As more and more vaccine mandates are rolled out – businesses, universities, cities and soon the U.S. military, among other entities – debates over religious exemptions to these mandates also intensify. . And over the past two weeks, some Catholic bishops have taken diametrically opposed positions on whether the church should approve requests for exemptions. Unfortunately, these differences, like the earlier confusion caused by Catholic bishops’ statements about vaccines in March, appear to be influenced more by the “culture war” than by Catholic tradition regarding the common good.
In the Archdiocese of New York, instructions were given to priests on July 30 to refuse to sign letters attesting to religious objections to vaccination for Catholics who request them. The memo pointed out that Pope Francis and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, had confirmed that the available vaccines against Covid-19 were morally acceptable, and it described vaccination as a moral responsibility. “There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption from the vaccine,” the guide said. “In doing so, he acts in contradiction with the directives of the Pope and participates in an act which could have serious consequences for others.”
These differences, like the earlier confusion caused by Catholic bishops’ statements on vaccines in March, seem to be explained by the fact that some bishops have chosen the “war of cultures” over the common good.
But in Colorado, the state’s four Catholic bishops issued a joint letter in which they said they were happy to see Denver’s recent vaccine tenure included a religious exemption. They described the use of “certain” Covid-19 vaccines as “morally acceptable under certain circumstances”. After promising vigilance “when a bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and radical demands … in the areas of personal conscience”, they emphasized the Catholic teaching on the right in conscience to refuse medical intervention. Their statement ended by providing a link to a sample letter that Catholics can use, and that their pastors can sign, to exempt themselves on religious grounds from a Covid-19 vaccination mandate.
Five months ago, a number of American bishops and dioceses made headlines when they warned that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was morally problematic compared to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, due to a material link to slightly narrower distance to cell lines of aborted fetuses. The Vatican, however, had already clearly stated that all three vaccines were morally acceptable to Catholics. I wrote about the controversy then, saying objections to vaccines were “more focused on abortion as a front in the crop war than they are on the common good during the pandemic.”
It is disheartening how well that March piece still functions today as an analysis of the Colorado Bishops’ statement. The main difference is that the Colorado statement, rather than attempting to establish a moral ranking among vaccines, is more aimed at building a Catholic “safe space” for vaccine skepticism and rejection. Unfortunately, this space is based on an incomplete reading of the Catholic moral tradition regarding an informed conscience and a lack of engagement with the Catholic moral tradition on the common good.
Misleading language and selective Vatican quotes suggest that vaccines’ far-flung links to abortion are of greater concern than the church actually says.
Colorado’s statement and model letter will likely contribute to vaccine misinformation among Catholics because Matthew Schneider, LC, highlighted, through deceptive language and selective quotes from Vatican guidelines that suggest vaccines’ far-flung links to abortion are of greater concern than the church actually says. (Father Schneider also points out that the Colorado Bishops’ statement does not distinguish between a universal mandate for vaccination and more specific mandates, such as for employees of an organization or for workers who will have extensive contact with the public, including vulnerable people in healthcare settings.)
But even if the statement were more careful not to contribute to vaccine misinformation, it would still end up misleading Catholics with its selective focus on Catholic moral education. Simply put, while the teaching of the church is that individuals should generally be free to accept or reject medical interventions according to their conscience, a properly formed and informed Catholic conscience would generally not reject these vaccines. Such objections, in the face of repeated assurances from the church that these vaccines are morally acceptable, are better described, as health care ethicist Jason T. Eberl recently argued in America, as a manifestation of scruples rather than an informed conscience. And especially in the midst of a pandemic which, now fueled by the Delta variant, is once again spiraling out of control, a well-formed Catholic conscience should – as Pope Francis and many bishops have said – encourage vaccination as the best available means. to protect not only ourselves but others, including the most vulnerable.
A well-formed and informed Catholic conscience would not generally reject these vaccines.
It is not an esoteric application of Catholic doctrine. This kind of attention to the common good is a fundamental tenet of Catholic moral tradition, and it is emphasized in the same sources that the bishops of Colorado cite to make their argument for religious exemptions. They propose “points relevant to this personal decision”, listing the first as “vaccination is not morally obligatory and must therefore be voluntary”. This is taken from the guidelines of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued in December 2020, saying that “vaccination is not, as a general rule, a moral obligation and therefore must be voluntary”. Unfortunately, the letter from the Bishops of Colorado does not address the remainder of this paragraph of the CDF document, which reads in full (emphasis in original):
At the same time, practical reason shows that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and therefore must be voluntary. In any case, from an ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good can recommend vaccination, in particular to protect the weakest and the most exposed. Those who, however, for reasons of conscience refuse vaccines produced with cell lines of aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other appropriate prophylactic and behavioral means, becoming vectors of transmission of the infectious agent. . 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.
The phrases “common good”, “the weakest and most at risk” and “most vulnerable” – or something like that – cannot be found in the letter at all. Nothing in the letter suggests that a person who refuses vaccination should think about someone else’s risk or do anything to alleviate it.
The letter from the bishops of Colorado did not distort any Catholic teaching; what he says of Catholic teaching on the conscientious right to reject medical interventions, and this decision requiring particular judgments of benefit versus burden, is true. And the bishops involved themselves support and recommend vaccination, such as Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo explained in an interview with Crux. But unfortunately, this support is not underlined in the letter they issued. Instead, it represents a sort of tunnel vision, hyper-focused on avoiding extremely distant material cooperation with abortion above all other good. An essentially individualistic and libertarian notion of conscience is validated by a selective application of the Catholic tradition while all that the tradition has to say about the obligations towards others and the common good is ignored or concealed.
No one’s consciousness can be properly formed or informed by such distortions. And the rhetoric advancing these distortions only serves to provide additional ammunition for those willing to use vaccination warrants as the last front in cultural warfare. Thank goodness Pope Francis, the CDF and other Vatican offices, and most bishops have offered a clearer approach.
Let me suggest a rule of thumb for reading future news on this topic: if you can’t find the phrase “common good” in a discussion of Catholicism and the morality of vaccination, then you aren’t getting fullness. of the Catholic tradition. – and maybe someone is trying to enlist you in the Culture Wars instead.