Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix said on Friday that he encourages the faithful to prayerfully consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but assured those who have chosen not to receive the vaccine that they can do so in good conscience.

“As Bishop of a diverse flock, I continue to encourage the prayerful consideration that each individual must make in regard to receiving the vaccine. For those who have discerned to receive one, they can be assured that they can do so in good conscience. For those who have discerned not to receive one, they too can do so in good conscience,” Olmsted wrote in an Aug. 27 press release. 

Olmsted referred to vaccination guidance he issued in December of last year where he affirmed that receiving the vaccine is morally acceptable. 

“This message is consistent with guidance given by the Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” he wrote.

Olmsted also reminded Church leaders that “it is not for us to make medical decisions for others but rather to support the right of faithful Catholics to come to a personal decision with the help of a well-formed conscience.”

Olmsted acknowledged that there have been many who have asked their pastors to grant them exemptions, but noted that “it is employers who grant exemptions, not pastors.”

He explained that the Church’s responsibility is to assist in forming conscience “and supporting the decision made by a conscience well formed.”

“Employers and other institutions may require vaccination,” he said, “but we support them reviewing and extending exemptions for personal religious reasons of conscience.”

The bishop encouraged priests, deacons and lay leaders to offer pastoral guidance to parishioners in order to help them form a well informed conscience by using “solid resources,” naming those offered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), and the CCC.

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Olmsted said that following teachings of the Church is “primary” to forming conscience. 

He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1778 which states: “In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: ‘Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.’” 

The bishop said in the letter that Catholics will come to different conclusions on vaccination “each considering his or her own conscience.” 

All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have a remote 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 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 supported Catholics who wish to seek conscience exemptions. Bishops in California, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions to mandates. 

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In an Aug. 17 statement, the NCBC 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.”