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August 20th, 2021, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Vaccination and conscience: a challenge to Church authority

By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Aug 19, 2021

Let’s get something straight. A Catholic priest cannot “give” anyone an exemption from a vaccine mandate. Except in those very rare cases (at least I hope they are very rare) when the priest himself imposes the mandate, he has no authority to issue exemptions.

What a priest can do is support a request for an exemption, by testifying that the request comes from a faithful Catholic, who is spurred by the demands of a conscience formed by principles of Catholic moral teaching. When he offers that support, the priest is not claiming that the Catholic Church bans vaccination. He is not even necessarily saying that he himself opposes vaccination. He is only saying that this individual—his parishioner, presumably—cannot take the vaccine in good conscience. And if vaccination would violate his conscience, then—here the teaching of the Church is crystal-clear—he must not take the vaccine.

Thus even if many Catholics conclude that they should take the vaccine, a priest could remind public authorities that for his parishioner, who has conscientious objections, a requirement to be vaccinated would be a violation of his freedom to act in accordance with his religious beliefs. Indeed I would argue—have argued—that a priest would have a moral obligation to support a parishioner’s conscientious objection.

It is relevant, certainly, that many Catholic moralists have found it possible to endorse vaccination. But issues of conscience are not decided by majority vote. It is noteworthy that prominent bishops— including the Bishop of Rome—have encouraged everyone to be vaccinated. But no responsible Catholic moralist has suggested that vaccination should be compulsory. In fact the closest thing to a definitive Vatican statement on the question, the advisory from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explicitly states that Covid vaccination “is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and… therefore it must be voluntary.”

Therefore, when some public or private authority calls for compulsory vaccination—in clear violation of the Vatican directive—shouldn’t Catholic priests do what they can to defend the rights of individual Catholics who resist?

If the resistance came from people who could not frame their objections in terms of Catholic moral principles, their pastors could remain indifferent. But in this case, the objections come from Catholics who are strongly motivated by their faith, and well versed in the Church’s moral reflections on the use of vaccines. The conscientious objectors can cite that same document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which says that the use of ethically tainted vaccines is permissible “if there is a grave danger,” and exhorts pharmaceutical companies to produce other vaccines “that do not create problems of conscience.” Here the Vatican explicitly recognizes that the available Covid vaccines do create problems of conscience for a faithful Catholic.

So a conflict arises: between Catholics who cannot in conscience accept vaccination, for reasons the Vatican acknowledges; and public or private authorities who insist on compulsory vaccination, which the Vatican condemns. In these circumstances, it is absurd (if not outright dishonest) to say that priests must not support the conscientious objectors. And a priest who has been ordered to be silent in the face of injustice may find that he faces a crisis of conscience himself.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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