Are Catholics Eligible for COVID Vaccine Religious Exemptions?

Religious Exemption
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Steve, a Catholic husband and father, is the sole breadwinner for his family. His wife stays at home to care for their four children while he works in sales for a large corporation. Recently, his company announced it will be requiring all employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination by October 1 or they will be let go. Steve, however, doesn’t want to receive the shot due to the vaccine’s connection with abortion. 

Steve checks with HR and discovers that the company is allowing a religious exemption, provided that a religious leader signs a letter affirming the exemption. Steve approaches his pastor and asks him to write such a letter. The pastor hesitates, however, unsure if exemption is legitimate. Hasn’t the pope said we should all get the shot?

The scenario above is not a hypothetical one. Across the country, employers, schools, and retail businesses are requiring employees, students, and even customers to be vaccinated. 

This poses a problem for American Catholics. Every COVID-19 vaccine currently available here has a connection to abortion. Whether the vaccine was developed using fetal cell lines from an aborted baby or was tested using those lines, they are all morally compromised. As we’ve covered here at Crisis before (here, here, here, here, and here), there is debate among Catholics regarding the morality of taking these vaccines, but the Church has made clear that no one should be obligated to get the shot, and that Catholics should push for the development of vaccines that are not morally compromised.

Recently, the Archdiocese of New York released a memo to its priests barring them from writing these religious exemption letters. When I first read this memo I assumed it was fake news. It was so poorly reasoned that I couldn’t believe it was an authentic document of the Archdiocese of New York. Unfortunately, it is.

The letter begins with a whopper, stating, “We occasionally hear from Catholics who have a sincere moral objection to the COVID-19 vaccines due to their connection to abortion. This concern is particularly acute among people who are strongly pro-life and very loyal to the teaching of the faith” (emphasis added). 

What is meant by “people who are strongly pro-life and very loyal to the teaching of the faith?” Isn’t that supposed to be all Catholics? Are they so rare that they have to be singled out now?

The next paragraph states that “Pope Francis has made it very clear that it is morally acceptable to take any of the vaccines and said we have a moral responsibility to get vaccinated” (emphasis added). This letter is referring to a comment the pope made back in January—not an official magisterial statement from the Church. 

The pope’s opinion that we have a “moral responsibility” to get this particular vaccine is simply a prudential judgement of his, not an official teaching of the Church. The Church has explicitly stated that Catholics can refuse abortion-tainted vaccines and that they should only take them if greater evils might result from not doing so (cf. “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses,” 2005). It’s up to the individual Catholic, however, to determine if the current situation rises to that level. 

If, for example, a virus existed that only gave people with red hair the sniffles, and the only vaccine available was tainted by abortion, then Catholics should refuse that vaccine because the evil that results from the virus is so minimal. In the case of any viral pandemic, each Catholic is to decide whether it rises to enough of a significant evil that the remote participation with the evil of abortion is justified.

Thus, no matter how much modern papolaters chant in hushed tones “ordinary magisterium”, we have zero obligation as Catholics to follow the prudential judgements of the pope. He’s no more qualified to judge the scope of the pandemic than the cashier at the gas station or the talking head on CNN.

After this exercise in fallacious reasoning, the memo gets to its real purpose. It states that granting a religious exemption “could have serious consequences to others. Imagine a student receiving a religious exemption, contracting the virus and spreading it through the campus. Clearly this would be an embarrassment to the archdiocese. Some even argue that it might impose personal liability on the priest.”

There it is. “Liability,” the word that sends shivers down the spine of too many modern bishops. Here the Archdiocese is admitting that it fears getting sued (the touching mention of “personal liability” covers the real boogeyman: corporate liability). That’s why it won’t give exemptions.

And then there’s reason #2: embarrassment. Simply put, these Church leaders don’t want to be criticized. If they allow priests to grant exemptions, the Church will be lambasted by all the Right People. They won’t be able to cozy up to the movers and shakers at the next big society event, and they will be hindered in their ability to ask for more government funds. The memo doesn’t even mention The Safety of Our Flock, the usual catch phrase used to hide their true motivations.

So can priests sign letters granting a religious exemption to Catholics? Should they? 

Absolutely. While the Church does not teach that there are no circumstances in which a Catholic can receive an abortion-tainted vaccine, a priest can state that a Catholic in good conscience can refuse the jab on religious grounds. A great sample of such a letter can be found at the website of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. And happily the Colorado Catholic Conference recently put out a statement that defended the right of Catholics to seek a religious exemption in this regard, although to my knowledge they are the only bishops to do so as of this writing.

It is a core part of our faith that life has dignity from the moment of conception. To kill such life and use it for medical experimentation violates that dignity in a profound manner. The moral stakes are very high, and so any participation in that evil—even participation quite remote—demands a great evil to justify it. 

Yes, some Catholics might believe the COVID-19 pandemic evil enough and the participation remote enough to justify the shot. But others will not, and their prudential judgement still follows the religious teaching of the Catholic Faith.

Writing religious exemption letters would be the truly pastoral approach. After all, Catholics “who are strongly pro-life and very loyal to the teaching of the faith” are not contradicting any moral teaching of the Church; if anything, they are the most faithful to the Church’s teachings. For the Church to allow them a religious exemption takes seriously what the Church actually teaches about this issue. 

Further, such an approach also takes seriously the need to push for morally uncompromised vaccines, which the Church has always encouraged. If Church leaders refuse to grant religious exemptions, how can they then go to vaccine makers and argue that they want non-abortion-related vaccines? Their very arguments are undermined.

Church leaders claim serious qualms regarding the vaccines’ connection to abortion, and say they want to push companies not to use aborted baby cell lines. If this is true, then they must back it up with action. The best way to do this would be to encourage Catholics to refuse the COVID-19 vaccines until one not tainted by abortion is available. That option is clearly a bridge too far for most Church leaders. At the very least, then, they should follow the guidance of the Church in allowing Catholics to pursue religious exemptions to the shot. This may lead to embarrassment—and even liability—but aren’t the babies worth it?

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His most recent book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

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