Catholic leaders and theologians have taken different, sometimes opposing, stances on the COVID-19 vaccine and the responsibility of the faithful to receive it. The confusion and mixed messaging can paralyze the Catholic layperson into not knowing what to do or think.
But Church teaching is clear that the faithful can legitimately refuse a COVID vaccine on grounds of conscience.
Last month the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) published a document titled “Vaccine Exemption Resource for Individuals,” and it shows how Church teaching allows for liberty vis-à-vis COVID vaccines. It is primarily intended for Catholics who have decided to refuse a vaccine and are seeking a religious exemption from their school or employer.
The document begins by citing four “authoritative Church teachings” that allow for Catholics to decline a vaccine on religious grounds. The first is that vaccines must be voluntary because they are “not morally obligatory in principle.”
Second, vaccines produced with human cell lines derived from aborted fetuses — like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — should generally be refused, except in certain “case-specific” circumstances.
Third, others must respect a Catholic’s informed decision on therapeutic proportionality, a risk and reward calculation of a medical treatment’s benefits and potential negative side effects, unless it contradicts “authoritative Catholic moral teachings.”
And fourth, human beings have an inherent moral duty to obey the “certain judgment” of their conscience, even if it is erroneous, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The NCBC also noted that the common good, often cited as a reason why an entire populace should be vaccinated, is characterized by “spiritual and moral dimensions” and cannot be reduced to matters of public health alone.
“Therefore, if a Catholic comes to an informed and sure judgment in conscience that he or she should not receive a vaccine, then the Catholic Church requires that the person follow this certain judgment of conscience and refuse the vaccine,” the document concludes.
Pope Francis recently urged Catholics to get vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it an “act of love.” Although the Church teaches that vaccines are not morally obligatory, it does not “prohibit the use of any vaccine and generally encourages the use of safe and effective vaccines as a way of safeguarding personal and public health,” according to the NCBC.