Bioethicist: There must be conscience exemptions to vaccine mandates

shutterstock 1673662414 Coronavirus vaccine, stock image. | M-Foto/Shutterstock

As workplaces have begun to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, some Catholic institutions insist that conscience exemptions are necessary.

In addition, priests should be allowed to support Catholics who conscientiously refuse COVID-19 vaccines, says one bioethicist.

“It is Catholic doctrine that people’s well-founded conscientious objections are part of their religion,” said Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in an interview with CNA on Monday. Meaney spoke in support of religious and conscience exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates

“Part of our Catholic doctrine is that you should have to follow your conscience,” he said. “And if your conscience is telling you not to do this, then you’re not doing it not just from your conscience perspective, but also from your religious Catholic belief.”

Some employers have already begun mandating that employees receive COVID-19 vaccines.  New York City this week announced it will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for workers and patrons of some businesses, such as gyms, restaurants, and theaters.

The New York archdiocese, meanwhile, has warned priests against granting religious vaccine exemptions for Catholics.

“There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine,” stated a July 30 memo from the archdiocese’s chancellor, John P. Cahill, to all pastors, administrators, and parochial vicars in the archdiocese. The memo was issued several days before the city announced its vaccine mandate.

While recognizing the “discretion” of individuals to either receive or decline a COVID-19 vaccine, the archdiocese’s memo said that priests “should not be active participants to such actions” by granting religious exemptions.

However, priests could “definitely” have a basis to support Catholics’ religious exemptions to vaccine mandates, Meaney told CNA. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has provided a form letter on its website for Catholics seeking to opt out of vaccine mandates for reasons of conscience.

“People objecting to this [ethically-tainted vaccines] are doing so from a very sound Catholic basis, and so I think they should get the support of the Church for doing so,” Meaney said.

All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have some connection to controversial cell lines derived from elective abortions decades prior. All three vaccines – produced by Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson – were tested with the cell lines. Only one – produced by Johnson & Johnson – was produced directly using the cell lines.

In the 2008 document Dignitas Personae, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spoke against the use of cell lines derived from elective abortions in vaccines; the document recognized that parents, for serious reasons, could use these vaccines for their children.

Both the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have said that Catholics may validly receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines with connections to abortion-derived cell lines. The USCCB noted that Catholics should seek, if possible, to receive a vaccine with a lesser connection to the cell lines.

However, these statements have not been a flat endorsement of the vaccines, Meaney said.

“To a certain extent, people have taken the statements that have come out – which are all true, that people can discern in conscience to accept the vaccines – to be kind of an endorsement,” he said. “It’s more like a permission,” he said, “it’s a reluctant permission.”

The July 30 memo of the New York archdiocese cited Pope Francis’ call for everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine, warning that priests granting exemptions to vaccine mandates would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the Pope.”

In a January television interview, the pope said, “I believe that ethically, everyone has to get the vaccine.”

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“Pope Francis has made it very clear that it is morally acceptable to take any of the vaccines and said we have the moral responsibility to get vaccinated. Cardinal Dolan has said the same,” the memo stated.

However, the Vatican has been clear that Catholics can conscientiously object to receiving the vaccines, Meaney said.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a December 2020 note, stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation,” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.” Such theological notes are reviewed by the pope, Meaney added.

“The Church is saying, for certain individuals, they can in good conscience take it [the vaccine],” he said. For others who discern that they do not want to receive COVID-19 vaccines because of their connection to abortion-derived cell lines, the Church says they can decline to do so, he added.

“In both circumstances,” he said, the Church defends “their right to do so.”

A conscience exemption should not function like a “’get out of jail free’ card,” Meaney cautioned, noting the responsibility of Catholics to form their consciences and make well-founded judgments. Those not receiving vaccines should do “everything in their power to make sure that they’re keeping others safe,” he added.

And part of the Church’s teaching on conscience, he said, is that an individual cannot be coerced into making decisions. When vaccine mandates are issued at workplaces without clear exemptions, this presents a real problem for Catholics trying to make a prudent decision, he said.

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“The best ethical decision-making is made with all the facts that are available to a person, but also without undue pressure being put upon them,” he said.

“The thing that’s always very, very problematic is when people’s consciences are being coerced,” he said, noting the “terrible” situation of an individual forced to either receive a vaccine or lose his or her job.

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