Dig into one of the most contentious Covid-19 issues: vaccines and vaccine mandates. During the pandemic, Church teaching was interpreted in various and even incompatible ways by different US bishops, as well as orthodox Catholic thinkers. These disagreements remain unresolved to this day.
In December 2020, the Vatican’s highest doctrinal office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, since renamed as a Dicastery) published a note officially approving the use of many Covid vaccines, which were then becoming widely available.
Catholic moral theology distinguishes between different degrees and types of involvement with the immoral acts of others. These distinctions allow the faithful to tell the difference between involvements that may be permissible (which may even be practically unavoidable, especially in modern society), versus involvements that are unacceptable because they cause us to actually share in the guilt of others.
Applying these well-established distinctions to the problem of the Covid vaccines, the CDF taught that “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” (Notably, the vaccines in question did not actually contain fetal material.) As well as being grounded in traditional theology, this teaching was based on prior doctrinal statements issued under Pope Benedict XVI.
The main subject of the December 2020 note was indicated by its title: “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” – that is, the morality of the individual’s choice to use these vaccines. On this point, the note explained its reasoning and cited its sources in prior Church teaching.
In contrast, the note’s treatment of mandatory vaccination was brief and somewhat nonspecific – which is not surprising, given that mandates were not the main subject of the note. That may explain why only one sentence directly addressed that issue, which read as follows:
“At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”
This short passage has given rise to significant confusion and varied interpretations, to the point that a rift over vaccine mandates now exists at the highest levels of the Church, both in theory and practice.
It should be noted that this is not purely a divide between so-called “conservatives” and “liberals,” although some of the division has played out along such lines.
Both the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Catholic Medical Association apparently interpreted the CDF, in the single sentence quoted above, as making an unequivocal statement against any mandatory vaccination. So did some US bishops, who cited the CDF in opposing mandates and favoring a right to exemptions. Based on statements from these bishops and institutions, it seems they interpreted the CDF as teaching that mandatory vaccination is never acceptable.
Significantly, however, the National Catholic Bioethics Center had openly supported some mandatory vaccinations – in cases of “a very communicable disease capable of spreading rapidly from one person to another by contact or close proximity” – in a 2006 statement entitled “Vaccines and Exemptions Granted by Schools.” In that same earlier statement, the NCBC also held that Catholics should not expect religious exemptions to vaccines declared permissible by the Church, including those with a remote historical link to abortion, though exemptions could possibly be granted on other grounds.
The “absolute” interpretation of the CDF statement, taking it as a pure prohibition of mandates, was at times put forward by leaders and institutions notable for their fidelity to Church teaching, and many readers of this report are likely to favor their reading of what the CDF taught.
However, certain facts – in the Vatican’s conduct and in the wording of the CDF statement – make this interpretation difficult to maintain. Moreover, not all faithful theologians interpreted the teaching in that way.
First, the Vatican itself eventually imposed a strict vaccine mandate on its employees, from December 2021 until June 2022. However one may interpret the CDF statement, the Vatican’s actions certainly do not reflect a total opposition to vaccine mandates.
Given the Church’s teaching on rash judgment, one should not hastily jump to the conclusion that the Vatican was simply contradicting its own teaching when it imposed this mandate. Rather, the teaching should be examined more closely to see whether such a contradiction really exists.
There is also no indication that Rome ever opposed several American bishops who, like the Vatican itself, mandated vaccination for their employees. Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, Bishop Stowe of Lexington, and Bishop Seitz of El Paso are known to have done this. Indeed, it would have been strange for the Holy See to oppose such actions while it was also engaging in them.
Both of these points are problematic for the claim that the CDF forbade all vaccine mandates. The most serious difficulty for the absolutist interpretation, however, is in the teaching itself – specifically, the phrase translated “as a rule” in the English edition of the note, or “di norma” in the Italian version.
The English phrase “as a rule” is defined by authoritative British and American dictionaries as meaning generally or usually. This is exactly the same definition given, in the Cambridge Italian-English dictionary, for the Italian “di norma.” The Collins dictionary likewise defines “di norma” as “normally,” and it also confirms that “as a rule” – in the sense of usually or generally – is an accurate English translation. In this English idiom, and seemingly also in the Italian, “rule” means a standard one typically follows, rather than a moral absolute covering all cases.
