El Paso bishop requires vaccination for Catholic church employees, ministers

Bishop Mark Seitz File photo Bishop Mark Seitz. File photo.

Citing the need for the Catholic Church to “lead by example” and to act responsibly to protect others during the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso has said that all Church employees and ministry volunteers must be vaccinated.

“Those who serve the Catholic community have, by the nature of their service, close interaction with many others,” Bishop Seitz said in an Aug. 6 message to the Catholics of his diocese. “The Church has a responsibility to do all in its power to keep others safe. I could not live with myself if I did not do all in my power to assure that the Church’s ministry does not place others at risk.”

"For the sake our brothers and sisters, I am requiring all those who are employed by the Church and all those who perform Church ministries including, but not limited to, catechists and Eucharistic ministers to be vaccinated," the bishop wrote.

Those who cannot be vaccinated due to “particular health issues” may seek an exemption, he said.

“Those who work and perform ministries in a special way represent the Church. We need to lead by example,” Bishop Seitz continued. “Vaccines and, particularly, Covid vaccines have saved and are saving thousands of lives. We have a responsibility as Catholic Christians to act on behalf of the common good and not just for ourselves as individuals.”

Citing reports that more than 90% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 and the Delta variant are unvaccinated, he said: “Those who have chosen not to be vaccinated due to the fear of side effects must now recognize that the risk of side effects pales in comparison to the risk of death from the Delta variant.”  

Vaccination has proven effective at preventing most severe infections and hospitalizations. Unvaccinated people now represent nearly 97% of severe cases in the U.S., Reuters reported in late July. However, the Delta variant is more contagious than previous varieties of the novel coronavirus, causing significant spread among the unvaccinated. It appears more effective at infecting people who have already been vaccinated.

Public officials and health authorities are considering strengthening or returning to mitigation practices such as mandatory mask wearing and social distancing.

Texas Gov. Mark Abbot has said he will not return to a mask mandate and has barred local authorities from issuing their own mandate. Some local officials have defied this order or are challenging it in court.

As of Aug. 13, 44.8% of Texans have been fully vaccinated, totaling 13 million people. 

As of Aug. 5, 53 Texas hospitals reported that their ICU beds were at full capacity. About 87% of Texas hospital beds are in use, the highest level since the beginning of the pandemic, the Texas Tribune reports. About 14% of these hospital beds are filled by patients with the novel coronavirus. Just under 10,800 Texans were hospitalized with coronavirus as of Wednesday.  Hospital officials fear being overwhelmed by more patients and worry of continued struggles with staff burnout.

Bishop Seitz also emphasized that he is not mandating vaccination for Mass attendees or people who attend other Church events, in part because that would exclude most children.

“However, I am requiring those who are unvaccinated (aged 3 or higher) to wear a face mask for their own protection and the protections of those in close contact with them,” said the bishop.

“No one has a right to work for the Church or to carry out a particular ministry. Yet, I would certainly hope that Church workers and ministers are willing to follow these prudent directives in order to serve in the Church — out of love for God and charity for the people they serve,” he said. “Refusing to serve because of disagreeing with a protocol is a sad commentary on one’s level of commitment to the Body of Christ.”

Bishop Edward Burns of Dallas recently announced that he would postpone plans to reinstate Catholics’ obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation because of the local spread of coronavirus.

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

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 cell lines.

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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 congregation acknowledged “reasons of conscience” for those refusing a vaccine.

Catholic bishops have taken a variety of approaches to mandatory vaccination.

South Dakota’s Catholic bishops in an Aug. 10 joint statement backed voluntary vaccination and voiced support for any Catholic seeking a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate. The Colorado’s Catholic bishops on Aug. 6 similarly voiced support for religious exemptions for vaccination mandates and provided a template for Catholics with objections to take to their pastor.

The Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, which provides guidance on medical ethics to Catholic institutions, has criticized vaccination mandates and warns that they can place undue pressure on individuals without robust medical, religious and conscience exemptions. It lists a form letter on its website for individual Catholics seeking religious exemptions from vaccine mandates.

In a July 30 memo, the New York archdiocese instructed priests not to grant religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines, saying that doing so would contradict the pope and inaccurately portray Church instructions.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services has noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, along with Pope Francis, “had recognized the morality of the vaccine.”

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On Aug. 12 Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego criticized the Colorado bishops’ exemption form and asked his diocese’s priests to “caringly decline” requests to approve exemption forms.

“Such a declaration is particularly problematic because the Holy See has made it clear that receiving the vaccine is perfectly consistent with Catholic faith, and indeed laudatory in light of the common good in this time of pandemic,” he said in a letter to San Diego diocese priests.