Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
“There’s a parent on the phone who wants to speak with you.”
So began my morning two weeks ago. A number of our institutions had insisted that students be vaccinated before returning to campus this fall. I had been fielding questions from media who wanted to understand our institutions’ reasoning, but phone calls from parents were new. This one made me smile when I heard the opening line, “I know President N. reports to you…”
Before I could explain ACCU’s role, the parent barreled forward: “I need you to explain to the president about religious exemptions. We’re all Catholic. We took her to Church growing up. She’s made her communion and confirmation. We’re paying to send her to a Catholic college. She’s entitled to a religious exemption.”
Searching for an initial response, I decided on, “OK, this is going to be harder than you think.”
“First, you’ve got a pope who got vaccinated himself and has made very clear that vaccination may not be a moral requirement but is a much-needed expression of love of neighbor. You‘ve also got the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops whose website is similarly clear on the topic.
“But here’s your bigger challenge. If you type Catholic Church and healthcare into Google, you’ll find that, outside of governments, the Catholic Church is the largest provider of healthcare in the world, managing one-quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. There are religious women and men and uncountable lay medical professionals in Catholic healthcare in nearly every country of the world, oftentimes in the most challenging of conditions. Here in the United States, 1 out of every 7 Americans get their medical care from Catholic healthcare. A Church that provides much of the world’s healthcare just isn’t the place to seek an exemption from public health measures.
“My suggestion is that you find a doctor to write you a letter for a medical exemption, assuming your daughter qualifies, but it’s just not worth your time looking for a Catholic exemption. I’m afraid it just doesn’t exist.”
By this point, the caller had quieted. Surprisingly, he thanked me, and then asked me not to tell the president that he had called so his daughter didn’t get into trouble. I laughed, assured him I wouldn’t, and then instantly emailed the president without using any names.
Then, as this column was going to press, a reporter called asking what Jesus would say about vaccinations at Catholic universities and the way they inhibit student freedoms. I agreed that, “Jesus said nothing about a medical treatment that wasn’t available in his time,” and then added, “But he did talk about loving one’s neighbor. Catholic universities mandate vaccinations because they want to protect the vulnerable. Not everyone might get this terrible disease, but there are vulnerable people around who might. Vaccination is the most effective way followers of Jesus have to love and protect the vulnerable.”
She pushed me further into whether there was a right to a conscience-based exemption. While I earned a moral theology master’s more than 30 years ago, I kept my response simple: Yes, Catholicism deeply respects the primacy of a well-formed conscience, but that’s completely separate from granting an exemption. Just as a restaurant can acknowledge your right to go shirtless while still saying, “But not in this restaurant,” a society can say, yes, it’s your personal decision not to get a vaccine, but we can make public health decisions about whether you can enter or participate in group gatherings. Conscience doesn’t give you social license. You can make conscience-based decisions for yourself, but you also have to accept the consequences of those decisions. Universities can hold their ground to protect the vulnerable, if they choose.
I don’t think I convinced that reporter. We’ll see when the story comes out…
Hang in there. All of us at ACCU are keeping you in our daily prayers.
P.S. Some excellent resources have been assembled on the website CatholicCares.org. Please share the link if you find it helpful.
Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, Ed.D., PRESIDENT
Prominent in the field of Catholic higher education, Fr. Holtschneider began his tenure as ACCU president on July 1, 2019. He served as president of DePaul University in Chicago, the nation’s largest Catholic university, from 2004 to 2017. A frequent speaker, consultant, and writer on issues facing colleges and universities, he has served on the boards of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, and ACCU, which he chaired from 2010 to 2012. He currently chairs the Niagara University Board of Trustees and the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.
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