South Dakota bishops support conscientious, religious exemptions from Covid vaccine mandates

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA


Sioux Falls, S.D., Aug 11, 2021 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

In response to questions from Catholics about COVID-19 vaccine mandates being imposed by employers or other authorities, the bishops of South Dakota said this week that Catholics whose well-formed consciences tell them not to receive a vaccine should be free to seek a religious exemption from any vaccine mandate.

The bishops called the decision to accept or reject a vaccine “intimate and personal.”

“[A] Catholic may, after consideration of relevant information and moral principles, discern it to be right or wrong to receive one of the available Covid-19 vaccines,” Bishops Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls and Peter Muhich of Rapid City said in a statement Aug. 10.

“If he or she thus comes to the sure conviction in conscience that they should not receive it, we believe this is a sincere religious belief, as they are bound before God to follow their conscience. We support any Catholic who has come to this conviction in seeking religious exemption from any Covid-19 requirement.”

The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 630,000 people and hospitalized many more in the U.S. While the arrival of vaccines has significantly reduced the spread of the disease, concerns remain that failures to vaccinate the public and the arrival of new viral variants could still cause significant harm.

Before and as COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out, some Catholics raised concerns about the drugs’ remote connection to aborted fetal tissue. Those produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on cell lines derived from elective abortions decades ago, while the vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson was directly produced using the cell lines.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has since stated that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use because of their remote connection with abortion, but if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

Although the three vaccines authorized for use in the United States currently have only an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the administration reportedly might issue full approval of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine within weeks.

The South Dakota bishops stressed that “we are bound to follow our consciences if we are certain of them,” and that “we have a duty to form our consciences in accord with right reason and the good willed by the wisdom of God.”

The bishops described the vaccines as “in some way dependent upon cell lines derived from abortion” and said that even amid a “proportionally grave need,” an absence of alternatives, and a Catholic stating their objections, “a well-formed conscience might decline such interventions in order to affirm with clarity the value of human life.”

They pointed to a letter they penned in December 2020 which described accepting a COVID vaccine as an “act of solidarity and charity” and “arguably a work of mercy,” while at the same time not being a “moral obligation.”

“We have the right to freely follow our conscience. We must not be forced to act contrary to our conscience, i.e., to be compelled to do something we believe to be wrong. Nor must we be prevented from acting according to our consciences, especially in religious matters, provided that just public order be respected,” the bishops wrote in their August note.

In a television interview in January, Pope Francis said, “I believe that, ethically, everyone has to get the vaccine.”

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that although vaccines with a remote connection to abortion are “morally acceptable,” it also stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.”

The congregation acknowledged “reasons of conscience” for those refusing a vaccine, while at the same time noting: “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

Those refusing COVID-19 vaccines “for reasons of conscience” must take appropriate precautions to avoid transmitting the virus, the Vatican said.

Some employers, including the Catholic health care network Ascension, have already begun mandating that employees receive COVID-19 vaccines.

In California, teachers must have proof of vaccination or face regular testing, the governor announced Wednesday. New York City last week announced it will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for workers and patrons of some businesses, such as gyms, restaurants, and theaters.

The Catholic bishops in Colorado have emphasized the need to respect those with conscientious objections to the COVID-19 vaccines and have provided a template letter for any Catholics with objections to mandatory vaccination. They also welcomed the City of Denver’s vaccination mandate for including a religious exemption.

The New York archdiocese, meanwhile, has warned priests against granting religious vaccine exemptions for Catholics.

“There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine,” stated a July 30 memo from the archdiocese’s chancellor, John P. Cahill, to all pastors, administrators, and parochial vicars in the archdiocese. The memo was issued several days before the city announced its vaccine mandate.

While recognizing the “discretion” of individuals to either receive or decline a COVID-19 vaccine, the archdiocese’s memo said that priests “should not be active participants to such actions” by granting religious exemptions.

Several Catholic seminaries in the northeastern US are requiring COVID-19 vaccination for their seminarians before the coming semester begins.

As of June, about 80% of Catholics say they have gotten a COVID-19 vaccination or will do so as soon as possible, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and released July 27. The Catholic acceptance rate was somewhat higher than the general population, about 71% of whom accept the vaccine.

The Catholic Health Association, the national leadership organization for Catholic health care, on July 27 strongly encouraged all health care personnel to get a COVID-19 vaccination. It voiced support for mandatory vaccination policies at hospital and health systems, “with the appropriate accommodations for medical or religious reasons.”

In its July 2 statement on vaccine mandates, the National Catholic Bioethics Center cautioned against mandates, especially when the COVID vaccines have yet to be fully approved by the FDA. The center said “it would be a radical departure from past practice to impose a mandate involving an unapproved vaccine available only under an Emergency Use Authorization.”

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