Catholic College Vaccine Mandates: Cura Personalis or Needless Oppression?

Creighton
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COVID-19 vaccine mandates are being imposed on college students across the nation, including at many Catholic universities. Before returning to campus, students must first scale a vaccination wall or gain a medical exemption. Almost all institutions also provide exemptions for students with religious and conscientious objections. But Creighton University (where I have served on the faculty for over 27 years) has recently clarified that its vaccine wall remains closed; unvaccinated students with religious and conscientious objections to the vaccine are not welcome. 

Universities are understandably concerned about providing a safe campus environment. But can an acceptable level of safety be attained without compelling students to violate their consciences? Significantly, no one else in the Big East conference has embraced such a restrictive approach. Schools with a vaccine mandate allow religious and/or personal conscientious exemptions, and one school (Xavier) does not impose a vaccine requirement.  

Creighton’s policy imposes significant costs upon students and their families who want to preserve the integrity of their convictions. If they are forced to transfer, scholarships, athletic eligibility, research positions, and timely completion of their academic programs are in jeopardy, along with relationships with friends, faculty, and coaches who have mentored them. The promise of cura personalis (loosely translated as care of the whole person) rings hollow to these students when their alma mater is telling them their convictions don’t matter. If they choose to act on their beliefs, they will be expelled—no exceptions, no discussion.  

Creighton’s mandate partially recognizes prudential concerns by allowing a limited, temporary medical exemption until full FDA approval is granted. For some, this may buy more time to assess the risks associated with the vaccine, but it does not eliminate them. FDA approval is no badge of consensus from the scientific community, as recent controversies amply demonstrate.  Concerns about side effects (known and unknown) will likely persist. 

Research also indicates that those having COVID-19 antibodies from prior infection are unlikely to benefit from the vaccine. Is it medically advisable to undergo a risky procedure without a likely benefit merely because it satisfies a bureaucratic demand for uniformity? Is that approach even ethical? Medical professionals admit they do not have precise measures for the comparative risks; much is still unknown. In ordinary conditions, patients and their doctors get to assess those risks for themselves without coercion.  

It remains to be seen whether medical exemptions will address these prudential concerns when and if FDA approval comes. But FDA approval does nothing to address religious and conscientious objections that also accompany this vaccine. Catholic university leaders may point to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which opined that it is morally licit to receive vaccines despite a connection to research involving products of abortion because it characterizes vaccination as “[remote] passive, material cooperation with evil,” which is permitted in conditions of “grave danger.”

One may legitimately question whether “grave danger” still exists, given promising results from treatment of COVID-19 infections, particularly among young and healthy cohorts. But in any case, the CDF guidance also plainly states: “[P]ractical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” Some Church authorities have even cautioned universities that offer religious and/or conscientious exemptions about the importance of respecting the appropriate, voluntary nature of vaccination policies. One wonders how faithful Catholic leadership could choose to ignore this guidance by offering no room for students with conscientious concerns. 

People of faith (and no faith) can hold different views about receiving these vaccines, but those who choose abstention are on solid ground. Vaccine usage means no market sanctions apply to products developed using morally illicit research. Faithful citizens who refuse them send an important message. We need to awaken consciences to change the direction of our medical and scientific community, not deaden them by ignoring these issues. It is praiseworthy to consider market incentives in protest movements affecting climate change, discrimination, immigration, and relief for the poor. Why not respect for human life in medical research? 

Voluntary abstention from vaccines also avoids scandal from using products associated with abortion, as well as respects the dignity of human remains connected with those products. We also have a long tradition of respecting bodily integrity as a gift from God, which motivates many persons to avoid contact with substances that can threaten or compromise health or the integrity of bodily systems (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

These concerns are not frivolous or unimportant. Even secular authorities recognize the validity of similar concerns about vaccines. In Nebraska, state law requires public school officials to protect students from vaccine mandates based on their religious and conscientious considerations. 

So why does Creighton, a Catholic institution, lock the door to those with religious or conscientious concerns? Its policy does not achieve safety through removing all unvaccinated people from campus. Unvaccinated visitors, personnel, and students will still be present, and those with concerns about infection from others are free to take additional precautions, just as in the case of other possible illnesses.  

In fact, the temporary medical exemption policy specifically welcomes unvaccinated students to campus this fall—but only if they agree to future vaccination if the FDA grants approval. Perhaps unwittingly, this sends a clear message: only unvaccinated students with the courage to act on religious or conscientious convictions are unwelcome. It may also send another message: beliefs rooted in the approval of a government agency are worthy of respect but not beliefs based on legitimate concerns about the approval of God for your course of conduct. 

This policy betrays a progressive bias that is sadly pervading all higher education, and Catholic institutions are not immune. Administrators tend to act as though government is always good (assuming it is run by progressives) and independent thought, particularly if rooted in faith, is only supported when it serves an instrumental purpose aligned with progressive causes.   

Whether or not you share concerns about the vaccine, all citizens should be concerned about policy-making approaches that choose coercion over conscience without achieving any clear advantage for the common good. Less restrictive means are clearly available here to achieve a reasonable foundation for safety, as demonstrated by the practices of others in the academic marketplace. Respecting the beliefs and concerns of others in this way will lead to a stronger, more diverse, and more charitable community which habituates itself to listening to others. Those who profess to follow Christ may have additional reasons to prefer this approach. Recall Matthew 18:6 (NIV): “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” 

[Photo Credit: St. John’s Catholic Church on the Creighton University campus (Public Domain)]

By

Edward A. Morse is a professor of law and endowed chairholder at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He also serves on the board of the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, the family, and religious liberty. Opinions expressed herein are his own.

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