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San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy urges priests to ‘caringly decline’ to provide exemption for COVID-19 vaccine

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Beverly Stith, left, and Gail Holstein, chaplains at SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, Mo., are seen Aug. 13, 2020, examining a digital tablet used to speak with COVID-19 patients. (CNS photo/courtesy SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital)

SAN DIEGO — Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego urged priests Aug. 11 to “caringly decline” to provide any Catholics who request it a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I ask that you not venture down this pathway that merges personal choice with doctrinal authenticity,” he said in a letter to priests of the diocese.

Bishop McElroy said several pastors had written to him about requests they have received from parishioners asking that they sign a declaration for them providing a religious exemption. The declaration was written by the Colorado Catholic Conference and available on the conference’s website.

The declaration’s purpose, he said, “seems to be to elicit from the pastor a public indication that a specific parishioner’s decision to refuse the COVID vaccine is rooted in and supported by authentic Catholic faith.”

In a joint statement Aug. 6, Colorado’s four Catholic bishops said they objected to mandating that Coloradans get vaccinated against the coronavirus and “encourage any individual seeking exemption to consult their employer or school.”

They also said the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, had a letter template available on its website “to be signed by pastors of the faithful if a Catholic wants a written record that they are seeking exemption on religious grounds.”

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego is pictured after an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome Oct. 27, 2019. CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Colorado bishops’ statement reiterated an earlier statement they issued affirming that “the use of some COVID-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances,” but they also acknowledged that “some individuals have well-founded convictions that lead them to discern they should not get vaccinated.”

Their joint statement was issued in response to the city of Denver allowing an exception “for sincerely held religious beliefs” as part of its vaccine mandate for city employees. The bishops said this exception “is appropriate under the laws protecting freedom of religion.”

Bishop McElroy in his letter called such a declaration “particularly problematic” because the Vatican “has made it clear that receiving the COVID vaccine is perfectly consistent with Catholic faith, and indeed laudatory in the light of common good in this time of pandemic.”

A pastor is “being asked not to endorse what the church does teach on this question, but rather what individuals might discern as their chosen pathway even when that pathway is built upon a rejection of the church’s objective teaching on the morality of COVID vaccines.”

Bishop McElroy said the Colorado declaration “focuses its moral analysis so exclusively on the rights of the individual to his or her choice and personal benefit in society” that it gives “a radically incomplete picture” of the complexities of what the church teaches on balancing individual rights with the severe public health  concerns at such a time as the current pandemic.

In their statement, the Colorado bishops pointed Catholics to a statement from the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees affirming that the vaccines currently available are morally acceptable because the greater good is to do something to address the suffering the pandemic is causing worldwide.

“Being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good,” the USCCB chairmen said.

But the Colorado bishops also said that “vaccination is not morally obligatory and so must be voluntary,” and added: “We always remain vigilant when any bureaucracy seeks to impose uniform and sweeping requirements on a group of people in areas of personal conscience.”

In Missouri, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City urged Catholics in his diocese who can get vaccinated to take responsibility and do so in order to help their communities and the country at large beat COVID-19.

“I write again, this time with urgency, to encourage each person who can get vaccinated to do so,” Bishop McKnight said in a recent statement. “Doing your part and accepting your responsibility is the quickest way to stop the suffering and return to our usual activities.

“The church not only gives us permission to receive these vaccines, but she informs us that we have a moral responsibility to receive the vaccines when we are able to do so.”

“Both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and both President Donald Trump and President Joseph Biden, have been vaccinated and encouraged all of us who are eligible to do so as well,” the bishop said.

He, too, pointed to the statement by the USCCB’s chairmen of the doctrine and pro-life activities committees on the moral suitability for Catholic to receive the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

The bishops have said these two vaccines are preferable to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to its closer connection to an abortion-derived cell line but that it too is morally acceptable if that is all that is available to some people.

“Our love of neighbor should lead us to avoid giving scandal,” Bishop McKnight said, “but we cannot omit fulfilling serious obligations such as the prevention of deadly infection and the spread of contagion among those who are vulnerable just to avoid the appearance of scandal.”