Wisconsin bishops encourage vaccination while affirming conscience rights 

Archbishop Jerome Listecki Official Portrait of Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in 2021. | Archdiocese of Milwaukee

The five bishops of Wisconsin on Friday issued a message encouraging vaccination against COVID-19, while maintaining that people ought not be forced to accept a COVID vaccine. 

“We encourage those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to do so because it is the most effective way to combat this virus. We are all morally responsible to protect our lives and the lives of others. This is an imperative of natural law that we treasure in our faith,” the bishops wrote. 

They also acknowledged “many health or ethical reasons why a person may refuse COVID-19 vaccination,” but added that “it is the responsibility of the individual” to explain their decision to decline the vaccine, and recommended that clergy not intervene in such cases.

“However, the Church also treasures her teaching on the sanctity of conscience,” they stated. “Nobody should violate the sanctity of conscience by forcing a person to do something contrary to his or her conscience.”

In cases of conscientious objection to the COVID vaccine, “[p]astors should not feel compelled to issue documentation recognizing this conscientious objection and are recommended not to do so,” the bishops stated.

The bishops stressed that anyone refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 must take steps to avoid spreading the virus. 

“Every decision has consequences; and in this case, the person claiming a religious or ethical exemption should be ready to properly assume other scientifically recommended means of avoiding infection and contagion: face-coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing, periodic testing, and quarantine,” the bishops wrote. 

Bishops across the country have issued guidance for Catholics seeking conscience exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 

Some bishops, including the bishops of South Dakota, have explicitly supported Catholics wishing to seek conscience exemptions. In contrast, many bishops in California, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions to mandates, stating that there is no basis in Catholic moral teaching for rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds. 

Quoting Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Dignitatis Humanae, the Wisconsin bishops wrote that “the Christian faithful, in common with all other men, possess the civil right not to be hindered in leading their lives in accordance with their consciences.”

Given “the urgency of this pandemic and the frustration some may experience because of the number of unvaccinated people,” a person’s conscientious refusal of a COVID vaccine may offend some, the bishops said, but that decision still retains its “dignity,” they wrote. 

“Consequently, someone who in conscience decides that he or she should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine should be granted an exemption based on his or her beliefs or convictions,” the bishops asserted. 

“It is the responsibility of the individual to raise moral or ethical objections to vaccination based on the dictates of his or her conscience. Pastors should not feel compelled to issue documentation recognizing this conscientious objection and are recommended not to do so.”

Before COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for use in the United States, some Catholics raised concerns about their use of cell lines likely derived from fetal tissue of an abortion decades prior. Those vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on the controversial cell lines, while the vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson was both tested on and directly produced with the cell lines.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoing guidance from the Vatican, has since stated that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use despite their remote connection with abortion. If one had the ability to choose a vaccine, the bishops recommended that they choose one with the least connection to abortion.

Pope Francis has strongly encouraged vaccination, collaborating with the Ad Council on a video promoting vaccination. The pope called getting vaccinated against COVID “an act of love,” in the video.

December 2020 guidance from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation,” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.”  

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