissa Moschella, associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, said that, morally speaking, a vaccine mandate should contain at least a medical exemption and usually a religious or conscientious exemption as well, provided it is compatible with the purpose of the mandate, which is to achieve herd immunity for a disease. 

In cases where a religious exemption is not offered, she said it would be because there is such widespread disagreement about or objection to a vaccine that a sufficient number of people would not be vaccinated. However, Moschella said that, most likely, only those with genuinely very strong conscientious concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines are going to go to the lengths necessary to officially seek exemptions.

“You don’t need 100% vaccination to prevent disease from spreading,” she pointed out. “Even if a fairly significant percentage goes for a religious exemption, in all likelihood, you’re still going to get enough compliance to achieve the goal of herd immunity.”

Although conscience rights and individual freedom are fundamental rights that should be respected whenever feasible, Moschella said if it is not possible to achieve a public-health goal, there could be reason to override them. But she said she does not think the nation has reached this point. 

Additionally, she said she believes any invocation of magisterial authority in favor of a vaccine mandate is one-sided, given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have held that vaccination should not be compulsory. Both, she said, have acknowledged the obligation to the public good as well as the importance of respecting conscience. 

Furthermore, Moschella said, when Pope Francis spoke about the vaccine in January, “[He] was making a general statement that those who don’t have strong reasons not to ought to get the vaccine. He wasn’t trying to offer a nuanced account of the ethics of the situation.”

Sister Deirdre Byrne, a surgeon, family medicine physician and member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, said she, too, is concerned about the Pope’s statement being cited as an imperative to take the vaccine. 

She recounted to the Register the experience of a Fordham University student who was denied a religious exemption to the Jesuit school’s vaccine mandate. In a written rejection, the dean of student services quoted the Pope as saying, “There is a suicidal denialism that I would not know how to explain, but today people must take the vaccine.” The dean added, “The Pope’s remarks are a clear signal to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics that he and the Vatican strongly support the global vaccination effort.”

Citing concerns that the vaccines are still experimental, Sister Deirdre said she has written about 20 letters for those seeking exemptions from the vaccines for either medical or religious reasons. She doesn’t yet know all the outcomes, but she said she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the religious exemption she requested for herself was granted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, where she has surgical privileges. 


Legal Perspective

According to First Liberty Institute, more than 600 colleges and universities now have vaccine requirements for faculty and/or students. Among these are some 30 Catholic colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, DePaul University and Marquette University. 

Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty, said most mandates include a religious or medical exemption. However, she added, obtaining a religious exemption from a religious school can be more difficult than getting one from a public institution because public schools are more clearly subject to constitutional restraints and must apply their policies in a nondiscriminatory way. If they grant secular exemptions, for example, they must grant religious ones as well, unless they can provide a compelling reason. 

Recently, employers such as Amtrak, Citigroup, Facebook and Walmart also have announced vaccine mandates, as have Catholic companies like Ascension health network, which has promised some exemptions for medical and religious reasons. Taub said businesses with 15 or more employees are subject to federal antidiscrimination laws and must provide a religious accommodation unless it creates an undue hardship.

She said in the last few weeks First Liberty has had a huge influx in requests from all over the country for help with religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. The requirements for obtaining the exemptions vary, she added, with some organizations providing a form to fill out. However, in general, Taub recommends making an exemption request in writing that expresses one’s sincerely held religious beliefs and asking for a written response. 

Taub said mandates by colleges and universities and employers already are being challenged in court, and she predicted there will be more such cases. 

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court said Indiana University could require COVID vaccines after eight students said the mandate violated their constitutional rights to “bodily integrity, autonomy and medical choice.” The mandate does allow for exemptions for religious, ethical and medical reasons.

“It’s okay if your beliefs don’t necessarily line up with a particular denomination, but they do have to be yours,” Taub said. “You shouldn’t be denied on the basis that, for example, some Catholics believe differently than other Catholics. That would be a form of religious discrimination. Be honest, sincere, respectful and go in with the intention of dialoguing to find a win-win situation and what sort of accommodations you would be willing to agree to.”