New Brunswick mandates COVID vaccine pass, but Catholic dioceses take differing approaches

New Brunswick mandates COVID vaccine pass, but Catholic dioceses take differing approaches.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception seen amid Saint John, New Brunswick. / Wangkun Jia/Shutterstock.

Fredericton, Canada, Sep 23, 2021 / 10:10 am (CNA).

The Diocese of Saint John, New Brunswick has said proof of vaccination will not be required for Mass or the other sacraments, though it will comply with provincial rules requiring such proof for other indoor gatherings. Other dioceses in the province, those of Moncton and Edmundston, have said they will require proof of vaccination to attend Mass.

“No person will be turned away from Mass, nor any other Sacrament,” Natasha Mazerolle, communications director for the Diocese of Saint John, told CNA Sept. 22. New provincial rules requiring proof of vaccination will, however, apply to other indoor events at diocesan churches, like conferences, workshops and fundraisers, she said.

“The Diocese of Saint John continues to do its utmost to protect both the physical and spiritual needs of its faithful,” said Mazerolle. “It takes the directives of public health seriously and understands the need to make sacrifices to protect the common good, and to be prudent in slowing the spread of the virus. It also recognizes that the faithful are not to be excluded from the Sacraments for any reason, and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith (and indeed what is most needed to help us face these challenging times).”

Mazerolle said “worship services (including Catholic Mass) are not directly mentioned in the government regulation.” She added “an individual’s right to practice their religion is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Under canon law, well-disposed Catholics typically have the right to receive the sacraments at appropriate times.

“The Code of Canon Law is very clear on this,” said Mazerolle, citing canon 843, which says, “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

Provincial government rules which took effect Sept. 21 required proof of vaccination to access certain events, services, and businesses. Violation of the law could result in fines between $172 and $772 Canadian, about $135 to $605.

The rules apply to those 12 and older, including those seeking to attend “indoor organized gatherings.” Explicitly mentioned are weddings, funerals, conferences, workshops, and parties, excepting parties at a private dwelling.

“The regulations published on the Government of New Brunswick’s website do not mention worship services or Mass,” Mazerolle said. “While there can be many interpretations, the diocese defers to what has been officially written in the regulation under the Public Health Act and posted on the Government of New Brunswick’s website.”

In a Sept. 17 letter, Bishop Christian Riesbeck of Saint John pledged close cooperation with public health authorities to implement parish-level policies that will “ensure that all faithful can continue to worship Jesus and receive the Sacraments in full safety and care for one another and the common good.”

“Vaccination is proving to be the best way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and its variants, which are on the rise and threaten to overwhelm the hospital system, seriously impacting the level of care medical professionals can provide to the ill and the vulnerable in our province,” Riesbeck said.

The bishop cited the Vatican COVID-19 Commission’s joint document with the Pontifical Academy for Life, which said, “we consider it important that a responsible decision be taken in this regard, since refusal of the vaccine may also constitute a risk to others.”

“I encourage you in charity to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if you have not already done so,” he said, referring by name to the Covid-19 vaccines which have received full approval from Health Canada.

“I once again urge each person to prayerfully consider vaccination, and to discern a decision that will best protect themselves, their loved ones, and the common good,” Riesbeck continued. “We also recognize that the decision to vaccinate must never be coerced, and that some individuals, for matters of health or conscience, may choose not to receive the vaccine.”

The bishop’s letter encouraged Catholics to “remain ever conscious of our mission to spread the joy of the Gospel throughout our diocese and face these new challenges with our gaze fixed firmly on Jesus, who walks with us and never abandons us.”

The Diocese of St. John serves over 115,000 Catholics at 28 parishes, St. Thomas University Fredericton, and an Ordinariate community. Its territory borders the U.S. state of Maine.

New Brunswick’s total population numbers over 750,000 people, about half of whom are Catholic.

There have been 49 Covid-19-related deaths in New Brunswick out of some 3,600 total cases since the pandemic began. There are now 557 active cases, compared to January’s peak of 348. The province recently witnessed its largest single-day report of new COVID cases. About 26 people in the province are currently hospitalized, 15 of whom are in intensive care.

