Registered nurse Shyun Lin gives Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 23, 2021. (CNS photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool via Reuters)Registered nurse Shyun Lin gives Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 23, 2021. (CNS photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool via Reuters)  

Many Catholics have not been able to attend in-person, communal worship and celebration of the sacraments because of the risk of infection with Covid-19. The obvious way for the faithful to be able to resume full participation and unfettered access to the sacraments is to mandate that churchgoers receive an approved Covid-19 vaccine (i.e., one with full Biologics License Approval from the Food and Drug Administration).

Churches have an ethical obligation to protect the health of clergy, staff and worshipers. One of the highest-risk settings for contracting Covid-19 is a large, closed space containing many people. In addition, many religious rites include actions that increase the risk of infection. It is morally irresponsible for churches to invite people to worship and receive the sacraments without taking all effective steps to minimize this risk. Since the approved Covid-19 vaccines provide a simple and effective means to achieve this end, churches would be justified in mandating vaccination.

It is morally irresponsible for churches to invite people to worship and receive the sacraments without taking all effective steps to minimize risk.

Mandatory vaccination would protect the most vulnerable members of a faith community. The elderly, those with disabilities, pregnant women and their unborn children, and those with medical conditions should be able to participate fully in the life of the church without having to risk their health in the process. Mandating the vaccine would allow everyone, and not only those who are at lowest risk for significant morbidity and mortality if they become infected, to participate equally in worship and the sacraments.

Could there be any legitimate exemptions from this mandate? Recognized exemptions in health care typically fall into three categories: medical, philosophical and religious. First, there are legitimate medical exemptions from Covid-19 vaccine mandates, including certain allergies and an individual’s history of reactions to other vaccines. Although there has been debate over whether pregnant women should receive the vaccine, medical authorities are currently recommending that they do so. The reasoning is that the vaccine poses less harm to the mother and her unborn child than infection with the virus does.

As for philosophical and religious objections, the most common claim among Catholics would likely be based on concerns over the development and testing of vaccines using stem cells derived from aborted fetuses. But both the Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission, in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have determined that current Covid-19 vaccines are morally acceptable. The decision was based on two factors: the clear benefit that vaccines offer to the common good and the remoteness of the connection between the act of abortion and the development and testing of the vaccines.

Among Catholics, individual autonomy is not a convincing basis for refusing a Covid-19 vaccine.

Within secular institutions, a different ethically reasoned objection to vaccine mandates concerns individual autonomy. It is widely recognized among health care ethicists that patients have the right to make their own decisions in accord with their values. As such, patients are able to accept or refuse recommended treatments, including ones that might be life-sustaining or life-preserving, based on their own moral reasoning. However, the “complete sovereignty of reason” was rejected by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.” Among Catholics, individual autonomy is not a convincing basis for refusing a Covid-19 vaccine.

What is more, since conscience is informed by Scripture, the central requirement of loving one’s neighbor further supports the moral basis for churches mandating Covid-19 vaccines. Churchgoers have a moral responsibility to protect one another from harm. As the U.S.C.C.B. points out in its letter “Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines,” receiving the vaccine is an act of love and charity toward one’s neighbor.

A final argument in favor of churches mandating Covid-19 vaccines is based on the determined efforts of church officials to keep churches open for in-person services and the reception of the sacraments. Often pitting churches against public health and government officials whose charge is to protect society from infection during a pandemic, these attempts to keep churches open must have been motivated by a deep passion for the faithful, particularly the most vulnerable, to have access to the grace of the Mass and the sacraments. Church leaders should embrace vaccine mandates as the most effective means to both safely allow in-person communal worship and move past conflicts between churches and the government.

Whether churches opt to impose their own vaccine mandates, it remains unclear whether states will enact civil laws requiring vaccination against Covid-19. While religious organizations may be tempted to invoke a state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to seek exemptions from a statewide mandate, for Catholic organizations to do so would be contrary to church teaching.

Mandating that churchgoers receive a Covid-19 vaccine is the most reasonable way to simultaneously realize respect for the sanctity of human life (born and unborn), express love of neighbor, promote the common good and allow the grace of God to flow to God’s people through the sacraments.

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