Going by these definitions, it appears the CDF may only have intended to teach that vaccination is usually not a moral obligation, and therefore should generally be voluntary.
Notably, this more nuanced interpretation of the CDF statement was supported by the prominent Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser – who specifically opposed mandatory Covid vaccination, as a prudential matter, but who also argued that vaccine mandates were “in principle allowable” according to “Thomistic natural law theory and Catholic moral theology.”
Feser, a political conservative and traditional Catholic, was not arguing for the policies of Cupich, Stowe, or Seitz – indeed, based on his analysis of the specific facts, Feser judged that “there should be no Covid-19 vaccine mandates,” and that “generous exemptions” should be allowed where mandates existed. But Feser also stated, as a general moral principle, that “a vaccine mandate, even if ill-advised in some cases, is not per se or intrinsically immoral.” (Feser also interpreted the CDF as saying the same, calling its doctrinal note “exactly right.”)
At a minimum, based on an analysis of its recent words and actions, it is not clear that the Vatican is doctrinally opposed to all mandatory vaccination.
What is clear, however, is that the Church’s teaching on this point – whether vaccines can be mandated – has been interpreted in different and incompatible ways by some US bishops, as well as by orthodox Catholic thinkers, and that these disagreements remain unresolved even as the pandemic recedes.
The rift between bishops becomes even clearer when we consider how different dioceses handled the matter of Catholics who sought some form of exemption to secular institutions’ vaccine mandates.
On the one hand, there were bishops like those in Colorado who, through their Colorado Catholic Conference, provided extensive guidance and help to those seeking an exemption on religious grounds.
Significantly, the Colorado bishops’ guidance considered more than one possible objection to the vaccine (not merely its connection with abortion) as falling within the scope of religious objections – in particular, the principle that “a person’s assessment of whether the benefits of a medical intervention outweigh the undesirable side-effects [is] to be respected unless they contradict authoritative Catholic moral teachings.” This statement was backed by a reference to the US bishops’ health care directives.
The Colorado bishops had followed the CDF note, as regards the vaccines’ abortion connection, but they also maintained that a person’s Catholic faith could form the basis for other objections that the CDF had not specifically addressed.
In a remarkable move, the Colorado bishops’ stance was directly opposed by Bishop (later Cardinal) McElroy of San Diego. Less than a week after the Colorado Catholic Conference published its “Template for Religious Exemption from COVID-19 Vaccines,” McElroy sent a letter to his clergy – not only instructing them to deny help to the faithful in seeking such exemptions, but also offering his own attempted rebuttal of the Colorado bishops (whose template was circulating in his diocese).
The San Diego bishop’s response alluded to the CDF note, but otherwise cited no specific Church document. McElroy offered little in the way of moral or theological argumentation, other than a general criticism of the Colorado declaration as being too focused on individual concerns over the common good.
While rightly emphasizing the authority of the CDF, Bishop McElroy left several points from the Colorado statement unaddressed, and he concluded that no objection to Covid vaccination could be authentically grounded in Church teaching on any subject – even those matters the CDF had not addressed in December 2020. He told San Diego priests to “caringly decline” parishioners’ requests for help in getting religious exemptions to secular mandates.
The dispute between Bishop McElroy and the Colorado bishops was an extraordinary instance of the bishops’ divide over vaccine mandates and exemptions. It was not the only instance of this rift, however.
At least 14 American bishops declared that they did not support religious exemptions from vaccine mandates, most prominently the Archbishops of Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
At the same time, at least 11 of the US bishops publicly favored exemptions for Catholics who determined they should not be vaccinated, the most prominent among them being the Archbishop of Denver and the Archbishop of the US Military Services (who would later become president of the US bishops’ conference).
The Vatican itself did not articulate a general policy on exemptions to its own vaccine mandate, but stated that “any evaluation of elements leading to a possible exemption from the obligations of the ordinance falls under the responsibility of the Secretariat of State.” According to a May 2022 report in the National Catholic Register, the Vatican granted limited case-by-case exemptions on health grounds but did not grant religious exemptions.
