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Philadelphia becomes latest archdiocese to reject religious exemptions for vaccine mandates

A Catholic priest receives a dose of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is the latest district of the Catholic Church to reject religious exemptions to coronavirus vaccination mandates, reflecting a stark divide among the church’s hierarchy over immunization requirements.

Church leaders in the nation’s sixth-largest city urged priests Wednesday not to help parishioners evade the shots, which the Vatican has deemed “morally acceptable.”

“Individuals may wish to pursue an exemption from vaccination based on their own reasons of conscience,” Kenneth Gavin, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said in a statement. “In such cases, the burden to support such a request is not one for the local Church or its clergy to validate.”

Philadelphia joins at least five other dioceses that have given their priests similar guidance, including San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Camden, N.J. Their stance sharply contrasts with the position of other bishops and Catholic organizations that have supported those seeking exemptions for reasons of conscience.

These divergent policies at the highest levels of the church in the United States exemplify Catholics’ divided attitudes toward vaccination. They and other people of faith, most of whose beliefs emphasize the dignity of human life, are grappling with how that conviction applies to vaccines developed during a pandemic that has killed more than 4.3 million people worldwide.

In a vaccine promotion campaign, Pope Francis on Wednesday called receiving a vaccine “an act of love.”

“Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable,” he wrote. He added that he hoped “everyone may contribute their own small grain of sand, their own small gesture of love.”

Does respect for human life mean vaccine mandates? Among religious groups, there is wide disagreement.

Catholic dioceses and groups, including bishops in Colorado and South Dakota, that are objecting to vaccine requirements have emphasized their belief that immunization is not a moral obligation and must be voluntary. The Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center stressed the use of fetal cell lines in testing the vaccines, the novelty of covid-19 and the importance of each person’s individual discernment.

“A Catholic may judge it wrong to receive certain vaccines for a variety of reasons consistent with these teachings, and there is no authoritative Church teaching universally obliging Catholics to receive any vaccine,” the center wrote in a template letter for requesting a religious exemption.

A growing number of governments and businesses have implemented vaccine requirements in recent weeks as a coronavirus surge prompted by the uber-contagious delta variant upends the pandemic. Most of those mandates have an exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs.

Each Catholic bishop makes policy for his own jurisdiction. Some dioceses, including El Paso and Lexington, Ky., have announced vaccine requirements for their own employees. Mark J. Seitz, the bishop of El Paso, wrote that his decision was guided by Jesus Christ’s focus on the love of neighbor. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington said vaccination was urgent.

“The health care system is now overwhelmed by a crisis caused primarily by those who refuse to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated,” Stowe said in a statement about his diocese’s mandate. “This is unacceptable, and our diocese now joins those employers who have already made this basic commitment to the common good a requirement.”

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Despite disagreement on mandates, most Catholics report having received their shots. Hispanic Catholics’ coronavirus vaccine acceptance stood at 80 percent in June, while 79 percent of White Catholics said they had also been immunized, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The number of Catholics rejecting vaccination for religious reasons is unknown. But some Catholics’ hesitancy to get immunized has centered on the use of fetal cell lines in developing or testing the three federally approved vaccines. The lines are basically reproductions of fetal cells from decades-ago abortions — acts that the Catholic Church teaches are gravely immoral. None of the vaccines include fetal tissue.

Other objections to vaccination are based on demonstrably false claims. Before he was hospitalized with covid-19 last week, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke alleged that some believe there should be a “microchip … placed under the skin of every person, so that at any moment he or she can be controlled by the state regarding health and about other matters which we can only imagine.”

The Vatican’s doctrinal arm has said vaccination is “morally acceptable” but added that it is not a moral obligation and should be voluntary. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith added that those who decline vaccinations must do everything they can to avoid transmitting the virus.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Indiana, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, previously told The Washington Post his committee had not attempted to mandate vaccination but had urged it “as an act of charity towards other members of our community. It’s an act of love of neighbor.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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