How to make sense of two seemingly contradictory positions.
As a growing number of businesses and universities have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for employees and students, many Catholic bishops have instructed their priests not to issue letters testifying to religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.
A memo from the Archdiocese of New York declares, “There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.” However, at the same time, “Any individual is free to exercise discretion on getting the vaccine based upon his or her own beliefs without seeking the inaccurate portrayal of Church instructions,” concludes the memo.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has followed suit. “Individuals may wish to pursue an exemption from vaccination based on their own reasons of conscience,” wrote the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy, the Rev. Michael F. Hennelly. “In such cases, the burden to support such a request is not one for the local Church…to validate and we are not able to provide support for exemption requests on that basis.”
Other dioceses including Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Antonio have also declined to issue religious exemption letters. And yet, a great deal of confusion surrounds what religious exemption means. And even more questions arise when people begin to consider the morality of vaccine mandates and whether or not the Church should support them.
What is a religious exemption?
For his part Joshua Hochschild, a professor of philosophy, states, “‘Religious exemption’ can mean different things to different mandating bodies, but on a common, strict interpretation, only someone affiliated with a religion that explicitly prohibits the mandated activity can claim a religious exemption from the mandate.” Since the Catholic Church has asserted—with a statement from its highest doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—the faithful can choose to receive COVID-19 vaccines, there is no explicit prohibition of vaccination for Catholics. Catholics do not believe that vaccination violates a divine command or transgresses a principle of the natural law.
Catholic medical ethicist Charlie Camosy says, “For some, a religious exemption means getting a note from a ecclesiastical authority affirming that the Catholic Church supports the arguments concerning vaccine proximity to the grave evil of abortion (through the cloned cell lines used to test the mRNA vaccines) such that getting a vaccine is morally inappropriate.” However, the Catholic Church has clarified that Catholics can receive the COVID-19 vaccines, if they so choose, and that the connection to abortion and the vaccines is described as remote cooperation with evil, rather than proximate.
No to religious exemption and no to mandates?
The morality of vaccination, from the Catholic perspective, is chiefly a question of conscience. Hochschild explains, “Catholicism doesn’t absolutely require vaccination; it teaches that medical decisions should be voluntary, and it teaches that one shouldn’t disobey one’s conscience.” Since vaccination is a preventative medical procedure, persons choose in advance of illness to receive them or not, in view of protecting their own health and increasing public immunity. The CDF states, “Practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”
The Church is adamant that conscience directs moral life and that one’s conscience must be well formed. The Catechism, citing the Second Vatican Council, is clear: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’” Owing to the Catholic understanding of the primacy of conscience, the faithful who decide not to receive the COVID-19 vaccines could claim support from Catholic teaching in seeking exemption from vaccine mandates, but as a conscientious objection rather than a religious exemption, per se.
At this point one might object: what’s the difference between the sanctity of personal conscience and relativism? Hochschild clarifies, “In invoking the authority of conscience, Catholics are not claiming that anything goes, or that there are no right answers. What they are claiming is that, in some matters–where the action being considered is neither absolutely required nor absolutely prohibited–coming to the right answer requires the deliberate engagement of the one making the choice.”
Such decisions demand personal responsibility and careful, prudent reflection. “There are right answers,” Hochschild insists, “and one must exercise one’s conscience to discern the proper answer, as the right answer for a given individual might be something that only that individual, and perhaps those closest to that individual, can discern.”
Camosy states, “The Catholic Church supports the rights of conscience and non-coercion such that mandates should not force someone to choose between, say, their ability to put food on the table and violating their conscience—even if that conscience is in error. This is especially important when it comes to medical interventions.”
So, under a strict reading, Catholics ought not to apply for a religious exemption, but owing to the primacy of conscience they could maintain a conscientious objection to vaccination. The latter principle shapes the Church’s response (“no”) to vaccine mandates.
Vaccination and the common good
In the Catholic moral tradition, one factor individuals weigh about any given decision is their own personal impact on the common good. Camosy says, “even though there are breakthrough cases, the vaccines do in fact lower the rates of infection and so there is good reason to take it to lower infection rates overall which obviously impacts the common good positively.” Camosy continued, “This means taking them is not only a duty related to care of one’s own life as a gift from God, but also for the common good understood as the local medical capacity to care for the sick.”
Microbiologist and vaccine researcher Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., stresses that vaccination strengthens individual immune systems, but it also frees medical resources for others. Austriaco says, “Our current vaccines still are very effective at preventing severe COVID-19, hospitalizations, and death.” The Dominican priest continued, “To put it another way, they are transforming a deadly disease into a milder illness that we can live with as a society. This saves lives and mitigates the threat of a health care system collapse.”
Catholics whose consciences bind them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, however, must continue to take appropriate means to protect the common good. The CDF teaches that those who refuse vaccination “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” The same document continues, “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.”
A fluid situation
The current situation is still a fluid situation, one very much in flux, with many complicated ethical and scientific dimensions. At stake are issues of global inequity (wealthy nations are seeking boosters for their otherwise healthier population groups while poorer countries have single digit vaccination rates due to lack of vaccines). Furthermore, as scientists and public health experts continue to review the growing available data, they will continue to deliberate on the best courses of action, particularly in view of concerns about variants and vaccine effectiveness.
For the Church, the decision to receive a vaccination or not remains with one’s individual conscience. Thus, Catholic leaders consistently insist on saying “no” to both religious exemptions strictly conceived and vaccine mandates.