An open letter on workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates

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Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Providence St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 21, 2021. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, courtesy Angelus News)

Recently in my law practice, I received a call from a person whose employer has issued a mandate that every employee receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment, unless the employee applies for and is granted a religious accommodation. The accommodation will be considered after the employee fills out the Religious Accommodation Form supplied by his employer. I told the person that I was not sure that I could help him, but that I would be happy to review the form and get back to him by email. 

Among other things, the form specifically asks if the employee’s objection is based upon “the purported use of fetal cells in the development or testing of a COVID-19 vaccine.” If the answer is “yes,” the form then inquires whether the employee has used, or does use, any of 34 different prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which have also reportedly used fetal stem cells in development or testing. These include such common medications as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Lidocaine, Benadryl, Claritin, Robitussin and Preparation H.

After reviewing the form in the context of things that I had already concluded about the moral issues surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines, I wrote the following letter to the person. The name of the person has been changed, and the name of the company has been excised.

Dear Christian,

Thank you for reaching out to me in reference to a request for exemption from your employer’s vaccine mandate and for sending the form. For the reasons stated below, I have concluded that I cannot help you fill out the form or otherwise advise you to seek an exemption.

In the first instance, as I mentioned on the phone, the magisterium of the Church has spoken, both formally and informally, to the problem of cooperation with evil in this context (assuming for the argument that the HEK 293 stem cell line is derived from a voluntary abortion, which is not clear). This has been supported by orthodox, conservative Catholic theologians and philosophers. At worst, to receive the vaccine is what we call remote, material, indirect cooperation with evil. Thus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has concluded that it is not a violation of Church teaching to receive the vaccine. I concur with this judgment. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to go through life without participating at this level of evil when we consume goods and products on a routine basis. This includes many of the drugs that the Form lists, including common anti-inflammatory and OTC allergy medications. The folks at your employer who drafted the Form are aware of this, as they included many common drugs the testing of which can be associated with fetal stem cell lines.

Of course, for the Church to say that a Catholic may receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in good conscience does not imply that the Catholic must receive it. But for your company’s purposes, this is enough to make it very difficult to claim an exemption based upon Church teaching. If the Church categorically condemned the vaccine, or even if the Church left it open to the individual conscience to conclude that to take the vaccine would be formal, direct cooperation with evil, that would be another matter. But other than outlier statements from a couple of American bishops, that has not happened. Moreover, at least informally, some members of the ordinary magisterium have indicated that commitment to Catholic principles such as common good and solidarity even suggest that one should take the vaccine. Again, your employer is surely aware of this and will use it in making judgments about allowing exemptions from the mandate.

Of course, you personally may have a sincerely held belief that the Church is wrong on this issue. Neither I nor any theologian, priest, or bishop can gainsay that. In that case, however, you would have to explain to your employer in your own words why that is so, when the Church has spoken with a rather clear voice to the contrary. In other words, your exemption would have to be based upon something other than Church teaching. I cannot help you with that both because I believe the Church is correct and because your sincerely held belief otherwise is something that only you can articulate. Please understand: I am not denying that your objection is sincere, nor that it is based upon your understanding of the moral issues at stake. But in that case, your defense must be on grounds other than the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Parenthetically, my analysis would be different if we were talking about a government mandate (rather than a private employer to an at-will employee) to receive the vaccine. In that case, the analysis would be shifted from the morality of the development of the vaccine to the morality of the state’s authority to mandate invasive medical procedures. Even in that hypothetical case, however, the answer is not clear.

Christian, I realize that this is not the response you were hoping to get from me. But I have to give you my sincere and candid view on the subject, which I have done. I have received the Pfizer vaccine, and will probably receive the booster. And, as you know from hearing me on Sacred Heart Radio and perhaps reading my columns in The Catholic Telegraph, my opposition to abortion is unqualified. 

You did not reach out to me to be convinced to receive the vaccine. And I will not try to convince you. I have, however, set forth my understanding of the Church’s teaching (with links to resources), which is that there is no moral objection in this case under these circumstances to receive the vaccine. (And, indeed, that the principle of solidarity and common good suggest that we should receive it.) Thus, your request for an exemption would have to use a different, idiosyncratic justification. 

Please know that I will pray for your deliberation and decision, as I sincerely appreciate how seriously you take this important issue.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Ken Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft is the James J. Gardner Family Chair in Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).