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COVID vaccines: Spokane bishop supports conscience rights, but says priests won’t provide religious exemption

Autumn JonesJonah McKeown   By Autumn JonesJonah McKeown for CNA

Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Washington, in a 2015 file photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of San Jose)
Spokane, Wash., Aug 24, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).

After Washington state announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school employees, the Bishop of Spokane said that conscience rights should be respected, but that priests shouldn’t sign documents regarding the conscience of another.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement Aug. 18 for all employees who work in K-12 schools, most early childhood learning centers, and higher education. The mandate applies to public and private schools.

The mandate allows medical or religious exemption, but does not address conscientious exemption.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane issued a statement in response to the governor’s mandate affirming the conscious rights of the individual Catholic to decide whether to receive the vaccine, while also stating that “priests should not be involved in signing any document concerning the conscience of another.”

Bishop Daly, while affirming the Church’s guidance that vaccination is morally permissible and beneficial for the common good, noted that clergy are not to “replace one’s conscience,” but to “assist with informing a person’s conscience.”

“While we encourage vaccination, we do not intend on violating the consciences of our Catholic school teachers nor do we intend on vouching for another person’s conscience,” Bishop Daly wrote.

“If a person has health concerns or moral objections about vaccines, he or she should not be forced into being vaccinated.”

Bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates.

Some, such as the bishops of South Dakota, have explicitly expressed support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions, while in contrast, many bishops in California, as well as in Chicago and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions from receiving COVID-19 vaccines, stating that there is no basis in Catholic moral teaching for rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds.

Bishop Daly’s guidance affirms an individual’s conscience rights on the matter, while also acknowledging that “the individual does not need a clergyman to vouch for [their faith].”

Bishop Daly, speaking to CNA, said he has relied on the Catholic Medical Association and the National Catholic Bioethics Center to provide guidance in his decision making on the question of COVID-19 vaccination.

Inslee said in his announcement that he would not “gamble with the health of our children, our educators and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve” in the release. Educators will have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment according to the announcement. Coaches, bus drivers, volunteers, and anyone else working in a school environment must also be vaccinated.

Some guidance is already available in a proclamation dated Aug. 9, which says that workers for state agencies and health care providers are not required to be vaccinated if they demonstrate “a sincerely held religious belief.”

Inslee’s office told CNA in an email that the “state Office of Financial Management HR department is finalizing details on the process of applying for religious exemptions.”

A vaccination exemption request for the State of Washington must include a statement that articulates how the mandate conflicts with the “religious observance, practice, or belief of the individual.”

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 likely 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, echoing guidance from the Vatican, 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.

In its December 2020 Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.”

It said that “in the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination.”

“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 congregation wrote.

Bishop Daly said, “We would encourage people to follow their conscience on this. I do believe people will do the right thing. I think it’s going to be rare that a person in conscience will not seek vaccination.”

He also noted that people want to know the truth, and to be able to trust leadership in the medical field, politics, and the Church, and that occasional contradictory guidance from civic leaders during the pandemic— such as the closure of churches while leaving businesses such as liquor stores open— has left some Catholics confused about how to proceed regarding vaccination.

Bishop Daly says civic leaders’ “inconsistencies” have contributed to the angst of the overall situation.

Citizens “don’t want to be lied to, and they don’t want to be treated as if they’re simpletons,” Bishop Daly said. “A lot of people’s reluctance has come from half-truths, misinformation, shaming.”

Washington and Oregon both issued vaccine mandates for educators last week. In California and New Jersey, educators have the option of either showing proof of vaccination or being tested at least once per week. Some cities and school districts, such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles also recently announced a vaccine requirement for all school employees.


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18 Comments

  1. “I think it’s going to be rare that a person in conscience will not seek vaccination.”

    Nonsense. My estimation of his leadership just dropped.

    • My estimation of the character of our bishops would drop, too —if it hadn’t already hit rock bottom. We need these guys and their “leadership” like we need a hole in the head. I want them to preach the gospel, and to just shut up about everything else.

    • Yes, obviously it’s not a rare thing or the bishop wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. But I do believe that some people are basing their decision for conscientious exemption on insufficient information & if they were fully informed they might be less likely to refuse vaccination. And then again, some may not.

      Perhaps the only good thing to come out of Covid is the realization that our pharmaceutical labs are almost completely dependent on fetal cell lines for testing & research. Pretty much anything we have in our medicine cabinet has this morally compromised connection. And so do the Covid alternate treatments. Even Regeneron. It’s a sad situation for sure.

      • mrscracker, I totally agree about the importance of reliable and factual information made available for us to make an informed decision.
        I came across some relevant details two days ago that may assist people. I was looking into the history of the development of nRMA techniques and found that in 2009 a new assistant professor at Harvard Medical School was concerned about the ethical issues of using the embryonic cells for research and building on former developments discovered a way forward that did not use embryonic stem cells:
        [the following copied from this article]
        https://www.statnews.com/2020/11/10/the-story-of-mrna-how-a-once-dismissed-idea-became-a-leading-technology-in-the-covid-vaccine-race/

        “In a feat of biological alchemy, embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of cell in the body. That gives them the potential to treat a dizzying array of conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to spinal cord injuries.

