Protecting conscience

Over the last few weeks, I've had conversations with several Catholics confused, upset, sometimes angry and feeling betrayed and abandoned by the Church for being refused "conscience exemption" forms with regard to new mandatory COVID vaccination policies by municipalities, workplaces, schools, restaurants, entertainment, and other venues.

Many of them are aware that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last December emphasized that "vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and . . ., therefore, . . . Must be voluntary."

They, therefore, don't grasp why, as government and private entities are overreaching and pressuring them to get vaccinated, when they approach the Church for help, in most locations they leave empty handed. They particularly don't understand why some bishops would be directing their priests not to sign declarations of conscience exemption, as if the priests who do so, and those who ask them, are doing something wrong.

These questions are often coming from well-formed and informed Catholics, including clergy, religious, seminarians, lay people with advanced theology degrees, parish leaders, daily communicants and more. It's an indication of how poorly some pastors and bishops have explained their rationale for refusing to sign such exemptions. It's a manifestation of how confused people are in general about the bioethical analysis of various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's also a sign about how imprecise, and sometimes mistaken, many Catholics' understanding of conscience is.

I'd like to share a couple of points from the conversations I've had in the hope that they might remedy some misunderstandings.

The first is about what conscience is and isn't. Contrary to popular misinterpretation, conscience is not a "feeling" or "strong opinion" about what we want to do or avoid. It's not, as St. John Henry Newman wrote in 1875, "the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting according to [one's] judgment or humor, . . . Demand[ing] . . . To be his own master in all things and to profess what he pleases."

We see this erroneous understanding of conscience, for example, in those who try to justify aborting unborn children, lying for a "good reason," stealing from the rich or anyone, marrying those married to others, sleeping around, manufacturing children in fertility clinics, refusing to help the homeless or immigrants, and vindicating immoral actions on the basis of good intentions or moral ends.

This false notion of "conscience" is used, essentially, as a justification to get out of what they don't want to do and to provide "carte blanche" for what they do. So understood, "conscience" is the triumph of subjectivism, in which our thoughts and desires, whether objectively right or wrong, become the moral law.

The true notion of conscience, on the other hand, is an inner organ trained to be sensitive to God's voice, helping us to evaluate morally what to do or avoid. It's a dialogue with God whose guidance resounds within in which we apply moral truths discerned through revelation, reason and prayer to past, present or future acts, leading to a judgment as to whether those actions are good or evil.

When people, therefore, come to me to speak about conscience objections to the COVID-19 vaccine, I generally ask, "So you believe God is telling you not to get the vaccine?"

For a few, especially those who have dedicated their life to opposing the evil of abortion and to fostering a culture of life, the answer is yes. Since every approved COVID vaccine now available is tainted in some way by being developed, manufactured, or tested against cell lines derived from abortions decades ago, they believe that God would never want them to cooperate at all with that evil, even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that "remote, passive material cooperation" with the evil of those abortions is morally licit "if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent -- in this case, the pandemic spread of the . . . Virus that causes COVID-19." They believe God is asking them to give this form of witness to the sanctity of human life.

Most to whom I ask that question, however, honestly and humbly admit that they haven't talked to God about it. Their opposition, they tell me, comes not from any interior divine illumination but from principled opposition on other grounds: because they don't trust what is portrayed as "the science" by scientific spokesmen; don't think the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks, especially at their age; object to the government's forcing citizens to do something contrary to their principles; haven't gotten satisfactory answers as to whether there's a risk for present or future pregnancies; are suspicious as to the constantly changing goal posts in response to COVID; and believe that the seriousness of the disease, though real, has been exaggerated and absolutized against other important considerations.

Such justifiable principles and sincere concerns are not, however, the judgment of conscience.

As vaccines mandates recently started getting proposed and enforced, three possible exemptions have normally been considered: religious, conscientious, and medical. Religious exemptions are when one's faith prohibits the reception of the vaccine, something for which Catholics are ineligible since the Church teaches that it is possible morally to receive the vaccine -- as Pope Francis and most bishops have illustrated by getting inoculated. Medical exemptions are geared to those with a history of anaphylaxis and who are allergic to components of the vaccine. That presently leaves Catholics who don't want to receive the vaccine with only one possible accepted avenue, conscientious objection, even if their objection isn't truly one of conscience.

That dilemma brings us to the second point: why Church leaders hesitate to sign a conscience exemption declaration. Because of what conscience is, there's no way someone, including a pastor, can examine and affirm the contents of another person's conscience. We can certainly share the results of our examination with others, but short of the few confessors in Church history with the charism of reading others' souls, there's no way that assessment can be verified.

Pastors can, of course, attest to the general teachings of the Church on conscience and how even an erroneous conscience must be followed as the voice of God. But that is something individual Catholics can likewise affirm. The Vaccine Exemption Template Letter of the National Catholic Bioethics Center is, therefore, fittingly written in the first person singular, beginning: "I am a baptized Catholic seeking an exemption from an immunization requirement. This letter explains how the Catholic Church's teachings may lead individual Catholics, including me, to decline certain vaccines."

The Letter avoids mentioning the words "religious" or "conscience" before "Vaccine Exemption," because the Letter is neither. It nevertheless tries to suggest, somewhat expansively, that the phrases "principled religious basis," "informed judgments," "reasons consistent with [Church] teachings," and the "assessment of therapeutic proportionality," are individually or collectively the equivalent of the judgment of conscience, which they're clearly not. For those hoping, however, for a letter to submit in the face of a mandate, whether for true conscientious objection or other principled reasons, the Letter may suffice.

It goes without saying that the situation of vaccine mandates obviously places those with personal opposition to COVID vaccines in a difficult moral position. While the Church affirms with them the immorality of general vaccine mandates and wants to defend them against growing civil, social and occupational extortion pressuring them to get jabbed, at the same time it cannot give false witness about conscience.

Rather, in an age in which widespread confusion remains and against attacks on conscience are increasing -- by governments and employers compelling medical personnel to participate in abortions and sterilizations, pharmacists to prescribe abortifacients, bakers to violate what they know is the truth about marriage, and other violations -- the Church must be clear about what conscience is and isn't and defend the witness to God that authentic conscience gives.

What's needed is to push for other avenues of exemption and other means of proving one is COVID-free, while reconsidering the ethical and practical wisdom of general vaccine mandates as a whole.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.