Vatican Softens Decree That Indicated Employees Would Lose Jobs Over COVID Vaccine Refusal

Employees of the Holy See won’t face automatic dismissal if they refuse vaccination on grounds of conscience, but concerns persist about whether their conscience rights are being fully acknowledged.

A view of the room, in the atrium of the Paul VI audience, ready for anti-Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Vatican City State on January 13, 2021 in Vatican City, Vatican.
A view of the room, in the atrium of the Paul VI audience, ready for anti-Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Vatican City State on January 13, 2021 in Vatican City, Vatican. (photo: Vatican Pool / Getty)

VATICAN CITY — Despite the Vatican walking back a recent decree that implied Vatican employees would be dismissed for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccines, questions remain about how much the Vatican is willing to honor the right to refuse such vaccines on conscience grounds. 

In the decree, which was dated Feb. 8 but did not come to public attention until last week, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the governor of Vatican City State, instructed staff on how it should handle the COVID crisis. The document caused an outcry because it stated that, according to a 2011 Vatican law, refusal to take a COVID vaccine, for reasons other than health, would lead to dismissal. 

Cardinal Bertello also made no explicit allowance for conscientious objection, but merely stated that the “health emergency must be addressed to ensure health and well-being of the working community with respect for dignity, rights and freedoms fundamental of each of its members.”

A more explicit reference to conscientious objection was made in a subsequent Feb. 18 statement, issued immediately following the media backlash to the decree. That statement stressed “voluntary adherence” to receiving the vaccines, in the context such a public health emergency vaccination program, “must take into account the risk that any refusal” by a staff member may “constitute a risk to himself, to others and to the working environment.” 

For this reason, it added, “the safeguarding of the community may provide, for the person who refuses the vaccination in the absence of health reasons, the adoption of measures that on the one hand minimize the danger in question and on the other allow alternative solutions for the carrying out of the work by the person concerned.”

In other words, the Vatican is allowing for conscientious objection on non-health grounds, without the conscientious objector resulting in the loss of employment. While that’s less punitive than was originally implied, there are still potential consequences, including the possibility, under Article 6 of the Feb. 8 decree, of employees being reassigned with the same pay to a lower-ranking post that would be tantamount to a demotion. It also remains unclear what “alternative solutions” could mean in practice.

A much more rigorous standard is being applied when it comes to papal trips. For Pope Francis’ upcoming March 5-8 visit to Iraq, for example, the Vatican has mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for all journalists and Vatican staff travelling with the Pope on the papal plane, as well as tests for positive infections before leaving Italy and Iraq [Editor’s note: This correspondent won’t be on the trip due to the vaccination requirements]. 

Much of the Vatican’s emphasis on the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine stems from Pope Francis’ own strong opinions about the vaccine. He has said that taking it is an “ethical duty” and that he finds opposition to immunization not only inexplicable but a form of “suicidal nihilism.” Cardinal Bertello, 78, may also have been influenced to take a strong stand as a result after having contracted the virus himself, in December. 

The right to refuse COVID-19 vaccines on the grounds of conscience has ignited an impassioned debate as many of them are tainted by associations to abortion. The one manufactured by Pfizer that is used by the Vatican, and has been taken by Pope Francis and Benedict XVI, used abortion-derived cell lines in laboratory testing, though not for production, unlike Oxford University’s AstraZeneca vaccine which used them for both. 

Other ethical issues of concern to some people are the speed at which the vaccines have been developed (many of them in under six months as opposed to a usual complex testing period for vaccines of 10-15 years), questions over the safety of the new vaccine technology (though many of these have reportedly been debunked), and reports of side effects among those who have received them, including a small number of deaths. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal note in December stating that, despite aborted fetal cell lines from the 1970s and 1980s being part of the production or testing of the COVID-19 vaccines, use of such immunizations is “morally licit” as the cooperation in abortion of those making use of the vaccines is “remote.” But it also pointed out that vaccination “is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore it must be voluntary.” 

Significantly, the CDF note does not advocate state pressure to receive such vaccines, in keeping with abundant references in magisterial teaching that uphold the right to conscientious objection. 

The Church’s “absolute profound teaching” on the right of conscience is “a sacred right that we fight for in Catholic health care here in the U.S. and elsewhere,” said Debi Vinnedge, founder of Children of God for Life, a pro-life charity campaigning for ethical biomedical research and commerce that preserves the dignity of human life. “If this right is denied at the Vatican, how can we protect that same right here in the U.S.?” 

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

“Clearly,” he said, “the Vatican City State needs to proceed with care to avoid sending ambiguous signals or otherwise giving the impression that it might require, as a condition for continued employment, the reception of vaccines.” He added that the “controversy stirred up by the appearance of such a statement on their website, along with subsequent clarifications and backpedaling, reminds us of the critical distinction between reasonably encouraging public health initiatives on the one hand and imposing unjust requirements or mandates on the other.”

Vaccine chart
Vaccine chart created by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.