Puerto Rican bishop recognizes right to conscientious objection to COVID vaccines

COVID-19 vaccine Ball Lunla/Shutterstock

The Bishop of Arecibo has recognized the right to conscientious objection to vaccines against COVID-19, and announced that clerics will be able to sign exemptions for those who request them.

Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres said Aug. 17 that "it is possible for a faithful Catholic to have conscientious objection to the supposed obligatory nature of the vaccine against Covid-19."

“Consistent with what is stated here, in our Diocese of Arecibo, if the signature of an ordained minister is legitimately required to assert conscientious objection, the priests and permanent deacons who are freely willing to sign (the exemption) for the Catholic parishioner, who with a well-formed conscience thus asks for it, they can do it or it can be referred the Diocese of Arecibo,” Bishop Fernández said.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, issued an executive order that all government and healthcare workers, both in public and private institutions, must be vaccinated, as well as workers in the hotel industry.

Vaccination will also be mandatory for students 12 and older.

Pierluisi extended mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in the restaurant and entertainment industries Aug. 11.

In Puerto Rico, a US territory, vaccines from Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are being administered.

The government of Puerto Rico has published forms for a "medical or religious exemption" that can be presented by both students and workers of public or private institutions.

The Bishop of Arecibo said in his statement that “it is legitimate for a faithful Catholic to have doubts about the safety and efficacy of a vaccine given that what the pharmaceutical companies or drug regulatory agencies say is in no way a dogma of faith."

"And that safety and efficacy are relevant and necessary data for moral judgement," he explained.

Bishop Fernández referred to the December 2020 note on vaccines against COVID-19 from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In its 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.” 

It said that the morality of vaccination depends on both the duty to pursue the common good and the duty to protect one’s own health, and that “in the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination.”

“Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent,” the congregation wrote.

The Bishop of Arecibo stressed that "conscience, and its freedom, cannot be considered only as a civil right but is something intrinsic to our Catholic faith."

Bishop Fernández also stressed that “following the moral doctrine of the Church, in the face of difficult, sudden and morally debated cases, the shepherds of souls should not impose univocal solutions, but rather, following Saint Alphonsus, we must leave each one to act accordingly to his right conscience.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank that provides guidance to uphold human dignity in health care and medical research, is opposed to mandated immunization for COVID-19, while also acknowledging that reception of the coronavirus vaccines is morally permissible.

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“In fulfilling its mission, the NCBC draws on the full range of the teachings of the Church, including its social teachings, which provide guidance on appropriate respect for persons while building up the common good,” the center said in an Aug. 17 statement.

The matter of conscientious objection to COVID-19 vaccine requirements is emerging as a source of conflict among Catholic leaders and institutions, particularly so in the United States, where pressure is mounting against those who have not been vaccinated.

Several bishops in California, and the Archdiocese of New York, have instructed priests not to provide religious exemption letters for those Catholics who object to the vaccine mandate, while the bishops in Colorado and South Dakota, and the Bishop of Gallup, have upheld conscience rights.

The NCBC stated that “The Church encourages people to receive vaccination for COVID-19, even though the currently available vaccines in the U.S. have a remote connection to abortion through the use of certain cell lines.”

It noted that the U.S. bishops have urged the provision of vaccines not connected to abortion, and stated: “Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA of a vaccine that did not rely on abortion-derived cell lines for manufacture and/or testing would remove a major obstacle to COVID-19 vaccination for many.”

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