Catholic bioethics center praises Wisconsin bishops for respecting conscience on vaccine mandates

Dr. Joseph Meaney Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center | National Catholic Bioethics Center

The National Catholic Bioethics Center on Monday praised the bishops of Wisconsin for their statement supporting conscience exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“We applaud the Wisconsin Catholic Conference for its defense of the sanctity of conscience with regard to the COVID-19 vaccines,” the center said in its Aug. 23 tweet.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank that provides guidance on human dignity in health care and medical research, has been vocal about its opposition to mandatory immunization for COVID-19. While acknowledging that reception of COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible, the center has maintained support for the rights of Catholics to refuse the vaccines because of conscience-based concerns. 

The five bishops of Wisconsin on Friday issued a statement encouraging vaccination against COVID-19, while maintaining that people ought not be forced to accept a COVID vaccine. The bishops added that, in the cases of Catholics conscientiously objecting to receiving a vaccine, clergy should not be intervening on their behalf. 

“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. 

“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.”

The bishops continued, stating that “[p]astors should not feel compelled to issue documentation recognizing this conscientious objection and are recommended not to do so.”

All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have some connection to cell lines derived from babies aborted decades ago. The vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on the controversial cell lines, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the cell lines both in production and testing.

Both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops' conference have said that, despite the ethical concerns about the cell lines, reception of the vaccines is morally permissible when recipients have no other ethical option, due to the gravity of the pandemic. Pope Francis has encouraged COVID-19 vaccination, calling it an "act of love." In December 2020, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a note stating that reception of the vaccines is morally permissible but "must be voluntary"; the note recognized "reasons of conscience" for refusing vaccines.

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. Some bishops in California, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions to mandates. 

In an Aug. 17 statement, the National Catholic Bioethics Center noted “with great sadness the increasingly heated rhetoric and even violence associated with the vaccine mandate debates.” 

The center 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.”

“Discernment with consciences informed by Church teaching is required, as well as all the elements of free and informed consent needed for any medical intervention,” the center affirmed.

On March 30, in an analysis of the morality of COVID-19 vaccination, the center said that “people must carefully discern in conscience whether or when to be immunized against COVID-19 and which vaccine to accept.”

On July 7, the center issued a vaccine exemption template letter for Catholics “who have made a sure judgment in conscience to refuse a vaccine.”

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