Dioceses Begin to Address Vaccine Mandates, Religious Exemptions

A health care worker administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a Marymount University student in one of the athletic buildings on the Catholic college’s Arlington, Va., campus, during a coronavirus vaccine clinic April 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Chaz Muth)

WINDSOR TERRACE — As more institutions enact COVID-19 vaccination mandates, Catholic leaders find themselves answering questions from parishioners about whether or not they can claim a religious exemption from getting the jab.

The Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York have sent out memos to their clergy that they cannot give religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

“Please be aware that there is no religious exemption for Catholics as the Vatican has determined that the COVID-19 vaccines are morally acceptable,” stated a July 30 memo to the clergy from the Diocese of Brooklyn Office of the Vicar General.

Priests in the Archdiocese of New York were also advised in a July 30 memo from the archdiocese to not get involved with religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates because it would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the pope,” adding that “there is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.”

The memos went out to archdiocesan priests days before New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would be the first U.S. city to require proof of at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine for most indoor events, effective Aug. 16.

In Denver, the Catholic Bishops of Colorado published a letter on Aug. 6 pushing back against COVID-19 vaccination mandates issued by the city, writing that they violate “personal freedoms of conscience and expression.” Within the letter, the bishops embedded a template letter for parishioners to use to get a religious exemption signature from their pastor.

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate announced by the city of Denver requires city workers, healthcare professionals, school employees, and others to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

The order includes religious exemptions. However, Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo told The Tablet the state’s bishops decided it was important to clarify their stance that they do not support vaccine mandates and “provide a vehicle whereby people could assert themselves that they’re Catholic and that they have an objection of conscience.”

“Being the Catholic Church, we have to respect the rights of conscience, and in the possibility some coercion or force might be used we wanted to reassure individual Catholics that there was a vehicle by which they could request a right, which was given to them by the state,” Bishop Berg said.

Whereas the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn use the Vatican’s moral approval of the vaccines as the reason there isn’t an exemption, the Bishops of Colorado state that “the Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse medical intervention, including vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision.”

The four prelates of Colorado are Archbishop Samuel Aquilla and Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez of Denver, Bishop James Golka of Colorado Springs, and Bishop Berg.

Bishop Berg emphasized that the letter is in no way advocating against Catholics getting the COVID-19 vaccine. He noted that his diocese has worked to get people vaccinated, and each pastor works closely with local health authorities to make sure the proper protocols are in place to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

“My position as a bishop and as a concerned citizen of the country is: Get vaccinated,” Berg said. “That is what I’m promoting.”

The questions around the morality of getting a COVID-19 vaccine are often tied to the connection to abortion-derived cell lines.

At press time, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did not return The Tablet’s request for comment on religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

The USCCB has encouraged Catholics to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine — as opposed to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — because there is a more remote connection to the abortion-derived cell lines.

However, its guidance states that all vaccines are morally acceptable if there isn’t a choice.

The Vatican guidelines state “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn has previously stated that he has received both injections of the Pfizer vaccine, and encouraged parishioners to get the jab “for your own sake and for the sake of those around you.”