Vaccine Exemptions, Conscience, and the Church

The Archdiocese of New York has issued instructions to its priests “not to grant religious exemptions”  for Covid vaccine.  The wording of this puzzles me, because, except for those under its direct control, vaccine exemptions are issued by employers, schools or government entities, not the Church.  I suspect this is a directive for priests not to sign documents attesting to an individual’s qualification for an exemption (quite another matter), but the language is confusing—and the topic is confusing enough.  The Church has a role in the exemption question, but it’s best to be clear about what it is and is not.


The issue of vaccine exemptions requires addressing several questions/issues separately and more or less in order.


What is an exemption?

An exemption is a policy that releases particular individuals from the obligation to be vaccinated.  Vaccination may be required by law or may be a condition of employment or enrollment in school or participation in a community activity such as team sports.  Exemptions can be for several reasons but the most common are on medical and religious grounds.  Various policies will define those eligible for exemption in different ways and that fact is key to understanding the role of the Church in determining whether an exemption is to be granted.


Who are the parties to the dispute over a vaccine exemption?

If there is a policy in place requiring vaccination, the one seeking exemption must prove that his situation fits the categories defined for exemption.   The Church, except for those under its direct control, does not “grant” exemptions; the entity requiring vaccination determines whether the individual’s situation falls within the specifications of the exemption.

What is the role of the Church if a Catholic seeks vaccine exemption on religious grounds?

 The Church provides information about relevant Church teaching that bears on the issue of exemption, and the relevant information will vary depending on the way the exemption is worded.  The Church has more than one teaching that bears on the subject of the individual and the Covid vaccine and it is important that a complete discussion of how the Church views the matter be presented.

This information is then used by both employer and employee, or school and student, to assess whether the situation is covered by the relevant policy and whether the exemption should be granted.  In the event that an exemption is denied, the person seeking it will likely have recourse to systematic appeal within the school or employment system, or, ultimately, to the courts.

Exemptions, by their nature, tend to be worded so as to make them as specific and as narrow was possible so as to encourage greater compliance with the mandated (desired)  action.  Depending on how the exemption is worded, several questions arise:

Does the Catholic Church forbid its members to make the vaccine (is taking the vaccine an intrinsic evil)?  If this is the question posed by the exemption, the answer is no.  The recent pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (building on prior statements by the Pontifical Academy for Life) makes it clear that Catholics may take the Covid vaccine.  In addition, a number of commentators, as well as the Holy Father, have suggested that taking the vaccine under current circumstances is close to a moral imperative absent medical contraindications, though a moral obligation to take the vaccine remains a matter of dispute..

Does the Catholic Church permit a person to refuse the vaccine and support such refusal even though taking the vaccine is permitted? Here the answer is yes.  Catholic teaching permits latitude of conscience that permits an individual to take a more rigorous position than the Church does, on an individual basis, in a situation like this.  Moreover, for that person, if the position taken is in accord with their conscience at that time, the Church insists that the individual conscience be obeyed for to go against conscience is to sin.  Thus, in individual circumstances, the Church can and does permit the individual to refuse the vaccine, though she does not forbid it to be taken.  There is and always has been a difference between what is morally obligatory and what is morally permissible.

Does vaccination go against the deeply held, central tenets of the religious faith of the person? This particular way of phrasing the question can be particularly difficult as the definition of “deeply held, central tenets” is not clearly defined.  Its resolution would be much like the example above: a matter of conscience.

What else does the Church have to say on the topic? Catholics are also charged with acting with due regard for the health and safety of others for the common good.  This may mean, in situations where vaccination is required for the welfare of those in the community, an individual who chooses to refrain from vaccination has an obligation to take additional, sometimes significant, steps to prevent his posing an additional risk to those around him.  For someone who works in health care, this might mean loss of a job; for someone on a sports team, it might mean loss of a position, for a student, it might mean that enrollment is denied. Different facts will lead to different conclusions here, but the overall principle—modification of one’s own behavior to help protect others—remains.  In my experience this factor tends to be overlooked in discussions that focus on either liceity of taking the vaccine or primacy of conscience.  It is also a critical factor that connects the other two, polar positions.  Also overlooked is the requirement that, in the case of vaccines that are ethically troublesome but not forbidden (those using fetal derived cell lines) the Catholic has an obligation o make known his objection to the use of such vaccines and, in so far as possible, “lobby” for completely ethical alternatives to be provided.

Thus, these questions lead to very different resolutions of the question of religious exemption.  The first question (is it forbidden)  is the more common question as regards exemptions as it generally has the clearest answer.  It is not invariable, however, and different entities might word exemptions differently. Chick-fil A, for example, might use very different language than the State of New York.

The faithful must understand that it is their burden to argue for exemption, and that the Church is not in a position of “granting” dispensations from vaccine policies imposed by schools, employers, or anyone else. It is and remains a matter between the person and the relevant institution, though the Church should provide a clear and complete description of all relevant teachings so that the parties involved can come to an informed and just decision.  The faithful  must also, as a practical matter, understand that refusal of vaccines may mean foreclosing academic or employment opportunities they might otherwise have.  In any case both are matters between the person and the institution, not the Church.

A simple way to lay out the relevant information for anyone wishing to understand the position of the Church is as follows:

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has declared that a Catholic is free to take any available coronavirus vaccine without fear of moral compromise or sin.  Simply put: the Church does not forbid Catholics to take this vaccine.  The vaccine is not an intrinsic evil to be avoided. The Church has concluded that the individual may take the vaccine  but it has not decided that Catholics must take it. This leaves room for prudential judgment,, although the Pope has encouraged reception of the vaccine as a way to care for the well-being of others.

The Church also recognizes the right of the individual to refuse to take a vaccine because of objections of his own conscience (usually related to the use of fetal-derived cell lines in the manufacture or testing of the vaccine) and recognizes that the individual is bound to obey his conscience when his conscience is more restrictive than the Church requires . However, in such a situation, it must be recognized that this is an individual, prudential decision of conscience and not a requirement of the Church. If the vaccine is refused, the individual has a moral obligation to take additional steps to protect those around him from contagion.  These steps will vary according to situations.

The Church also recognizes that all individuals have an obligation to act in such a way as to not pose an unreasonable threat to others. In the case of Covid, this places on the unvaccinated person additional and particular obligations to take steps not to transmit the virus to others. These obligations may, in some circumstances, extend to leaving or modifying a position of employment, enrollment, or participation to avoid increasing the exposure risk to others because of the desire to avoid taking the vaccine, and this obligation may exist even in the absence of the requirement of vaccination for employment.



Image from National Cancer Institute, via Unsplash