Vaccine Mandates FAQ
Yes. Currently, all three of the vaccines in common use in the United States–Pfizer (now called “Comirnity”), Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson–have some connection to the use of aborted fetal tissue in testing or production, which has led some Catholics and other people of good will to wonder whether they can in good conscience make use of the vaccines. This connection, however, is remote and those who receive any of the vaccines neither cooperate formally or materially in moral evil. The December 2020 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) explains, “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” (emphasis in original). In the absence of alternatives, and when there is a sufficient reason to do so (such as to contain the spread of a serious infectious agent), Catholics can, in good conscience, receive the vaccines, although Moderna and Pfizer are preferable to Johnson & Johnson. The note from the CDF continues, “It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines…does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.” Catholics should make known their opposition to the production of vaccines using such illicitly obtained biological material and, when possible, make use of vaccines that are produced licitly. See Archbishop Cordileone’s video statement on this issue here.
Yes. While the available vaccines do not provide 100% protection against transmission and infection of COVID-19, and in particular against the so-called “Delta variant,” they do still provide a significant degree of protection and greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and even death should breakthrough infection occur. For these reasons, Pope Francis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Cordileone have all encouraged Catholics, in consultation with their doctors, to make use of the COVID-19 vaccines as an effective means of preventing COVID-19.
It is important to ensure that encouragement does not become coercion. Catholics should not, for example, engage in the shaming of anyone who, for whatever reason, chooses not to be vaccinated. Nor should anyone be shamed or ridiculed for choosing to be vaccinated. We must also voice concern about promoting vaccination in ways that may be coercive or that place unjust burdens on someone who chooses not to be vaccinated such as denying them the right to work, to participate in society, and to have access to an education. Further, unnecessarily strict mandates could widen the already chasmic socio-political divide and create a kind of class division between people based on vaccination status–“the vaccinated” vs. the “unvaccinated”.
Yes. While everyone has a duty to preserve his or her own life and to act in accord with the common good, medical treatment should, in principle, be voluntary. No one should ever be forced to undergo any medical treatment, including vaccination. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states, “The free and informed consent of the person…is required for medical treatments and procedures.” The CDF note points out that this is not only a religious principle, but that, “practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary” (emphasis added). Informed consent has always been a foundational medical principle and still represents the sine qua non of medical practice even in secular settings.
Everyone has a responsibility to act in accord with the common good but this does not equate to a general obligation to be vaccinated. As the note from the CDF observes, “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation…it must be voluntary.” Each individual is the primary agent of his or her own health and so must be entrusted with the natural right to judge, with an informed conscience, whether or not to submit to any medical treatment, including vaccination. Respecting the right of conscience is in keeping with the common good. Any appeal to the common good that does not respect the right of individual conscience in moral medical decision-making is a violation of the common good. There may be good reasons why an individual decides for themselves not to be vaccinated, such as underlying health concerns, the inability to make an informed judgement, or moral objection. Some individuals have medical conditions that make it impossible for them to safely receive the COVID-19 vaccines. Others may wish to avoid even remote connection to the use of illicit biological material in vaccine production. Still others may have determined that they do not have enough information to make an informed decision about being vaccinated or judge that the benefit does not outweigh the risk to them or their children. If someone chooses not to be vaccinated, then, in keeping with the common good, he or she has an obligation to observe other means to limit the spread of infectious disease.
In principle, vaccination must be voluntary. There may be scenarios where individuals may be reasonably expected to observe more stringent forms of transmission mitigation, including vaccination, for example, in the case of healthcare professionals who work with especially vulnerable patients. Such “mandates” would not be unreasonable given the nature of the work and if there were no alternatives to vaccination such as frequent testing. Vaccination requirements, however, should reflect the particular conditions in a given situation. Overly broad or universal mandates are unethical as they cannot, in principle, take into account the various conditions that allow individuals to make an informed decision about vaccines whose long-term effects remain unknown, especially when they do not allow for medical or conscience exemptions or when they place unjust burdens on individuals by threatening them with job loss or inability to obtain an education.
A number of school districts across the country, including in California, have required that teachers be vaccinated or, if they are not or choose not to disclose their vaccination status, be tested weekly. Vaccination requirements in schools are not new. Most schools already require teachers and students to have received vaccination against certain diseases such as measles, which is both highly transmissible and dangerous to children. On the other hand, COVID-19, while highly transmissible, is significantly less dangerous to children than it is to other populations, and this must be factored into any prudential risk analysis. Any vaccine requirement should respect the right of individual conscience and include consideration of the real conditions in a specific scenario, avoiding overly-broad or universally applicable requirements since not all diseases and vaccines are the same, and not all individuals face the same risks from both disease and vaccine. Individuals, including parents for their children, are best positioned to make such a risk assessment, taking all the particulars of their circumstances into account and weighing the risks and benefits. Therefore, overly general universal mandates that do not take into account particular circumstances and risk factors do not respect individual agency and informed decision-making.
“Conscience,” declared the Second Vatican Council, “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” While no one’s conscience is infallible and, while everyone has the responsibility to form his or her own conscience, each person also has the responsibility to obey his or her conscience even if it is in error (see Catechism of the Catholic Church §1790.) No one should be forced or coerced to violate their conscience when it comes to medical decision-making. Vaccination mandates, even if they are reasonable and not overly broad, should still include medical and conscience exemptions. No one may replace or speak for someone else’s conscience–not a priest, not a medical professional, and not the state.
A religious exemption, rather than appealing to the judgment of one’s individual conscience, appeals explicitly to religious teaching or doctrine. For Catholics, the primacy of one’s individual conscience in medical decision-making is also a religious principle in the sense that the Church teaches that one ought to obey his or her informed conscience. However, while there may be good reason for an individual to appeal to his or her own conscience in refusing COVID-19 vaccination, a Catholic cannot claim that any teaching of the Catholic Church actually prevents him or her from receiving any of the COVID-19 vaccines, since the Church has clearly taught that it is morally acceptable to make use of the available COVID-19 vaccines. Many bishops have asked clergy not to sign religious exemption forms on behalf of Catholics, as such exemptions should be permitted by employers and schools and since it would be erroneous to claim that the Church explicitly teaches that Catholics cannot receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines on doctrinal grounds. Most importantly, no individual, not even a priest, can adequately speak for someone else’s conscience. The bishops are not claiming that individuals must comply with any and all vaccine mandates or denying the right of individual conscience, rather, they are acknowledging that there is no explicitly religious doctrine which universally forbids Catholics from receiving these vaccines. However, in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, Catholic teaching insists that each individual be free to follow one’s informed conscience without undue coercion in making this decision.
Those who discern for themselves not to be vaccinated nevertheless have a responsibility to pursue other means of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The individual decision not to be vaccinated does not dispense one from the responsibility to act in accord with the common good. The CDF note states, “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” the infectious agent.”