Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has asked that priests in his diocese not sign religious exemption letters from coronavirus vaccine mandates.

He criticized a recent exemption letter from the Colorado Catholic Conference for promoting a pathway that he said “merges personal choice with doctrinal authenticity” and wrongly asks pastors to endorse vaccine refusal even when it is motivated by beliefs that diverge from Church teaching.

Bishop McElroy’s Aug. 11 letter to San Diego diocese priests asked them to “caringly decline” any requests to approve the Colorado Catholic Conference’s exemption letter or similar exemption statements. He said that several pastors had written to him about requests from parishioners who asked them to sign the Colorado letter.

The exemption letter’s aim, in Bishop McElroy’s view, “seems to be to elicit from the pastor a public indication that a specific parishioner’s decision to refuse the COVID vaccine is rooted in and supported by authentic Catholic faith.”

“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.

The Colorado Catholic Conference on its website has provided a template letter for Catholics who are seeking a religious exemption. The template re-states significant parts of an Aug. 6 statement from the Catholic bishops of Colorado and also notes First Amendment concerns about religious accommodation for objections.

In an Aug. 13 statement to CNA, the Catholic conference said: “The recent letter from the bishops of Colorado on vaccine mandates should be understood within the context of their two previous letters, as well as the actions of the bishops throughout the state to promote vaccinations against COVID-19. These elements do not seem to be included in Bishop McElroy’s reaction to the recent letter.”

In January Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver had shared to his Facebook page a photo of his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. He encouraged Catholics “to prayerfully consider receiving one once they are eligible.”

The Aug. 6 exemption letter discusses the ethics of medical refusal.

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“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,” said the letter.

“Vaccination is not morally obligatory and so must be voluntary,” it continued. 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.

“A Catholic may judge it wrong to receive certain vaccines for a variety of reasons consistent with these teachings, and there is no authoritative Church teaching universally obliging Catholics to receive any vaccine,” said the Colorado letter. “An individual Catholic may invoke Church teaching to refuse a vaccine that used abortion-derived cell lines at any stage of the creation of the vaccine.”

It noted 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.”

In Bishop McElroy’s view, the exemption letter asks a pastor “not to endorse what the Church does teach on the question, but rather what individuals might discern as their chosen pathway, even when their pathway is built upon a rejection of the Church’s objective teaching on the morality of the Covid vaccines.”

The exemption form’s moral analysis exclusively focuses “on the rights of the individual” and individual choice and personal benefit, rather than how these are to be balanced with “the pursuit of the common good in a time of pandemic,” said the San Diego bishop. Thus it presents “a radically incomplete picture of Catholic teaching.”

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To sign the exemption letter, Bishop McElroy worried, would place priests in an “impossible position” which asserts that Catholic teaching may lead individual Catholics to decline certain vaccines “when those priests recognize that Catholic teaching proclaims just the opposite.”

On Aug. 13 the Colorado Catholic Conference said that bishops or clergy of Colorado cannot sign the letter for Catholics outside of Colorado dioceses. Instead, they should ask local clergy if they will sign the exemption letter. 

The Colorado Catholic Conference’s exemption request letter cites multiple Catholic authorities. Among its references is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Dec. 17, 2020 note on the morality of vaccines. The congregation’s 2008 instruction Dignitas personae is also cited, as is the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 document “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services are also referenced.

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

The congregation 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.

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

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. About 62% of adults been fully vaccinated, while 72% have received at least one shot, the New York Times reports.

The novel coronavirus has killed 620,000 people in the US. Public health authorities are concerned that new variants are more contagious and could cause surges in hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated.

Catholic bishops have taken different approaches to mandatory vaccination.

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.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso on Aug. 6 said that all Church employees and ministry volunteers must be vaccinated. He cited the need for the Catholic Church to “lead by example” and to act responsibly to protect others during the coronavirus pandemic,

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 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.