Vatican’s COVID Mandate Part 2: December Decree Repeats Failed February Effort

The Holy See’s previous vaccine mandate’s requirements were scaled back after pushback.

Pope Francis, wearing a protective mask against COVID-19, celebrates a Mass during the first vespers and Te Deum prayer in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 31, 2021, in Vatican City, Vatican.
Pope Francis, wearing a protective mask against COVID-19, celebrates a Mass during the first vespers and Te Deum prayer in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 31, 2021, in Vatican City, Vatican. (photo: Vatican Pool/Corbis / Getty)

VATICAN CITY — Just 10 months after the Vatican was forced to walk back a decree on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for Vatican City staff, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, signed a decree last month enforcing such a mandate that includes the threat of dismissal for non-compliance. 

Issued two days before Christmas and on a day when Vatican headlines would likely focus on Pope Francis’ annual Christmas message to the Roman Curia — the decree ordered the requirement of a certificate, or “Super Green Pass,” attesting to vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 in order to enter the Vatican and institutions connected to the Holy See. Negative tests would no longer be accepted.

Vatican personnel who failed to comply with the decree, which came into effect on Dec. 23, would be “considered a case of unjustified absence, with the consequence suspension of pay for the duration of the absence.” 

The suspension, it added, would not affect welfare payments, social security or allowances, but the meaning was clear: Staff would be liable for dismissal if they did not get vaccinated.  

The mandate, that goes farther than the Italian government, which has yet to make such a certificate obligatory for all workers, also ordered personnel who serve in contact with the public to prove, from Jan. 31, that they had received the “full anti-COVID vaccine, including the third booster dose.” 

The Vatican sought to enforce a similar vaccine mandate last February, but Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, then-governor of Vatican City State, was forced to walk back a “no jab, no job” decree he had issued Feb. 8, which threatened any Vatican staff with dismissal if they refused to take the vaccine. The Vatican did not publicly announce the mandate, which was leaked to the media a few days later.  

The cardinal, who said getting a vaccine was “the responsible choice,” had also made no explicit allowance for conscientious objection, only permitting exemptions on health grounds. 

After protests that such a mandate breached the Vatican’s own doctrinal instruction opposing mandatory vaccination for COVID-19, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in December 2020, and a non-binding Council of Europe resolution stating that vaccinations in European Union member states “should not be mandatory,” Cardinal Bertello’s office announced Feb. 18 that “alternative solutions” would be found for those who do not want to get the vaccine. 

However, the decree still ruled that employees refusing the vaccine would be reassigned with the same pay to a lower-ranking post that would be tantamount to a demotion. 

The reasons given for the new Dec. 23 restrictions were the “continuation and worsening of the current health emergency and the need to take appropriate measures to counter it and to ensure the safe carrying out of activities.” 

Vatican City State has reported no new COVID-19 cases since October 2020, and no deaths have been recorded on Vatican territory since the health emergency began nearly two years ago. 

In Italy on Dec. 23, COVID-19 cases were rapidly increasing (44,585 that day), but these were mainly due to the much milder Omicron variant, and the mortality rate remains low. That week, the average daily rate of those dying of, or with, COVID-19 was 138 compared to the 800 average daily recorded deaths at the height of the pandemic in Italy, in April 2020. 

Last July, the World Health Organization warned against mandatory vaccinations unless all other options had been exhausted.  


No Conscientious Objection

This week, Cardinal Parolin told the Register that, in spite of the mandate, the Vatican would not allow an exemption based on conscientious objection for anyone who refused to take the vaccine on grounds of the vaccine having been derived from aborted fetal stem cells. Previously, employees and visitors could “self-exempt” themselves from having to take the vaccine by taking a test, an option that is no longer available.

Cardinal Parolin argued that because the Vatican uses Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine that was only tested rather than produced using the cell lines of aborted fetuses, “it seems that not wanting to undergo vaccination with this motivation cannot be justified.” 

Other ethical concerns revolve around mandating a vaccine that has adverse-though-rare side effects in some people, especially of a younger age, and that the Omicron variant often breaks through vaccine immunization. Cardinal Parolin did not clarify if any conscience objections would be accepted although health exemptions are being allowed in some cases.

James Bogle, a Catholic trial attorney in London, told the Register Jan. 12 that the Vatican’s vaccine mandate “is clean contrary” to the CDF’s December 2020 note, which stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” 

“Moreover,” Bogle added, “the decree, despite its controversial contents, appears to have been introduced by sleight of hand.”

He further noted that it lacks “any provision for conscientious objection nor even, it seems, for reasonable objection, e.g., by a pregnant woman, although Pfizer themselves have advised against such,” and that it “would also appear to run counter to the Council of Europe's January Resolution 2361 opposing compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations.”

“The decree is arbitrary and dishonest,” Bogle said. 

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, told the Register last February that “universal vaccine mandates raise significant ethical concerns about respect for conscience, particularly if appropriate exemptions are unavailable.”

During his weekly general audience this week, Pope Francis focused on the importance of work and lamented how “in these times of pandemic many people have lost their jobs” and cannot find employment, driving some of them to “take their own lives.” 

He made no mention of government COVID-19 vaccine mandates that have caused thousands of job losses in various fields. 

Earlier this week, the Holy Father reiterated his support for the COVID-19 vaccines, telling diplomats accredited to the Holy See Jan. 10 that “health care is a moral obligation,” but that vaccines are, while not a “magical means of healing [represent], in addition to other treatments that need to be developed, the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease.” 

According to Vatican sources, the last Vatican employees needing to take the vaccine have now done so, and the few that have not have a medical exemption. Last year, three Swiss Guards resigned after refusing an earlier mandate imposed exclusively on the pontifical guard.

On Jan. 5, the Vatican's Super Green Pass was extended still further when Cardinal Bertello's successor, Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, announced that all visitors to the Vatican Museums and Gardens must also present a Super Green Pass with exemptions allowed only on a case-by-case basis.  

From Jan. 31, Archbishop Vérgez said the Super Green Pass including a third booster jab would be required for all the remaining staff of Vatican City State, including all collaborators and external visitors. The participants of liturgies and papal general audiences were not mentioned in the decree and so are therefore excluded.