Almost 87% of New Brunswick residents have at least one vaccine dose, while 78% are fully vaccinated. The oldest residents, who tend to be most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections, are also the most likely to have been vaccinated.

A Sept. 21 bulletin of the Diocese of St. John reported that the provincial health minister has asked faith communities to aim for a 90% vaccination rate. The diocese said that the health minister has asked faith leaders to survey their congregation about their vaccination status.

“This survey will be distributed at Masses this coming weekend, September 25-26, to be completed prior to leaving Mass and left with the parish,” the St. John diocese said. The parish will forward the results to the diocese and will be required to keep a record at the parish.

“If the results of the survey demonstrate that the 90% vaccination rate has not been met, further restrictions on gatherings may be mandated by the province,” said the bulletin.

The diocese cited Sept. 20 press conference remarks by New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs. He said that failure to reach a 90% vaccination rate could mean a return to social distancing and reduced capacity requirements.

As of Sept. 22, masks will be mandatory in all public spaces. These rules explicitly include places of worship.

While the Diocese of St. John is only requiring proof of vaccination for some church events, and not Mass and the sacraments, the neighboring Archdiocese of Moncton is more strict. It will require proof of vaccination from those age 12 and older attending all religious celebrations, including Masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals, parish and pastoral meetings, catechesis, and social meetings.

Archbishop Valery Vienneau of Moncton on Sept. 17 asked for these measures to be implemented “not only to respect the government’s request but above all to help stop the spread of the virus among our population.”

“We would not want one of our places of worship to be the location of a COVID exposure due to our negligence,” Vienneau said. “The Minister of Health is counting on our cooperation.”

The archbishop said volunteers are expected to be at the church doors to ask attendees for full proof of vaccination and to collect their names. This list can be used again each Sunday to avoid repeated requests for proof of vaccination from repeat visitors.

“This list may eventually be requested by the government,” the archbishop noted.

Parish employees who do not seek vaccination must wear a mask at all times and take a COVID test periodically. Any parish office visitor may be asked to wear a mask if not vaccinated.

There are about 108,000 Catholics in the Moncton archdiocese out of 215,000 people total.

The Diocese of Edmundston on Sept. 17 announced measures similar to those of the Moncton archdiocese. The diocese is predominantly French-speaking and its territory covers the northwest of New Brunswick, with about 44,000 people, almost all Catholics, living in its territory.

The Diocese of Bathurst, a predominantly French-speaking diocese in the province’s northeast, serves about 95,000 Catholics in 51 Christian communities in 12 parishes. It had no public statement on a response to the provincial rules.

The provinces of Alberta and Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, are also mandating proof of vaccination to enter some venues. Nova Scotia will begin to mandate proof of vaccination Oct. 4, but that mandate does not apply to places of worship, the Canada-based site Global News reports.

Prominent Catholic leaders have backed vaccination. Pope Francis, along with six cardinals and archbishops from the Americas, recently worked with the Ad Council to produce a public service announcement promoting the use of COVID-19 vaccines.

While most Catholics in the U.S. and Canada have received COVID-19 vaccinations, vaccine mandates have prompted debates among some Catholics about conscientious exemption, the risks and benefits of the available COVID-19 vaccines, and the ethics and legality of vaccine mandates imposed by governments and employers, including some U.S. Catholic dioceses.

In a December 2020 note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and therefore “must be voluntary.” It said that the morality of vaccination depends on both the duty to pursue the common good and the duty to protect one’s own health, and that “in the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination.”

The Vatican will require all visitors and personnel to show a COVID-19 pass proving they have been vaccinated, have recovered from the coronavirus, or have tested negative for the disease in order to enter the city state beginning Oct. 1. However, this requirement does not apply to Catholics attending liturgical celebrations at the Vatican. People will be allowed to access a liturgy “for the time strictly necessary for the conduct of the rite,” while also following distancing and masking rules, a Vatican City ordinance published Sept. 20 said.

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