Commentary

Considering a Conscientious Objection to the Vaccine? Here's Some Advice

By Rev. Michael P. Orsi | August 19, 2021 | 4:25pm EDT
More and more institutions are requiring individuals to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
More and more institutions are requiring individuals to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

The recently celebrated feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a special relevance at this particular time. The Church’s traditional teaching that Mary was assumed into heaven, body, and soul underscores the importance God places on corporeal (bodily) reality.

Mary retained her body even as she departed the earth to dwell in Heaven. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, was incarnated — that is, conceived with a human body — when he came to be with us on earth. We’re assured that, at the end of time, the saved will rise again, in their bodies.

Obviously, the fact that we have bodies, and not just souls, means something in the divine plan. And this has implications for how we expect our bodies are to be treated.

They should not be abused. That’s why physical attack and forcible rape are crimes. These acts violate personal autonomy because they are assaults upon people’s bodies.

Right now, our bodies are facing a special challenge. With new strains of COVID emerging, we’re hearing about proposals for compulsory vaccination. This means forcing us to take into our bodies chemical substances about which individuals may have grave reservations.

The ethical implications of such mandates are enormous. Consequently, people have been asking me whether conscientious objection to COVID vaccines is possible.

Everyone knows how Jehovah’s Witnesses decline blood transfusions on religious grounds. What moral considerations guide Catholics in deciding whether to take the “jab?”

First, you should be aware that the Church has pronounced clearly that COVID vaccines are licit, which is to say morally permitted. At the same time, you have no moral obligation to be vaccinated.

There has been concern about the fact that cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue were used in the development of certain serum types. But those lines date from all the way back in 1972. Thus, cells used in current applications are so many cellular generations removed from their sources that no moral connection remains today with what happened back then.

This judgment relies on the distinction between proximate (recent) and remote causation.

That’s a long-established and widely accepted principle of moral philosophy. However, in light of the gravity of abortion, some consider it an insufficient justification. They would feel morally tainted by taking the “jab.”

What to do about their consciences?

Also, what to do about people who have serious reservations about the efficacy of the vaccines, relative to their safety? This concern is referred to as therapeutic proportionality. And right now it’s highly relevant, because there are large questions about side effects and even threats to life.

Weighing the possible good of inoculation against the possible harm — what could be called a cost-benefit analysis — is a perfectly legitimate prudential process.

So, can Catholics claim a conscientious objection to the vaccines? I’ve consulted attorneys about this question, and the answer appears to be: Yes. It’s your body, and you have the right to refuse accepting any chemical substance to which you object morally, or which you fear might injure or even kill you.

There’s also a question of religious freedom. Are your First Amendment rights violated if, for instance, your employer demands that you be vaccinated as a condition of your job?

This is somewhat less clear, because the Church has not drawn a definitive connection between vaccination and religious freedom. Indeed, I would have hesitated to offer a firm answer on First Amendment grounds myself, until recently.

However, based on those attorney conversations and my own reading and reflection on the issue, I have come to believe that there would be grounds for a faith challenge to an employer mandate.

Scruples on the matter of abortion are as central to our moral awareness as any religious belief. Likewise, our bodily integrity is as much a matter of conscience (assuming one’s conscience is rightly formed) as is any doctrinal concern.

We are enjoined by Scripture to care for both our moral and physical wellbeing. God expects this of us. And since there are also unanswered questions about the effects of the COVID vaccines on our genetic makeup, concerns for the health and wellbeing of any future children also come into play.

All of these points are relevant, and could provide the basis for conscientious objection. States have forms with which you can apply for legal exemption from health procedures.  If you wish to pursue the matter, I would suggest contacting your local health department.

Now, you should be aware that an accommodation made for you could require something reciprocal on your part to ease the burden on your employer. Since we’re talking about protecting against an infectious disease, you might be required to undergo regular COVID testing. Schools might insist that a child whose parents refuse vaccination be physically separated or taught online.

These are compromises, no doubt, and they could be quite inconvenient. But I think that if the demands are reasonable, then they are appropriate, if only to ease any discomfort which others might feel at being in close proximity to an unvaccinated person.

We are duty-bound, as Christians, to have regard for our neighbors. Assuring our own safety or guarding our own consciences must not put others at risk.

If you should find yourself under pressure to be vaccinated, I would suggest you contact the Pacific Justice Institute. Based in Sacramento, Calif. with other offices around the country, PJI could provide legal guidance and assistance in securing a religious exemption.

The organization can be reached by phone at: 916-857-6900 or via email at info@pji.org.

God cares about our bodies, as he cared for the body of his own blessed mother. We are morally obliged to care too.

A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.

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