Large Numbers of Austrian Faithful Differ With Hierarchy Over Strict Vaccine Mandate
Visible divide comes to the fore after Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna dismisses deacon over his public opposition to compulsory vaccination.
VIENNA — As thousands of Austrian Catholics and other citizens of the country continue to protest the imminent enforcement of one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna has dismissed an unpaid deacon from his service as a police chaplain because of his public opposition to the policy.
In a Jan. 19 letter, Cardinal Schönborn criticized Deacon Uwe Eglau’s “public expressions of opinion” made in an open letter to Austria’s interior minister and his participation in a public protest.
The cardinal wrote that these actions “are liable to be misinterpreted as the official position of the Catholic Church, and thus may subsequently cause damage to the relationship of church and state in the area of police chaplaincy, which is characterized by mutual trust.”
“I hereby relieve you of your duties as an honorary deacon in the police chaplaincy with immediate effect,” the cardinal wrote in the letter, co-signed by Ordinariate Chancellor Father Gerald Gruber.
The Register asked Cardinal Schönborn’s media spokesman, Michael Prüller, to comment on the dismissal of Deacon Eglau, but Prüller did not respond.
Austria’s bishops said in a Dec. 6 statement that they opposed “compulsory vaccination,” but added such a policy was “only permissible if, taking into account proportionality, all other options have been exhausted to protect the population — in the case of the pandemic, the health system, and thus human lives.” The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in December 2020 that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”
Taking Effect in March
Beginning in mid-March, all Austrian residents over the age of 18 will face fines of up to 3,600 euros ($4,000) if they are unvaccinated. They will be traced to ensure compliance, and subsequent checks will be made, leading to further fines if a person continues to resist vaccination. Exceptions will be made for pregnant mothers, those recently recovered from COVID-19, or citizens who have other health reasons preventing them from receiving the vaccination. Lawmakers passed the measures on Jan. 20, by a parliamentary vote of 137-33.
Although vaccine mandates have been imposed in a number of other European countries, including Italy, France, Germany and Vatican City State, few countries around the world have enacted general vaccine mandates for the whole adult population. Those that have include Ecuador, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Micronesia and the French territory of New Caledonia.
The latest COVID-19 figures in Austria show an average of around 24,000 new daily cases, close to an all-time high, but mean daily deaths number 11, down from around 130 in December 2020. So far, 75% of Austrians have been fully vaccinated against the virus. Vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer say their shots, while unable to stop contagion of the latest Omicron variant, continue to be effective in greatly reducing hospitalization and death.
German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he did not know the details of Deacon Eglau’s case. But, he noted, COVID-19 “is first of all a question for the medical profession, and it should not be burdened by ideological prejudices.”
“Bishops, priests and deacons are to fulfill their mission in the name of Christ for the eternal salvation of mankind,” he told the Register. “The Church also advocates social justice and teaches respect for legitimate state authority as long as the latter respects the natural moral law.”
He added that the Church, “as a community of believers with their pastors, is not an ideological support of concrete state administrative measures. The Christian, as a citizen, has the right to vote for or against politicians and to criticize or peacefully demonstrate against government measures.”
He also said clergy are to “keep a low profile in politics and public discourse so that their spiritual authority is not mixed with political and partisan opinions. They must, however, protest openly against the violation of human rights.”
Deacon Eglau, who also works as a psychotherapist for the Austrian police force, told the Register Jan. 23 that he plans to “fight against this dismissal in Rome,” adding that the “Church should be the partner of God and of the people and not the partner of the state” and that “too many times in the history of the Church [such a partnership] has always been a disaster in the end.”
Deacon Eglau told the Register that hundreds of police officers in the group he ministered to are opposed to the vaccine mandate and that the number “who are very critical of the measures is certainly higher than 600.” If an order given to the police is not right, the deacon continued, “then a police officer can protest it — he or she should even do so.”
In comments to Austrian media, Deacon Eglau said police officers “raid apartments” of those breaking the rules, but they do not dare publicly say they are against the mandate and restrictions because they are “afraid of reprisals or disciplinary consequences.” Police union representative Reinhard Zimmermann dismissed Deacon Eglau’s comments as “nonsense,” saying he is “not a police officer” and that “he’d better mind his own business.”
The deacon joined hundreds of thousands in Vienna and across the country on Jan. 15 to protest the vaccine mandates; it was one of many “massive weekly protests” that have been taking place in Austria since the mandates were announced last November. More than 300,000 people have participated in the demonstrations, according to statistics provided by the St. Boniface Institute, an Austrian think tank founded in 2019 to defend the traditional Catholic faith.
According to a statement from the institute, a record number of more than 200,000 statements opposing the vaccine mandate were submitted to the website of the Austrian Parliament, “all of them highly critical of the draft law on compulsory vaccination and of the government’s coronavirus policy.”
