Archdiocese of Philadelphia advises priests not to help with religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine

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As vaccination warrants have proliferated amid the latest wave of coronavirus, there is a rift between the U.S. hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church over whether their faith provides a basis for the faithful to withdraw.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia became the last Wednesday to declare a position. In a letter to the clergy obtained by The Inquirer, he ordered priests not to help parishioners seeking religious exemptions, joining some of the country’s largest Catholic dioceses, including New York and Los Angeles, which have implemented policies similar in recent days.

“Individuals may wish to request exemption from vaccination on the basis of their own reasons of conscience,” wrote Archdiocesan Vicar of Clergy Reverend Michael F. Hennelly. “In such cases, the onus of supporting such a request is not to be validated by the local church… and we are unable to support exemption requests on this basis. “

Still, the ruling put the Archdiocese at odds with Catholic leaders in other parts of the country, as well as an influential but little-known Philadelphia-based Catholic think tank whose stance on the issue stoked the latest battle of cultural war in the American church. .

Last month, the National Catholic Bioethics Center – which advises, from a historic mansion in Overbrook, the country’s bishops and Catholic health care systems on issues where Catholic education and medical science overlap – turned to spoke out against mandatory vaccination policies in a position paper that grounds for Catholics to seek religious exemptions.

He even offered on his website a form letter that the faithful could take to their priest, to approve their request for exemption.

NCBC President Joseph Meaney, who holds a doctorate in bioethics from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, went further, writing an article that opposed the use of the term. vaccine hesitation and argued that many opponents are not only “hesitant” but taking a principled stance against the vaccine.

The base? All three currently available vaccines used cell lines from fetuses that had been aborted in decades-old procedures during a phase of their development. (Pfizer and Moderna used the cells only for testing their vaccines, while Johnson & Johnson deployed them during research, production and testing, according to the Lozier Anti-Abortion Institute.)

READ MORE: Why COVID-19 Vaccination Has Become a Problem for Those Opposing Abortion

“At NCBC, we agree that the best ethical decisions are made ‘in the moment’ based on a good understanding of the facts, when people are not under pressure or in the grip of powerful emotions,” wrote Meaney. “That is why we do not endorse coercive pressure tactics or vaccination warrants, especially those without a generous medical, conscientious and religious mandate.”

Reaction to the NCBC’s position came quickly, with many Catholic scholars noting that it appeared to be carving out a position contrary to the general direction of the guidance coming from Rome.

Hours after the think tank published its position paper, the Archdiocese of New York – whose leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, sits on the NCBC board – told its clergy that “it there is no reason for a priest to grant a religious exemption to the vaccine. “

“In doing so, he acts in contradiction with the directives of the Pope and takes part in an act which could have serious consequences for others”, he declared in a note of June 30.

In addition to Philadelphia, New York has since been joined by dioceses such as Camden, San Diego, Honolulu and Lexington, Ky., Whose bishop, John Stowe, went even further this week, making vaccination a condition for diocesan employment.

All cited statements from the Vatican last year declaring that the three available vaccines are “morally acceptable” despite their distant links to abortion. Pope Francis, meanwhile, told an Italian TV station earlier this year that he viewed vaccination as a moral obligation, citing a Catholic interest in promoting collective well-being.

And on Wednesday, the National Advertising Council launched a public service campaign featuring the pontiff and several cardinals urging Catholics to get vaccinated.

And yet bishops from states like Colorado, South Dakota, and North Carolina have circulated the NCBC exemption letter among their flocks and said they will support any Catholics whose conscience tells them to. withdraw.

“The rhetoric around this issue has become so heated that it feels like the church is in the crosshairs,” Meaney said in an interview Wednesday. “I think it reflects different realities in different parts of the country and maybe different sensibilities of the bishops.”

Meaney acknowledged the controversy over the NCBC’s position within the church and said some bishops have been pushing the organization to revise it. He declined to say which ones.

But he maintained he did not see the NCBC’s position as too far removed from those dioceses advising priests not to support objectors. Catholic teaching, he said, leaves a great deal of room for discernment of individual conscience when it comes to medical decisions.

“I totally agree that there is no strict religious obligation to oppose, but it is not correct to say that there is no religious basis for it. ‘exemption,’ he said. “I agree on the principle that a Catholic should not be required to provide a letter signed by a priest on his Catholic belief. Their Catholic belief does not necessarily need to be validated by an ecclesial authority.

As this heady theological debate continues, the number of Catholics actively citing their religion in seeking to opt out of vaccination remains uncertain.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia acknowledged that its priests had received inquiries from some parishioners, but declined requests to discuss the matter. Meaney said the NCBC responded this year to more than 500 calls from Catholics grappling with the issue.

A June study indicated that American Catholics were among the Christians least likely in the United States to withdraw – with just 6% of Hispanic Catholics and 8% of White Catholics surveyed saying they would refuse the vaccination. In contrast, 24% of evangelical white Christians and 13% of black Protestants said they oppose the COVID vaccination on religious grounds.

Earlier this year, La Salle University, a private Catholic campus in Philadelphia, implemented a vaccination mandate for its fall semester.

On the deadline for filing exemptions, a spokesperson said, only 2% of students, faculty and staff have sought to opt out.


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