Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, delivers the homily during the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Jan. 28, 2021. The archbishop in an Aug. 26, 2021, letter to the archdiocese encouraged parishioners to receive one of the coronavirus vaccines if they discern that it is appropriate to do so. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, encouraged Catholics to receive one of the coronavirus vaccines if they discern that it is appropriate to do so.

Explaining that he was vaccinated in April after recovering from COVID-19, Archbishop Naumann, 72, said in an Aug. 26 letter to the archdiocese that he did so “to encourage others to receive the vaccine.”

“The sound moral analysis by the church supporting the permissibility of receiving the vaccines as well as the public health crisis evidenced by the many COVID deaths, the mental, emotional and economic stress suffered by so many, and the ensuring social isolation harming especially our young people motivated me to be vaccinated,” the archbishop wrote.

The letter also noted that each person must discern the action that is right or wrong for them. The archbishop called for the rights of conscience of those who decide not to be vaccinated to be respected at places of employment, schools and elsewhere that vaccines are mandated.

He also explained to priests that they “need not feel compelled” to sign a letter from a parishioner seeking a vaccine exemption based on their conscience.

Archbishop Naumann compared the action of those who choose not to be vaccinated to the conscientious objection of draftees in wartime.

“If a war is not intrinsically unjust, the church requires Catholics to discern in conscience whether combat service is right or not. Both judgments, conscientious objection or active military roles, can be acceptable to the church,” he said.

“If they are not intentionally punitive, noncombatant roles or civil service are good ways to respect the rights of conscientious objectors just as COVID-19 testing is a possible alternative for those exempted from mandates,” he added.

Morally acceptable

Questions surrounding the three vaccines administered in the U.S. — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — from some within the church revolve around whether already widely used cell lines developed decades ago from tissue of aborted fetuses are used in manufacturing or testing processes.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did not use abortion-derived cell lines in developing or producing their vaccines, but they did in lab testing. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a closer connection to an abortion-derived cell line. The Pfizer vaccine received final FDA approval Aug. 23.

In December, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing church teaching, said that when alternative vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses, in this case, including COVID-19 vaccines.

Archbishop Naumann’s letter also called on people to “rely on the best information available from authoritative sources” in medicine and public health when determining how to respond to the coronavirus.

He said he agreed with the Vatican congregation that people who choose not to be vaccinated should “do their utmost to use other means to protect the health of others, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”

The archbishop also expressed concern that people “exercise charity toward others regarding COVID-19 mandates,” explaining that “we have a duty to be compassionate and empathetic toward others.”

“Solid facts are helpful,” he wrote. “Name-calling and shaming are not. To punish people who have a sincere difference of opinion is not Christian. … The church must be a source of love and respect for those who are in moral distress about COVID-19 vaccine mandates and those frustrated by resistance to these vaccines.”

Arizona Catholics

Two Arizona bishops took the same stance regarding vaccines and the protection of conscience rights. They also called on priests not to sign any letter from parishioners seeking an exemption from being vaccinated, saying that doing so is not in line with the Catholic faith.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix reiterated his encouragement that people give “prayerful consideration” as they decide whether to receive a vaccine.

“For those who have discerned to receive one, they can be assured that they can do so in good conscience,” he said in an Aug. 27 letter to Catholics. “For those who have discerned not to receive one, they too can do so in good conscience.”

Recognizing that people have approached pastors about being granted an exemption from a vaccine, Bishop Olmsted said “it is employers who grant exemptions, not pastors.” He said the church’s role is to assist people in forming their consciences and supporting their decisions.

Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson in a late August letter to priests acknowledged that while the decision to be vaccinated is a personal choice, “in particular instances the moral good of the community is so compelling that it takes precedence over our personal preferences — such as in a pandemic.”

He said the unvaccinated “have a clear moral obligation to abide by mask mandates and social distancing.”

Bishop Weisenburger also directed priests “not to cooperate with any individuals seeking our endorsement of an exemption from vaccine or facemask mandates based specifically upon our Catholic faith.”