Portland archdiocese asks its schools to follow COVID vaccine mandate, but will consider conscience exemptions

Archbishop Alex Sample Credit Addie Mena CNA Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland in Oregon. | Addie Mena/CNA.

The Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon responded Monday to a new state COVID-19 vaccine mandate, noting that Catholic schools in the archdiocese are expected to comply.

While individual Catholics are free to seek religious exemptions, clergy are not to write any letters supporting such exemptions, the Portland archdiocese wrote in an Aug. 30 letter

Oregon on Aug. 25 introduced an order mandating that all school teachers, staff, and volunteers become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. 

Citing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the archdiocese noted that vaccination must in principle be voluntary. However, because the state’s mandate is “for the stated purpose of protecting the public health,” Catholic schools are required to comply with the state’s vaccine mandate. 

The archdiocese noted that Pope Francis, Benedict XVI, and its archbishop, Alexander Sample, have all received the vaccine.

There “may be circumstances when accommodations can be made” for an individual seeking an exemption of conscience, and each request for exemption “will be carefully and sincerely considered on its merits and on an individual basis.”

Priests are instructed not to write letters supporting an individual’s request for a religious exemption, because “the matter is strictly between the employee and the employer.”

The archdiocese said those seeking to write their own letters of conscientious objection can be directed to use the resources provided by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“Individuals not able or unwilling to be vaccinated must take concrete, practical steps to avoid exposing those who are vulnerable and at risk,” the archdiocese wrote.  

“In cases where accommodations cannot be made by an employer, the individual may need to seek employment elsewhere to protect the common good and minimize risks to vulnerable populations.”

In addition, “no Church official can state that receiving the vaccination is contrary to the moral teachings of the Church” because of the moral guidance provided by the Vatican and the US bishops. 

All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have some connection to cell lines derived from fetal tissue likely derived from a baby 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.

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 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.

“Receiving any of the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable for Catholics in light of the pandemic and since ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are unavailable,” the archdiocese noted. 

Portland’s approach is similar to that of Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly, who wrote last week that Catholic schools in the diocese will be expected to comply with Washington state’s vaccine mandate, and any Catholic seeking an exemption “places the burden on the individual’s conscience rather than on Church approval.”

In its December 2020 Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, 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.” Pope Francis has encouraged COVID-19 vaccination, calling it an "act of love."

Bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates. 

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Some, such as the bishops of South Dakota and of Colorado, have explicitly expressed support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions, while in contrast, many bishops in California, as well as in Chicago, Seattle, and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions from receiving COVID-19 vaccines, stating that there is no basis in Catholic moral teaching for rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds. 

The Chicago archdiocese, along with the Diocese of El Paso, has introduced its own vaccine mandate for employees. An additional email sent Aug. 20 to staff and clergy of the Archdiocese of Chicago explained that an unvaccinated employee who contracts COVID-19 will have to use their sick or personal time to cover a 10-day quarantine; vaccinated employees will instead be given 10 additional sick days. 

The five bishops of Wisconsin last week 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. 

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.

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