Notably, a prior attempt to mandate vaccination at the Vatican had been met with protests by those who interpreted the CDF note as absolutely – not just “normally” or “usually” – forbidding mandatory vaccination.
Not only the Church in America, but also the universal Church at its highest level, is now divided over the question of mandatory vaccination and how to interpret the CDF’s brief treatment of the issue.
When the CDF published its “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” in December 2020, Vatican officials perhaps did not even anticipate a widespread or intense controversy over vaccines, mandates, and exemptions.
In late 2020, the inoculations were not nearly such a cultural and political flashpoint as they would later become. As 2020 ended, President Trump was hailing the shots as a “medical miracle” that would “soon end the pandemic,” while Joe Biden was stating that he would not impose them by mandates.
The atmosphere around the Covid shots became far more adversarial in the second half of 2021 – as the vaccines became increasingly mandated, decreasingly effective at stopping the transmission of variants, and the subject of a growing controversy over side effects.
Given this timeline – and the fact that the CDF note fundamentally addressed a different moral issue (the permissibility of the Covid vaccines themselves, not the permissibility of mandates) – it is understandable that the CDF’s teaching on mandates was both extremely brief and very cursory in substance, with an unexplained reference to what “practical reason makes evident,” and the diversely interpreted statement that vaccination is not obligatory “di norma.”
The controversy over mandates and exemptions was likely unforeseen, but is now undeniable. Division on this subject will probably persist at all levels of the Church until a clearer articulation of Catholic teaching is given on this specific subject – perhaps clarifying what “practical reason makes evident” on the issue, and what exactly was meant by the phrase translated “as a rule.”
Importantly, even if the CDF note is understood as teaching that vaccine mandates are sometimes acceptable, this does not mean a Catholic must agree with the particular choice to impose a given vaccine mandate, whether that decision is made by political authorities or even by Catholic bishops.
Prudential applications of Church teaching are not the same as the teaching itself, and civil laws may lack validity so as not to be binding in conscience. On either interpretation of the CDF note, Catholics have at least some right of objection against particular vaccine mandates, from Church or state – though they also have an obligation to form their conscience according to the Church’s teaching, to avoid arbitrary and subjective judgments.
In the courts, meanwhile, challenges to Covid vaccine mandates – including challenges brought by Catholic individuals and institutions – were generally unsuccessful.
Although the Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s OSHA vaccine mandate, it did so on very specific grounds that could not be broadly generalized to other cases. Numerous challenges to vaccine mandates came before the Supreme Court, but only a challenge to the OSHA employer mandate succeeded.
In the June 2022 case of Dr. A. et al. v. Hochul, a petition was made to the Supreme Court involving several Catholics’ objections to mandatory vaccination, with the support of the Catholic Medical Association. Their petition was ultimately denied, however, and the case was not heard – although Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch thought the court should have taken it up, since it involved the question of religious exemptions being treated differently from medical ones (a question on which lower federal courts are in disagreement with each other).
One of the most unique Catholic challenges to a vaccine mandate was brought by Sister Deirdre Byrne, who is not only a consecrated religious sister but also a surgeon, family physician, and retired Army colonel. When Washington, D.C. required vaccination for health care workers, “Sister Dede” applied for a religious exemption (which the policy provided for) over the shot’s remote connection to abortion, but this was denied.
Byrne also cited natural immunity from a previous infection and recovery, a position that has been backed up by science yet sidelined by the public health establishment.
Byrne sued the district after having her medical license suspended and being forced to close her clinics. However, her case was ultimately dismissed, without a resolution of the issues it raised, after district officials changed course and granted her exemption request.
Another prominent court challenge to a vaccine mandate was brought by the Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who was fired by the University of California after being denied a medical exemption that he sought based on natural immunity.
He did not raise a religious issue with the university, instead insisting he had a “perfectly legitimate medical reason for declining the vaccine.”
Kheriaty sued the university, but ultimately failed to convince the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that he had suffered a violation of fundamental rights that should trigger the standard of strict scrutiny. (The court cited the early 20th century vaccine mandate case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which has never been overturned.)
