Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Aug. 24, 2021 11:22 PM ET USA

    I don't get it. Either it's OK to get the vaccine, or it is not. When the Church, on one hand, says it's fine to get the vaccine, but some folks who think they are more Catholic then the Church decide that their consciences cannot accept it, then why should the pastor have to sign off on it?

  • Posted by: EiLL - Aug. 20, 2021 9:42 PM ET USA

    I am a retired ICU RN. I am a conscientious objector to these shots based on the use of aborted children during any stage in the production and mass rollout of these shots. The risks vs benefits of this new genetic modulation treatment is ridiculous. I am not fearful of dying. I am quite healthy and prefer the risk of being exposed again to this virus and any variants, than expose myself to an ineffective vaccine that has been proven over the past 6 months to be as dangerous as projected.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Aug. 20, 2021 8:35 PM ET USA

    There seems to be confusion over what constitutes a matter of conscience. Refuse vaccination due to aborted fetal cell lines, and the Church (in theory) has your back. Don't want it because you might be allergic or don't like vaccines generally, etc? The Church won't help you with that, it's not a religious concern. It's like if you're a pacifist, the Church will support your being a medic if you're drafted, but won't support you avoiding service completely because you're anti-draft.

  • Posted by: filioque - Aug. 19, 2021 11:39 PM ET USA

    I have a conscientious objection to being vaccinated, even with Novavax. I have recovered from Covid-19 and tested positive for antibodies. Therefore I can't catch it again or transmit it. Vaccination would give me no benefit but it would expose me to risks, especially as those with natural immunity seem to be suffering adverse effects from the vaccines at about four times the rate of those without natural immunity. I consider it immoral to subject myself to serious risk with no benefit.

  • Posted by: rghatt6599 - Aug. 19, 2021 10:58 PM ET USA

    Is it true that the Novavax vaccine has zero connection to abortion? According to the National Catholic Bioethics Center the Novavax used abortion derived cell lines in the vaccine’s lab testing. This is no different from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which in lab testing used abortion derived cell lines. For Catholics seeking an exemption from vaccine mandates the arrival of the Novavax vaccine will not remove their moral objections. Unfortunately, there are few promising products.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 19, 2021 10:23 PM ET USA

    " can't object for conscience." That depends on one's definition of "the culture of death". My objection to abortion-connected vaccines is less concerned with a solitary tainted vaccine in a world of abortion-free vaccines. What we have is possibly one or a few "unapproved" (in the U.S.) clean vaccines in a world of abortion-connected vaccines--a major component of the culture of death. The refusal of all Catholics to accept _any_ abortion-connected vaccine would send a strong message.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Aug. 19, 2021 6:12 PM ET USA

    Amen. I think everyone should get vaccinated, but if someone truly has a conscientious reason not to be vaccinated - as opposed to, say, being misinformed about potential side effects or the relative risks of the vaccines vs infection - then the Church should support them. However once the Novavax vaccine, which has zero connection to abortion, is available, there won't be a conscientious reason for Catholics to avoid vaccination. It shouldn't be mandatory, but you can't object for conscience.