        But using those cells for research had created an ethical firestorm because they are harvested from discarded embryos.

        Rossi thought he might be able to sidestep the controversy. He would use modified messenger molecules to reprogram adult cells so that they acted like embryonic stem cells.

        He asked a postdoctoral fellow in his lab to explore the idea. In 2009, after more than a year of work, the postdoc waved Rossi over to a microscope. Rossi peered through the lens and saw something extraordinary: a plate full of the very cells he had hoped to create.”

        ( further info on the messenger molecule here:
        https://theconversation.com/what-is-mrna-the-messenger-molecule-thats-been-in-every-living-cell-for-billions-of-years-is-the-key-ingredient-in-some-covid-19-vaccines-158511 )

        It would seem from this information that since 2009 medical scientists are no longer dependant on embryonic stem cells to continue their work. It also seems likely there is no ‘residue’ connection to previous embryonic material.
        However I am not qualified to give an authoritative conclusion.
        We would all benefit from informed leadership in this matter from those with leadership responsibility in our Church outlining the facts, making them available to the wider Catholic population who, unlike the Middle Ages, is by and large well educated and capable of understanding the details and I believe willing to accept.
        There must be Catholic medical scientists who could clearly enunciate and verify if what I read from the article is correct; ie that from 2009 there is no longer reliance on embryonic cells.
        In good faith
        CH

  2. I’ve been following the legal side of the vaccines on YouTube livestreams of Canadian attorney Viva Frei and American attorney Robert Barnes. They did one where they were discussing forced vaccinations. It is on a highlight video titled: “Litigating Forced Vaccination / Vaccine “Mandates” – What you Need to Know – Viva & Barnes HIGHLIGHT”
    *
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ssDRGWBllk
    *
    Barnes says that the forced vaccine position is based on eugenics law. At the 24:40 minute mark Barnes says that a person can assert a religious exemption without needing to go to church or have a religious authority to attest to the assertion.

    • For sure. We had a religious exemption in the past to refuse other vaccines because they were unethically manufactured & the health dept. never asked what denomination we were or required a letter from our priest. I hope it remains that way.

  3. The bishops are all saying that it’s up to an individual to follow their conscience. Then when we do, they hang us out to dry and don’t help us when we need it. Teachers/volunteers are being forced by the State of Washington to get the vaccine or else face losing their jobs. This includes private Catholic schools as well that the State has no authority over, and yet here we have our bishops throwing us under the bus. Again. Time to stop donations, pull your kids out of Catholic schools, make the bishops feel the pain in their wallets. They’re continuing along this path because they can.

  4. Our bishops (most anyway) never fail to disappoint when the chips are down.
    Thank you to the good bishops in SD and elsewhere who did not take the easy way out, as this bishop has done.

  5. When will governments mandate vaccinations for any group of people meeting together and require electronic proof from the organization they meet at that they are in compliance? (aka to attend Mass, you need the vaccination) It is the slippery slope we are headed down with vax mandates with no accounting for natural immunity or medical/religious exceptions…

  6. I think Bishops or any religious officials should only comment on the conscience and moral sides of things. They must always offer the vaccination exemption papers to whomever, in the catholic community, makes the request.

    I think most of all that they must be humble enough in admitting the limit of their knowledge. In this SARS-Cov-2 crisis we can no longer accept to take sides as either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination. It goes to a much deeper level than that. We should all be pro Truth and pro-unification. This starts by taking the pledge to educate ourselves in areas where we need more knowledge to navigate in this particular Covid crisis. Only then, we can take part in any related conversation.
    We took this pledge as a family and we enrolled in a very specified e-course Cov-awareness Vs Cov-friction (https://www.minoritycheck.com/?s=review). There are 6 lessons to complete. I must admit, it does require a bit of time investment (well worth it by the way!). So far we are at lesson 4 and we are waiting for the reminder lessons to be made available. I think it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, healthcare providers to do the work in order to give the best advice to those under our care (patients, students,) and make the best decision for ourselves or our children. I personally pledged to share this knowledge as much as I can, hoping that others will do the same.

  7. My family is catholic and all vaccinated. However, I strongly support COVID vaccinations being voluntary not mandatory for adults. I emphatically disagree with Catholic “leaders” who think there is no grounds for religious exemptions. Some of the covid vaccinations use fetal cell lines during production. The mRNA vaccines DO NOT, but my understanding is that they did use these cell lines during testing. I’m a scientist and know exactly what fetal cell lines are and that these same cell lines have been around for decades and are 40+ years removed from the abortion. I chose to get vaccinated. I understand Catholic leaders who say its okay to get vaccinated, despite the remote connection to abortions. However, I support the right of a catholic to refuse even the mRNA vaccines because fetal cells were used during testing and it is morally objectionable to them that they benefit, even remotely, from an abortion. I disagree with any catholic leader who would argue such an objection is not legitimate.

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