Monterey bishop prohibits religious exemption from Covid vaccine mandates

Bishop Elect Daniel Garcia Credit Shelley Metcalf Diocese of Austin 2 CNA 1 21 15 Fr. Daniel Garcia, who was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Austin Jan. 21, 2015. | Shelley Metcalf/Diocese of Austin.

Bishop Daniel Garcia of Monterey on Friday directed clergy not to provide letters of religious exemption for Catholics wishing not to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

“Pope Francis has highly encouraged the vaccination as an act of safeguarding one’s own health as well as that of others – pointing us to the importance of the common good, such a key element of Catholic Social Teaching,” Bishop Garcia wrote in his Aug. 13 letter, adding that “the Bishops of California have also encouraged vaccination for the same reasons.”

“For these reasons, I will not issue, and I have directed our clergy not to issue, any Letters of Religious exemption because it would contradict the clear objective teaching of the Catholic Church and the Holy See on this matter,” Garcia wrote. 

States and employers across the country have rolled out COVID-19 vaccine mandates in recent weeks. Last week, California became the first state to require all teachers, both public and private, to get the vaccine or else submit to weekly testing. Healthcare workers in California will soon be required to take the vaccine as well, though that order does include a religious exemption. 

Before and as COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out, some Catholics raised concerns about the drugs’ remote connection to aborted fetal tissue. Those produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on cell lines derived from elective abortions decades ago, while the vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson was directly produced using the cell lines.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has since stated that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use because of their remote connection with abortion, but if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

Although the three vaccines authorized for use in the United States currently have only an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the administration reportedly might issue full approval of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine within weeks.

Bishop Garcia is not the first California bishop to speak on this matter. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has asked that priests in his diocese not sign religious exemption letters from coronavirus vaccine mandates.

In Bishop McElroy’s view, an 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.”

Bishop Garcia’s actions on the matter are also similar to that of the New York archdiocese, which 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.

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. 

Several bishops have spoken in support of Catholics wishing to seek a religious exemption from vaccine mandates. 

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.

The bishops of South Dakota said last week that Catholics whose well-formed consciences tell them not to receive a vaccine should be free to seek a religious exemption from any vaccine mandate. 

“[A] Catholic may, after consideration of relevant information and moral principles, discern it to be right or wrong to receive one of the available Covid-19 vaccines,” Bishops Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls and Peter Muhich of Rapid City said in a statement Aug. 10. 

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“If he or she thus comes to the sure conviction in conscience that they should not receive it, we believe this is a sincere religious belief, as they are bound before God to follow their conscience. We support any Catholic who has come to this conviction in seeking religious exemption from any Covid-19 requirement.”

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that although vaccines with a remote connection to abortion are “morally acceptable,” it also 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, while at the same time noting: “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.” 

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

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