Is it OK to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccines?

Markus Winkler

Questions raised by a document signed by more than 1,500 religious leaders in the UK

As the vaccination campaign advances on an international level, governments, universities, transportation and entertainment companies among others are trying to identify measures that will definitively render unnecessary the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 virus.

In this context, various governments are promoting the introduction of a vaccine passport (or proof of vaccination) that will allow their citizens to travel or to have access to certain services.

In Florida, governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to close the ports of his state to Norwegian Cruise Line, the third largest cruise line in the world, if they impose a vaccine requirement on their passengers and crew.

On its part, the World Health Organization has pronounced itself against imposing proof of vaccination requirements on travelers.

“Considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travelers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease”, reads the organization’s interim position paper.

Some universities in the United States, including some Catholic ones, have announced that students who wish to attend classes next academic year will have to provide a certificate of vaccination.

UK religious leaders speak out

In this context, an open letter directed to British prime minister Boris Johnson is making a stir (watch video here: Priests speak out: the moral case against vaccine passports – YouTube). Signed by 1533 religious leaders and representatives of various Christian confessions in the United Kingdom, including some Catholic leaders, the document opposes the so-called “vaccine passport,” also known as a “COVID-status certificate” or “freedom pass.”

According to this letter, “the introduction of vaccine passports would constitute an unethical form of coercion and violation of the principle of informed consent.”

“People may have various reasons for being unable or unwilling to receive vaccines currently available including, for some Christians, serious issues of conscience related to the ethics of vaccine manufacture or testing”, the document adds. 

“We risk creating a two-tier society, a medical apartheid in which an underclass of people who decline vaccination are excluded from significant areas of public life”. 

“This scheme has the potential to bring about the end of liberal democracy as we know it and to create a surveillance state in which the government uses technology to control certain aspects of citizens’ lives,” the religious leaders argue.

Debate at Catholic universities

On the other side of the ocean, the debate has reached the Catholic world through decisions taken by some universities.

Leading Catholic colleges and universities are joining their secular counterparts in requiring students to receive Covid-19 vaccinations before returning to campus for the autumn semester, including Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University Chicago

As of press time, 237 colleges nationwide have issued such a mandate, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL, who is also an adjunct Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, has written an open letter co-signed by Gerard Bradley, professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, requesting that the university president, Father John Jenkins, find solutions that respect the freedom of conscience of students who are opposed to the vaccines on moral grounds or due to precaution regarding the side effects.

Other Catholic universities, such as the Catholic University of America, have decided not to take this step, so as to respect the freedom of conscience of their students.

According to a study at that university, 80-85% of its students will voluntarily complete the process of vaccination by the beginning of the school year, which will bring “herd immunity” closer, thus solving the problem.

It should be noted that the exact percentage of vaccinated people required to reach “herd immunity” in the case of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has not yet been determined by medical authorities.

Guidelines from the Holy See

What does the Catholic Church say about a “COVID-status certificate?”

The Holy See has not issued a statement on this issue. However, the Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 21, 2020, offers some basic guidelines.

On one hand, the document establishes that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary”. 

On the other hand, the same document says that those who do not wish to be vaccinated should comply with other measures to avoid the spread of the pandemic.

“From the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good,” a duty which is also shared by and with health authorities.

This means that “those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent,” the document says.

“In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”

This means that, if the authorities wish to respect conscientious objection, religious liberty or fear of the vaccines’ side-effects, they cannot take vaccines as the only criteria for access to certain services during this time.

Seeking the ideal formula

For these reasons, the “COVID-status certificate” of the United Kingdom or the “green certificate,” as it is known in Europe, today takes into account not only the vaccine, but also two alternative requirements: a negative COVID-19test result, or proof of having recovered from COVID-19 (in the case of people who have tested positive for the virus within the past six months).

Are other alternative criteria necessary? Are these sufficient to respond to the health emergency and at the same time respect freedom of conscience and religious liberty, the rights of those who are afraid of the side effects, or refuse to be vaccinated for personal reasons?

The responsibility to answer this question falls not only to the authorities, but also to those directly affected.

Jesús Colina for the International Catholic Media Consortium on COVID-19 Vaccines

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