The archbishop of the U.S. military is arguing that Catholic troops should not be forced to receive the coronavirus vaccine if it “would violate the sanctity” of their conscience, as thousands of active-duty service members remain unvaccinated ahead of a December mandate deadline.

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio said in a statement Tuesday that although the Catholic Church’s highest doctrinal authority has determined that being vaccinated is not sinful, U.S. troops still can refuse vaccination on religious grounds. He cited Pope Paul VI, who wrote that a man “is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.”

“Notwithstanding the moral permissibility of these vaccines, the Church treasures her teaching on the sanctity of conscience,” wrote Broglio, who has supported the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate for U.S. troops. “Accordingly, no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”

Broglio’s statement comes as hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members remain unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated despite the mandate, according to the Pentagon. Although the military’s vaccination rate has climbed since August after Defense Department leaders, acting on a directive from President Biden, established deadlines for the nation’s 2.1 million troops to get vaccinated, the troops’ response has been scattershot, according to data assessed by The Washington Post.

As of last week, active-duty members of the Navy had the highest rate with about 90 percent fully vaccinated, while the Marine Corps had the lowest rate among active-duty service members at 76.5 percent. About 81 percent of active troops each in the Army and the Air Force were fully vaccinated.

While the Air Force has the most aggressive timeline to get all of their active and reservist airmen vaccinated by Dec. 2, the deadline for Army National Guard and Army Reserve units stretches into next summer. Those components make up roughly a quarter of the entire U.S. military, and they account for nearly 40 percent of the 62 service-member deaths due to covid-19, according to the data assessed by The Post.

More military personnel died of coronavirus infections last month than in all of 2020 — and none of those who died were fully vaccinated, said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz. Defense officials expect deaths to decrease in coming months.

About a quarter-million service members have been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to Pentagon data. The rise in military infections, hospitalizations and deaths mirrored the summer surge fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant and the millions in the United States who remain unvaccinated.

Broglio’s suggestion that Catholic troops can reject coronavirus vaccination is a departure from the position of the church. The Vatican has imposed a vaccine mandate in its own territory and the Pope has described getting vaccinated as "an act of love” and “a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable.”

The archbishop’s statement also comes at the same time that questions over religious exemptions for the vaccine have emerged as more mandates are implemented nationwide. On Tuesday, a federal judge in New York ruled that the state could not impose vaccine mandates on health-care workers unless employers were allowed to consider religious exemption requests.

The military’s vaccine mandate does allow for religious exemptions, though how to obtain one is determined by each branch’s regulations, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said during a meeting with the media Tuesday.

“There’s a process that we go through to counsel the individual both from a medical and from a command perspective about using a religious exemption,” Kirby said.

Broglio oversees 1.8 million Catholics affiliated with the U.S. military, though he is not a member himself. As a top Catholic authority, his opinion carries weight, but decisions are made by military leaders.

The archbishop has maintained since the spring that Catholics in uniform should receive coronavirus vaccines and that the shots are morally acceptable, citing guidance from the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the days leading up to the announcement of the military vaccine mandate, Broglio reaffirmed his support of vaccination, telling the Catholic News Agency that the pope “recognized the morality of the vaccine.”

But as he acknowledged Tuesday, some service members who have requested exemptions through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act have questioned the church’s encouraging troops to get vaccinated. The law was enacted in 1993 and in recent years has been invoked by conservative Christians who say it protects their rights.

“The denial of religious accommodations, or punitive or adverse personnel actions taken against those who raise earnest, conscience-based objections, would be contrary to federal law and morally reprehensible,” Broglio wrote, pointing to the religious protections in the First Amendment.

He repeated that getting immunized would not be seen as sinful, despite some vaccines’ remote links to abortion-derived cell lines. (The shots themselves do not contain fetal cells.) Broglio expressed his preference for U.S. troops to take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Broglio said those who remain unvaccinated need to keep wearing masks, practice social distancing and undergo regular testing and quarantining where necessary.

“Those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine must continue to act in charity for their neighbors and for the common good by undertaking means to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” he wrote.

Alex Horton and Marisa Bellack contributed to this report.

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