Dr. Kheriaty continues to “oppose coercive medical mandates and advocate for transparency from public health agencies,” and he maintains that “the CDC now fully endorses my position [on natural immunity] rather than the University’s vaccine mandate policy.”
The most significant Catholic challenge to a vaccine mandate – directly taking on the Biden administration in a case that included a petition to the Supreme Court – was brought by the Catholic schools of the Sioux Falls diocese in South Dakota, collectively known as Bishop O’Gorman Catholic Schools.
South Dakota’s bishops had been supportive of exemptions, and the Sioux Falls Catholic school system opted to sue after the Biden administration announced a federal vaccine mandate – with severe fines for non-compliance – to be imposed on all employers with 100 or more employees.
This was the above-mentioned OSHA rule, which was an incredibly broad and punitive medical restriction implemented through the “ultimate work-around” of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Alliance Defending Freedom represented the O’Gorman school system and several other plaintiffs, whose cases were eventually consolidated and presented to the Supreme Court for emergency relief in December 2021. This had the potential to be a major case, with O’Gorman and other religious employers raising the question of “whether OSHA’s private-employer mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the First Amendment.”
Although a round of briefs was filed in this case, the Supreme Court ultimately did not decide it. Less than a month after O’Gorman and its co-plaintiffs had sought relief from the Supreme Court, the Biden Administration’s OSHA mandate was blocked in a different case, in which the mandate was successfully challenged by a group of states and a secular business federation.
In that case, the Court found that the OSHA rule exceeded the workplace safety agency’s authority. This prevented the rule from taking effect, but also resulted in the religious institutions’ challenge being dismissed (as no longer raising a live issue) shortly afterwards.
Both within the Church and in the political realm, the religious implications of mandatory vaccination are still disputed points. Much of the furor around this issue has now died down, but the tensions remain.
Even within a single Catholic diocese, vaccine mandate policies could be in tension. San Diego was again remarkable in this regard.
As discussed above, San Diego’s Bishop McElroy had directly and specifically opposed the Colorado bishops’ support of religious exemptions. Three months after McElroy said this, however, the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Schools released a memo to school pastors and principals regarding “personal belief exemptions” to student vaccination mandates imposed by state law.
These exemptions were to be allowed, even though a diocesan spokesman told the Voice of San Diego that the schools were not (as a system of private schools) legally required to grant them.
“In implementing any legal mandate for Covid vaccinations that includes a personal belief exemption, the Catholic schools of the Diocese of San Diego will accept any parents [sic] request for exemption as valid,” the memo stated. “We hope that this course of action by the diocese balances the need to protect the health of our students, teachers and staffs [sic] with the rights of parents to decide issues vital to their children.”
In fairness to Cardinal McElroy, moral theology does distinguish between religious exemptions – based on the objective content of religious teaching – and exemptions based on the conclusions of one’s personal conscience. (The NCBC’s 2006 “Vaccines and Exemptions Granted by Schools” statement, cited above, explains the difference.) As such, there is not necessarily a contradiction involved in denying the one while granting the other.
Nonetheless, it is remarkable to contrast McElroy’s complete refusal of all Catholic religious exemptions – on the premise that no objection, in his view, could be authentically grounded in Church teaching – with his school system’s blanket acceptance of all exemptions rooted in “personal belief.”
This is all the more surprising given that Bishop McElroy had criticized the Colorado bishops for allegedly focusing “so exclusively on the rights of the individual” and not “balancing those realities with the pursuit of the common good.” A policy of granting every exemption request based on “personal belief” seems at least as individualistic, if not more so.
On this point, it is not clear how to reconcile the two different vaccine exemption policies of the San Diego diocese, and one is left to wonder how the future cardinal might have considered them as compatible.
Covid-19 vaccine mandates are now largely ceasing to be a live issue, as it is recognized that the available vaccines – due to more infectious variants, and waning immunity – have become much less effective at preventing infection (and thus, subsequent transmission).
However, the present doctrinal confusion over vaccine mandates remains. The issue could easily resurface in a future pandemic, if it is not addressed in advance.
About the Author: Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic and has written for several publications including Catholic News Agency, Catholic Exchange, and Real Clear Religion.
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