Austria’s Catholic bishops commented on Monday on the government’s likely decision to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the country in February, calling the obligation permissible if used as a last resort.

In a Dec. 6 statement, the bishops’ conference acknowledged that “compulsory vaccination is a serious encroachment on the bodily integrity and freedom of the individual,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

“It is therefore only permissible if, taking into account proportionality, all other options have been exhausted to protect the population — in the case of the pandemic, the health system, and thus human lives,” the bishops said.

They went on: “It is ultimately the responsibility of the government to assess whether the preconditions for a temporary condition are met and whether a temporary vaccination obligation is now the appropriate means of protecting the common good.”

The bishops added that they “cannot give a detailed opinion on the concrete [application] of the law.”

According to a draft law prepared by the Austrian government, residents of Austria who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 from Feb. 1, 2022, could face a fine of up to 600 euros ($675) every three months.

There will be exceptions for those who are under age 14, pregnant, recently recovered from COVID-19, or have other health reasons preventing them from receiving the vaccination, according to the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF).

All non-vaccinated residents of Austria will have specific dates for vaccination assigned to them from Feb. 15, and from March 15, fines will be imposed on those who have not complied. Those who received the vaccination more than 270 days prior (just under nine months) will be required to receive a third dose.

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in December 2020 that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

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The doctrinal office added that those who refuse to receive vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses for reasons of conscience “must do their utmost to avoid … becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”

The Austrian bishops’ statement, entitled “Protect, Heal, Reconcile,” said that exceptions to the vaccine mandate were “urgently necessary” to “keep the legal consequences within reasonable bounds.”

“The aim must be to protect health and freedom in equal measure,” they said.

The Austrian bishops said that “a broad scientific consensus evaluates the protective vaccination against COVID-19 as an indispensable contribution to protect people from severe, even life-threatening disease.”

Vaccination also helps protect the health system from becoming overburdened, they added. “For this reason, the bishops once again urge people to be vaccinated. We recall the words of Pope Francis: ‘Vaccination is an act of love.’”

The bishops, who recently tightened guidelines on the celebration of Mass in response to a new nationwide lockdown, also urged greater peace and reconciliation between people with opposing views about the COVID-19 vaccine and other polarizing issues related to the pandemic.

“Only respect for opposing opinions and different points of view can ensure peaceful coexistence,” they said.

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“However, this also includes the fundamental acceptance of legal requirements which have to be made in the interest of the common good.”

The Austrian bishops’ intervention came days after the influential German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said he was open to the idea of mandatory vaccination.

The archbishop of Munich and Freising told a local newspaper on Dec. 3 that “compulsory vaccination by the state can be an important step, but that is ultimately a political decision,” reported CNA Deutsch.