The Catholic bishops in Colorado have emphasized the need to respect those with conscientious objections to the COVID-19 vaccines and have provided a template letter for any Catholics with objections to mandatory vaccination. They also welcomed the City of Denver’s vaccination mandate for including a religious exemption.

“In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are convicted that the government should not impose medical interventions on an individual or group of persons. We urge respect for each person’s convictions and personal choices,” the Colorado Catholic Conference said in an Aug. 6 letter signed by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver and his fellow bishops in the state.

The Catholic conference noted its previous affirmation that the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is “morally acceptable under certain circumstances.” It also stressed its cooperation with secular authorities and encouragement for Catholics to help each other and to help society “remain healthy and safe during this challenging time.”

“We understand that some individuals have well-founded convictions that lead them to discern they should not get vaccinated,” said the Catholic conference. “We are pleased to see that in the case of the most recent Denver vaccine mandate there is accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs. This is appropriate under the laws protecting freedom of religion.”

“We always remain vigilant when any bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping requirements on a group of people in areas of personal conscience,” said the bishops, adding, “human rights violations and a loss of respect for each person’s God-given dignity often begin with government mandates that fail to respect the freedom of conscience.”

More than 70% of eligible Coloradans have been vaccinated. In January Archbishop Aquila shared on the internet a photo of his first shot of the Moderna vaccine to his Facebook page to help encourage Catholics “to prayerfully consider receiving one once they are eligible.”

However, in the first three weeks of July, unvaccinated Coloradans accounted for 80% of coronavirus cases, 87% of hospitalizations, and 92% of deaths, Colorado Public Radio reports.

Public health authorities are concerned that new variants of the virus are more contagious and cause infections of greater severity. In Colorado, officials worry that unless at least 80% of eligible people are vaccinated the state could see hundreds of preventable hospitalizations and scores more deaths in the coming months.

Vaccine mandates have begun to be announced at places of employment in the United States.

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On Aug. 2, Denver mayor Michael Hancock announced a public health order that all city employees and private sector workers in high risk settings be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. This would include workers at nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, correctional facilities, and teachers and staff in schools.

At the same time, the City of Denver said that employers should “reasonable accommodations to persons who have either medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine,” with each employer responsible to determine these accommodations.

Colorado’s bishops said that refusal can be reasonable in an individual’s judgement.

“The Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse a medical intervention, including a vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision,” they said in their letter.

“Vaccination is not morally obligatory and so must be voluntary,” said the bishops. There is a moral duty to reject vaccines and other medical products “created using human cells lines derived from abortion,” except in “case-specific conditions” where there are no other alternatives available and “the intent is to preserve life.”

“A person’s assessment of whether the benefits of a medical intervention outweigh the undesirable side-effects are to be respected unless they contradict authoritative Catholic moral teachings,” the letter added, noting that a person morally must obey his or her conscience.

The letter referred to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities January 2021 statement on ethical questions about the vaccines.

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The Colorado Catholic Conference on its website provided a template letter for pastors for Catholics who are seeking a religious exemption. The template re-states much of the Aug. 6 statement and also notes First Amendment concerns about religious accommodation for objections. It notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on conscience, saying, “if a Catholic comes to an informed judgment that he or she should not receive a vaccine, then the Catholic Church requires that the person follow this judgment of conscience and refuse the vaccine.”

“A Catholic may judge it right or wrong to receive certain vaccines for a variety of reasons, and there is no Church law or rule that obligates a Catholic to receive a vaccine — including COVID-19 vaccines,” said the exemption request template letter.

The Colorado bishops’ approach differs from that of the Archdiocese of New York, which in a July 30 memo instructed priests not to grant religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines, saying that doing so would contradict the pope. Its memo suggested that asking a Catholic priest to approve the exemption might be “seeking the inaccurate portrayal of Church instructions.” The memo cited the hypothetical example of a student who receives an exemption, contracts the virus, and spreads it through campus.

“Clearly this would be an embarrassment to the archdiocese. Some even argue that it might impose personal liability on the priest,” said the memo from the New York archdiocese’s chancellor, John P. Cahill, to all the archdiocese’s pastors, administrators, and parochial vicars.

The Colorado bishops stressed Colorado Catholic dioceses’ commitment to working with public health officials and other authorities to protect communities, while also “urging that personal freedoms of conscience and expression be fully supported, and the integrity and autonomy of religious institutions be respected.”

“The vaccination question is a deeply personal issue, and we continue to support religious exemptions from any and all vaccine mandates,” said the bishops.

Currently, three vaccines have been given an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – those produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. While all three vaccines were tested on cell lines derived from elective abortions decades ago, only one of the vaccines – Johnson & Johnson – was directly produced using the controversial cell lines.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that the use of the vaccines with connections to the questionable cell lines is “morally acceptable,” but that Catholics should seek “ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines” when available.

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.” The Vatican congregation acknowledged “reasons of conscience” for those refusing a vaccine.

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

In a March 17 letter, the Colorado Catholic Conference said that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s use of aborted fetal cell lines in design, development and testing means it is “not a morally valid option” if another more morally acceptable vaccine is available. It described the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines as “more morally acceptable.”

Its Dec. 14, 2020 letter noted the worldwide impact of COVID-19, saying “vaccines for this virus seem to be especially necessary and urgent,” while also noting the importance of the use of ethically developed vaccines.

As of June, about 80% of Catholics say they have gotten a COVID-19 vaccination or will do so as soon as possible, with a significant recent increase among Hispanic Catholics, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and released July 27. The Catholic acceptance rate was somewhat higher than the general population, about 71% of whom accept the vaccine.

The Catholic Health Association, the national leadership organization for Catholic health care, on July 27 strongly encouraged all health care personnel to get a COVID-19 vaccination. It voiced support for mandatory vaccination policies at hospital and health systems, “with the appropriate accommodations for medical or religious reasons.”

The Catholic health care network Ascension will mandate coronavirus vaccination for employees, physicians, volunteers, and vendors, although it has promised some health-related and religious exemptions.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center lists a form letter on its website for individual Catholics seeking religious exemptions from vaccine mandates.