“This law is undoubtedly the most controversial law in recent Austrian history,” read the institute’s Jan. 20 statement following the parliamentary vote. “Despite the massive protests by large parts of the Austrian population, no confrontational debates, discussions or dissenting voices were allowed in the public service media.” It added that the mandate “is directed not only against reason and scientific knowledge, but above all against human dignity.”
Some Clergy Oppose Mandate
Alexander Tschugguel, founder of the St. Boniface Institute, said some Austrian bishops are also opposed to the “tyrannical government, but, unfortunately, they decided to stay silent.” He added that “many priests are also against the measures, and they are now getting together and resisting.” An Austrian priest, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the country is facing “a very delicate moment” and that the vaccine mandate is “splitting every family, every congregation and also the priesthood.”
“Very often I hear sadness,” he said. “People feel alone because the shepherds of the Church don’t protect the sheep, and personally I’m very sad and confused about the attitude of the bishops and the Pope. A number of priests have another opinion, and we try to support the flock, but many Catholics in Austria feel very alone. It’s a very, very sad situation.”
He said regular prayer meetings are being held for priests to help them and to bring an end to the crisis. These join weekly lay-led nationwide prayer gatherings to end these mandates that have now spread across Europe.
Austria’s vaccine mandate is coming into force at a time when other countries are scaling back their anti-COVID-19 measures and vaccination policies. These include the United States, England, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Spain. Some states in Europe are ramping up their restrictions, however, with Italy mandating vaccinations for those over age 50 and allowing only essential services for the unvaccinated (and being met with protests), and Vatican City State making vaccination compulsory for all employees and, from Jan. 31, for all visitors, except for liturgies and papal audiences.
But these tighter restrictions are also coming into force at a time of concern over the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and of growing consensus that the overall dangers of COVID-19 have diminished.
And although the vaccines have been “highly effective” in preventing deaths from the earlier Delta variant, they are not preventing spread of the milder Omicron variant (several cases of triple-vaccinated officials catching COVID-19 in the Vatican have been reported). A Jan. 19 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also showed that a person who had COVID-19 and recovered had better immunity against the Delta variant than someone who had been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, a World Health Organization official said Jan. 24 that the milder but more contagious Omicron variant could bring the pandemic to an end in Europe.
“It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Dr. Hans Kluge told AFP in an interview, adding that Omicron could infect 60% of Europeans by March, giving widespread natural immunity.
In the United States, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and current board member at Pfizer, one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine producers, said that declining cases of COVID-19 should signal to policymakers that it is time to lift more pandemic-related restrictions.
The ethics of such a vaccine mandate policy are also being discussed. Matthias Beck, a professor of moral theology at the University of Vienna, agrees with the Austrian government policy, arguing that citizens have an ethical “duty” to be vaccinated, as he continues to believe inoculations protect themselves and others. Beck told the Austrian publication Sonntag Nov. 25 that he is against compulsory vaccination, whereby a person would be physically enforced to take an injection, but he sees a fine for the unvaccinated as acceptable, similar to that imposed on motorists for not wearing a seatbelt.
“I am sorry that in many parts of Europe it has not been possible to educate people enough to get vaccinated out of discernment, out of inner awareness, but that we have to start now to force them to do so, either through curfews for those who have not been vaccinated or, what is to come in February, compulsory vaccination,” Beck said.
However, Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, believes governments have “no ethical right” to impose any kind of COVID-19 vaccine mandate, above all because of “informed consent” — that no one should be coerced to receive experimental medical procedures or treatments. The COVID-19 vaccines, many of which use new mRNA technology, were “undoubtedly experimental because of their newness and very short-term track record, with unknown long-term effects,” he told the Register.
He also believes no health justification exists for the current mandates, given the mildness of the prevalent Omicron variant and that deaths and hospitalizations continue to fall, even in places where there is no vaccine mandate.
The author of a 2021 booklet, “Using Abortion-Derived Vaccines: A Moral Analysis,” Father Sullivan also argued that the mandates are “not strictly necessary for the common good and therefore there is no moral justification for them.”
He added, “Basic civil rights of people cannot be removed by the state for a mandate that delivers so little benefit.” He also said mandates “manifest a disturbing technocratic cynicism, in which citizens are treated like objects, and their personal subjectivity and responsibility for their health is eliminated by bureaucratic tyranny.” Doctors trusted by their patients are being replaced by experts who stand to benefit from the crisis and are therefore often compromised by conflicts of interest, he said.
“In sum, a careful analysis of the relatively low harms of the virus in its present form, and the relatively small benefit of vaccination, shows that there is no moral duty for anyone to be vaccinated — and there is no moral right of governments to mandate vaccination,” Father Sullivan said.
“Vaccine mandates are wrong, and officials should not promote them. Instead, people should resist the mandates, stop wallowing in fear, and live in the freedom of the children of God.”