Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

On vaccination, NY archdiocese tramples the rights of the faithful

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 05, 2021

“There is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.” That is the message from the top brass of the New York archdiocese.

That message is wrong: factually wrong, theologically wrong, morally wrong.

The archdiocesan memo cited the “directives” of Pope Francis, who—the chancery officials noted—has said that it is “morally acceptable” to take the Covid vaccine. “Cardinal Dolan has said the same,” the memo continues.

Yes, but to say that it is “morally acceptable” to be vaccinated is not the same as saying that it is morally obligatory. With this memo, unfortunately, the archdiocese threw its weight behind the campaign to make vaccination morally obligatory.

Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan, and many other Catholic leaders have encouraged the faithful to be vaccinated. But they have not gone so far as to say that Catholics must be vaccinated. So when the New York archdiocesan officials say that by endorsing a claim for a religious exemption, priests would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the Pope,” they are going well beyond the facts.

This misguided memo begins with a remarkable concession, saying that some Catholics “have a sincere moral objection to the Covid-19 vaccines due to their connection to abortion.” If indeed it is a sincere moral objection—an objection that weighs on the individual’s conscience—then the teaching of the Catholic Church indicates that the individual who has that moral objection should follow his conscience, even if Church leaders do not share or endorse his objection.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1782) teaches:

Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

Then why would a Catholic priest—in the New York archdiocese or anywhere else—refuse to acknowledge that a parishioner can in good conscience refuse the Covid vaccine? Isn’t the archdiocesan directing priests to ignore the legitimate rights of their people?

Understand: when a parishioner asks his pastor to acknowledge his conscientious objection to the vaccine, he is not asking the priest to say that all Catholics must reject vaccination; he is saying that he, as an individual, has a conscientious objection. Both the teaching and the history of the Catholic Church support him in that claim.

Some Catholics are pacifists, and claim conscientious objection to military service. Obviously they are a minority within the Catholic community; most Catholics are not pacifists, and many serve honorably in the armed forces. The Church honors the military; there is an archdiocese dedicated specifically to ministry for the military services. Yet priests do also write letters in support of young men who seek recognition as conscientious objectors. Will those letters, too, now be forbidden in the New York archdiocese?

“Any individual is free to exercise discretion on getting the vaccine based upon his or her own beliefs without seeking the inaccurate portrayal of Church instructions,” the New York officials write. (Notice how the memo uses the words “directives” and “instructions” rather than forthrightly citing the official teaching of the Catholic Church.) But a priest can testify in support of a conscientious objector without in any way compromising the accuracy of the “instructions” from Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan. A priest might, with absolute candor, write:

Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan believe that vaccination is morally acceptable in the current circumstances. But John Jones does not; he has objections based on principles that are perfectly consistent with the principles of Church teaching. And our Church teaches that we must honor his conscience and protect his right to avoid what he deems morally objectionable.

At the bottom of a memo that is marred by bad reporting, bad logic, bad theology, and even bad grammar, the New York brass refer priests to a note from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released in December 2020, saying that Covid vaccination could be morally permissible. Read that Vatican document carefully, and notice this sentence:

At the same time, practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.

Voluntary vaccination is not at issue here. When a sincere Catholic asks his pastor for help in establishing his conscientious objection, he is asking for protection against mandatory vaccination. The New York archdiocese is ordering priests to deny that help. So now who is guilty of an “inaccurate portrayal of Church instructions”?

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Aug. 13, 2021 11:44 PM ET USA

    The Church does respect an 'informed' conscience in some matters but that is very treacherous ground to stand on and for another debate. One of the basic tenets underlying our Faith is that we will not willingly do harm to others. Unvaccinated people are spreading the virus to others causing sickness and death; statistics don't lie! Is it not immoral to avoid an action that could save other people...and maybe one's own life? Life is a gift; each of us is obliged to God not to squander it.

  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Aug. 13, 2021 11:36 PM ET USA

    I disagree strongly with the hubris evidenced in Phil's and other commentators' in regard to the parishioner request. The person wanted an endorsement (written or other) from a priest. The article above already points out the Church's position re freedom of conscience! How could an individual priest then go beyond that? The Church is NOT in the business of granting 'exemptions' for someone's conscious decision. No one's rights are violated here, either civilly or liturgically. Humbug.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Aug. 06, 2021 7:48 PM ET USA

    Reportedly, the J&J vaccine contains aborted fetus materials while the other two do not. Although they do utilize them in testing, no aborted fetus materials are contained in the other two vaccines. Which vaccine is Dolan writing about? Is he writing about a medical, moral or political issue? I’m with Phil! This is “bad reporting, bad logic, bad theology and even bad grammar” as well as bad medical advice! Although I chose to be vaccinated, we are all free to make our own individual decisions.

  • Posted by: roseofsharon - Aug. 06, 2021 6:14 PM ET USA

    As usual, Phil Lawler’s analysis is spot on. The Pope’s comment, “One must do it,” is his personal opinion - one I do not share.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Aug. 06, 2021 5:53 PM ET USA

    Great article! Lord, save us.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 06, 2021 11:19 AM ET USA

    The top brass of the NY archdiocese must have missed the urgent recent memos about the perils of clericalism.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 06, 2021 12:20 AM ET USA

    What? From, 11 January 2021: "In a new television interview, Pope Francis said that everyone should take the Covid vaccine. 'One must do it,' he said, disclosing that he has already scheduled a shot. The Pontiff said that he could not understand worries that the vaccine might have serious side effects; he said that skeptics are afflicted by 'suicidal denial.'" Phil, I see the word "must" in that brief note. So did Pope Francis say "one must do it", or not?

  • Posted by: altoidnews7416 - Aug. 05, 2021 11:28 PM ET USA

    The memo is an awful concession to the secular worldview. I'm praying that the teachings of the Church will be upheld. The world is watching.

  • Posted by: filioque - Aug. 05, 2021 10:24 PM ET USA