Bioethicist: Conscience Must be Protected in Vaccination Mandate Debate

Ariel Quero, 16, receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at Lehman High School in New York City July 27, 2021. (Photo: CNS/David ‘Dee’ Delgado, Reuters)

NEW YORK — While Pope Francis, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, and other prelates emphasize the Catholic Church’s pro-COVID-19 vaccination stance, what remains murky is its position on vaccination mandates and religious exemptions.

In recent weeks, U.S. Catholic leaders have expressed differing opinions and made different decisions with respect to  vaccination mandates and religious exemptions in their dioceses after the orders started popping up nationwide.

Neither the Vatican nor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has specifically addressed the topic.

The Dioceses of Brooklyn, San Diego, Monterey, and Sacramento, and the Archdioceses of New York and Philadelphia have advised their clergy not to give religious exemptions to vaccination mandates. Reasons cited include Pope Francis stating that he believes people have a moral obligation to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and Vatican guidance that COVID-19 vaccines are morally acceptable despite a remote connection to  abortion-derived cell lines.

As of Aug. 18, the Dioceses of El Paso and Lexington had taken the step of mandating all diocesan employees get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops of Colorado — the Archdiocese of Denver and Dioceses of Colorado Springs and Pueblo — and the Catholic Bishops of South Dakota — Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City — have spoken out against the vaccination mandates and offered religious exemptions to parishioners. They contest that the orders violate personal freedoms of conscience, and cite Vatican guidance from December that vaccination is not a moral obligation, and therefore “it must be voluntary.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center has made clear that while it encourages Catholics to get a COVID-19 vaccination, it does not support mandates and champions religious exemptions.

Joseph Meaney, the president of the NCBC, told The Tablet that it’s been in communication with a number of U.S. bishops and expects both the USCCB and the Vatican to eventually weigh in.

What follows is more from The Tablet’s interview with Meaney.

The Tablet: Can you boil down the NCBC stance on vaccine mandates and religious exemptions?

Meaney: The main issue that we have faced is that this is a difficult decision for many people in conscience. What we’ve seen in our years of practice is that people make the best ethical decisions when they have as much good information as possible available, and they are not under tremendous pressure. And one of the problems with the mandates is that they do put a lot of pressure on people because of the possibility of losing their jobs, or other major things that are kind of existential. Then the second factor that we really want to emphasize is that respecting people’s conscientious discernments is a fundamental aspect of Catholicism.

What do you make of the divide that’s starting to exist in the Church on this topic?

It’s unfortunate. I think there’s a lot more agreement than necessarily comes forward because what the Church says about conscience is very clear and very strong. It’s one of those situations where, as Catholics, we’re very used to a bright line between this is inherently evil, and you can never do it, and this is very good, and you should do it. When it comes to something like this there’s a real almost gray area in the sense that good people in different circumstances can decide differently in good conscience. It’s one where it’s not black and white and I think that contributes to the problem of some kind of one-size-fits-all solution.

There needs to be a little bit more flexibility because people can decide both ways. I would add, the problem is somewhat aggravated largely by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] not granting emergency authorization to any vaccines that have no connection with the abortion-derived cell lines because that is a major obstacle for so many people, and the FDA could.

Technically, the reasoning of people on both sides of this topic is accurate. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) said taking the vaccine is voluntary, meanwhile, Pope Francis has called it a moral obligation and the Vatican has said getting any of the COVID-19 vaccinations is morally acceptable, so where can common ground be found?

Demonstrators outside St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac, Mich., July 24, 2021, protest the COVID-19 vaccination requirement the hospital’s parent corporation, Trinity Health, has put in place for all of its hospital workers. The requirement is effective Sept. 21 and applies to 117,000 employees in 22 states. (Photo: CNS/Jim West)

I think what it kind of boils down to is where is the most authoritative teaching of the Church. What is the most basic, fundamental thing that kind of provides a final answer? So, what we’ve been trying to find is where the Church has spoken most authoritatively from the most authoritative sources, such as the Second Vatican Council, or the Catechism, or the CDF.

The other thing that we really remarked, there’s not a need for everyone to go through with a vaccination. If the public health goal is to achieve herd immunity, then it doesn’t require everybody. So, there’s room there for making some accommodations for people and finding other means that they can certainly contribute to safety for everyone else but without having to compromise their conscience or go against them.

When the Holy Father says that he believes that there is a moral obligation to get the vaccine, do you think that is reason enough for the dioceses that have said there is no religious exemption to make that decision?

I think the reasoning that is mostly going on there is an interpretation of what is a religious exemption. So, if one defines it as there is a religious doctrine of a particular church that forbids you from doing it in a strict sense, like the Jehovah’s Witness and blood transfusions.

The Catholic Church, obviously, said that you can in conscience take vaccines, in fact, is encouraging people to get protection from vaccines, so there’s no prohibition from the Catholic Church in that sense. What there is, of course, is a very strong position from the Church in favor of people following their well-formed conscience. So, it’s one of those things where there’s kind of nuance and it really depends. A big problem in the United States is that different states have defined what constitutes a religious exemption differently.

I think what contributes a lot to the problem is different definitions of what is a religious exemption or not, and what qualifies as a religious exemption. Really, what there should be in all circumstances is a conscience exemption.

What are the long-term ramifications of vaccine mandates without religious exemptions?

If you’re putting a lot of social restrictions on people because they’re not vaccinated it has a real possibility of creating a kind of two-tier society where it’s kind of us versus them, which we don’t want to see, where people are being discriminated against in ways that are not really serving the public health but are rather just punitive.