Some Catholic Universities Begin Policies Mandating COVID-19 Vaccinations

A range of other Catholic institutions are also considering vaccine requirements.

People wait to receive their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic targeting minority community members at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on April 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
People wait to receive their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic targeting minority community members at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on April 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (photo: Mario Tama / Getty)

WASHINGTON — As vaccination efforts for COVID-19 have ramped up in the United States, two Catholic universities have instituted requirements for students to be vaccinated. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana and St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, have both announced policies requiring COVID vaccines. 

Other Catholic institutions are encouraging widespread vaccination, but have stopped short of instituting vaccine requirements. 

“The safety of the University and local communities is always our highest priority,” Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said this week. “Requiring students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 is a new and important addition to our health policies, one that we believe will enhance public health at Notre Dame and in our community, while also contributing to our ability to return to a more vibrant campus environment.”

The university has opened a clinic on campus that will be administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ensure the requirement will not be difficult for students to meet. They will accommodate “documented medical or religious exemptions” to the requirement, but did not respond to the Register’s request for details on what might constitute a religious exemption and how that process would work. 

A university statement noted that they currently require “enrolled students to be immunized for hepatitis B, meningitis, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus and chicken pox, and last fall required all students to receive the flu vaccine, again with medical and religious exemptions.”

St. Edward’s University will “require the COVID-19 vaccination of all employees and on-campus students 16-years of age or older as of the effective date” of Sept. 1. They listed qualifying exemption categories as “sincerely held religious beliefs protected under (Title VII) ... medical conditions which make receipt of the vaccine dangerous or otherwise inappropriate (ADA) ... refusal of an FDA Emergency Use Authorized vaccination (FFDCA)” and “election to not provide vaccination status or exemption reason to the university.” 

While St. Edward’s is not distributing the vaccines on campus, campus leadership will continue “to work with regional partners to ensure students and employees have equitable access to the vaccine no later than their return to campus for the fall semester.”

In addition to colleges and universities, some other Catholic institutions have put COVID vaccine requirements in place. One New Jersey parish, the Church of the Precious Blood, in the Diocese of Trenton, had to change its policy of requiring those receiving the sacrament of confession to be fully vaccinated. The policy is not in line with the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which states, “The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” 

Similarly, proposals to limit Mass attendance to those who are fully vaccinated could also run afoul of canon law. 

At least one Catholic retreat center has already implemented a vaccine requirement. 

The Jesuit Spirituality Center at St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, asks online registrants to confirm they will be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to coming to a retreat, and requires that they bring their vaccination cards when they arrive.


Catholic Groups Weigh In

While other Catholic colleges and universities weigh vaccine requirements in the coming months, Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, commented to the Register of such requirements that, “given the moral and medical concerns about the vaccines, and the plain fact that many Catholic schools and colleges have had in-person instruction without major problems, why violate freedom of conscience? It would be better that Catholic colleges focus on regulating a host of immoral behaviors that are routinely ignored.”

Kelly Salomon, director of education and advocacy for The Cardinal Newman Society told the Register, “almost all of the Newman Guide colleges have persisted in person through most of the pandemic without major issues (The Catholic University of America excepted because of DC local regulations).”

Paula Moore, vice president of external affairs at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), told the Register that when it comes to vaccines, “each campus has a different set of resources, environments, and other factors to consider” but “ACCU is ‘all in’ on encouraging vaccinations.”

“We’ve recently joined two national efforts to encourage people to get vaccinated,” Moore said. “One involves other Catholic organizations — more than 30 of them. Its focus is on vaccination as an expression of our love for our neighbors. The second initiative is through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and involves a wide range of organizations and individuals, each committed to encouraging our particular communities to get vaccinated.”

The Catholic coalition that ACCU is a part of also includes the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities USA, and Catholic Relief Services. Their goals are to “leverage communication channels and resources to share consistent information about the importance and moral responsibility of individuals to accept a COVID-19 vaccine when available ... provide human, spiritual, and pastoral support for those struggling to understand, affirm, and act on Catholic social teaching, including the teachings of Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic Bishops” and “advocate for the equitable distribution of the vaccine in the U.S. and globally.”

In contrast, the Catholic Medical Association issued a joint statement on COVID vaccine requirements in March saying, “there is no justifiable moral obligation to accept vaccination. If a vaccine has been developed, tested, or produced with technology that an individual deems morally unacceptable, such as the use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines, vaccine refusal is morally acceptable. An individual’s decision to be vaccinated will also depend upon their personal assessment of the medical risks, a choice that should be respected. The decision not to be vaccinated must be accompanied by a commitment to take necessary precautions to lessen disease transmission.”


Vatican on Vaccine Requirements

In December, the Vatican said in a 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.”

However, the statement also noted, “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,” it said. “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.”