Springfield, Mass., Sep 20, 2021 / 11:28 am (CNA).
Bishop William Byrne of Springfield in Massachusetts said Tuesday that clerics in the diocese should support Catholics who themselves seek conscientious exemption from COVID-19 vaccine mandates by attesting to their baptism and practice of the faith.
“It is important for us to recognize and encourage the well-formed consciences of those who both desire the vaccine for themselves and the common good, as well as those who for health concerns or other reasons, may desire not to receive the vaccine,” Bishop Byrne wrote Sept. 14 to clerics of the Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts.
“In charity as priests and deacons, we should help to support the conscience rights of our Catholic faithful on this and all matters. We can do this by attesting to their Sacramental Baptism and the ‘practicing’ of their Catholic faith, as a separate letter or statement, to support their letter or request for religious exemption, but not to compose or sign a letter or form ourselves.”
The bishop wrote his letter to assist his clerics who are receiving requests from parishioners seeking “religious exemption” from mandatory vaccination for COVID-19.
He cited documents from the US bishops’ conference, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which indicate that the vaccines may be taken, but that their reception is not a moral obligation and must therefore be voluntary.
“Many organizations and institutions are beginning to require the vaccine, and so in understanding conscience rights objections, we as leaders of our congregations, may be asked to assist Catholics in our parishes to pursue an exemption,” Bishop Byrne wrote.
The bishop said that “on the basis of conscience, it is not possible for anyone to act or speak on behalf of another person seeking an exemption.”
“Such a conscience right’s request for exemption must come from the individual themselves by way of
their own letter or the completion of an organization’s form applying for exemption,” he noted.
However, he directed his clerics to provide accompanying letters that support individuals’ own requests for religious or conscientious exemption.
“I hope the clarification of these points on what we can do, and what is beyond our scope of responsibility, is helpful to you as these requests may arise among our good people in the future,” Bishop Byrne concluded.
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 Thomas Paprock of Springfield in Illinois recently wrote that “while the Church promotes vaccination as morally acceptable and urges cooperation with public health authorities in promoting the common good, there are matters of personal health and moral conscience involved in vaccines that must be respected. Therefore, vaccine participation must be voluntary and cannot be forced, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the authority of Pope Francis, indicated last December. While we encourage vaccination, we cannot and will not force vaccination as a condition of employment or the freedom of the faithful to worship in our parishes.”
“The Catholic Church teaches that some persons may have conscientious objections to the taking of the COVID vaccines, and that these conscientious convictions ought to be respected,” Bishop Paprocki added.
The Catholic Medical Association has stated that it “opposes mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment without conscience or religious exemptions.”
The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank that provides guidance on human dignity in health care and medical research, also issued a July 2 statement opposing mandated vaccination with any of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States.
The bishops of South Dakota and Colorado have both issued statements supporting Catholics wishing to seek conscience exemptions. The Colorado Catholic Conference issued a template for Catholics and their pastors to send to employers for religious exemption based on conscience.
Portland’s Archbishop Alexander Sample and Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly have both stated that any Catholic seeking an exemption places the burden on the individual’s conscience rather than on Church approval, and thus priests of their dioceses are not allowed to vouch for the conscience of another person in seeking an exemption from a vaccine mandate.
The five bishops in Wisconsin in late August issued a statement encouraging vaccination against COVID-19, while maintaining that people ought not be forced to accept a COVID vaccine. The bishops added that, in the cases of Catholics conscientiously objecting to receiving a vaccine, clergy should not be intervening on their behalf.
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 John Stowe of Lexington has required COVID-19 vaccines for all diocesan employees, and Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago is requiring all archdiocesan employees and clergy to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, and will only allow exemptions for medical reasons.