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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

COVID Vaccines, Religious Exemptions, and a Test for Religions

A man wearing a hat that reads

A man wearing a hat that reads "Love your Neighbor"

David E. DeCosse

Nina Strehl/Unsplash

David E. DeCosse (@DavidDeCosse) is the director of the Religious & Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. His forthcoming book is called Created Freedom Under the Sign of the Cross: A Catholic Public Theology of Freedom for the United States (Cascade 2022)Views are his own.

What if the possibility of a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccination mandate is a test for religions themselves?

I don’t mean any formal test by a government agency or private institution imposing a mandate. Of course, such a test would be legally and morally wrong.

But I mean a test in the sense of a defining moment for religion in the public square in the United States. Is the religious conscience simply a private, unimpeachable basis by which persons can claim the sincerity of their convictions to opt out of manifest and immediate social obligations?

The pandemic has forced the question. But we’ve been heading here for a while. The United States Supreme Court has been increasingly deferential to an understanding of religious freedom that exempts religions from broader social duties. Behind this deference is an assumption that an aggressive secularism has taken aim at religions in America. Science is the tip and government is the spear of these secularizing forces. In the face of such a challenge, religions should be allowed to be as religious as they want to be. And if others in the American political community can’t understand such sincere religious convictions, then that’s a problem for all those secularized others.  

I ask this question in particular of Catholicism because I work in the area of Catholic social ethics and because the Catholic Church in the U.S. is amid precisely such a crisis of self-understanding. A powerful minority of voices within Catholicism affirms the rightness of religious exemptions, whatever the consequences for the pandemic. But Pope Francis, many Catholic bishops, and the great weight of the teaching authority of the Church encourage vaccination or speak of it as a moral obligation reflective of Christian love.

I think the issue of the self-understanding of religions in the American public square raised by religious exemptions can be helpfully understood in light of two key concerns.

First, does a religion accept general standards of empirical knowledge acceptable to all in American society? By “general” here, I’m referring to the basic ways of knowing by which we affirm a common world of cause and effect: common sense, basic experimental science, math, etc.

It should be stated clearly: Those in favor of religious exemptions for COVID vaccinations stand against such general standards of empirical knowledge. Careful scientific study has established that not being vaccinated increases one’s own risk of infection; increases the likelihood that one will infect others; and increases the likelihood that the pandemic will remain with us as the virus finds more fatally creative ways to replicate.

In the last decades in the U.S., conservative practitioners of religion have continued to oppose the religious doctrine of creation to the science of evolution. But the denial of the common, public language of the science of public health is of a different order. Here we are not dealing with creation myths interpreting a far-distant past. Instead, we are confronted with a science of raw immediacy: The unvaccinated pose an existential threat to their own and others’ lives. Any religious justifications for exemption that claim sincerity but fail sufficiently to account for that reality are not credible.

But that is a statement about religion and its public credibility in terms of basic standards of common knowledge. The issue of religious exemptions also poses fundamental questions about the ethical obligation of religions to the broader public.

Here it’s helpful to recall the Great Commandment of Christian ethics: To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Those opposed on religious grounds to vaccination turn to the first part of the commandment. For the sake of the love of God, many say, they refuse to be vaccinated because they believe the vaccine was wrongly developed using cell lines taken from a fetus allegedly aborted 50 years ago (this is a common Catholic reason for refusing vaccination, even if it’s a reason that the Vatican has specifically said is not supported by Catholic moral doctrine). In this way of thinking, by refusing to be vaccinated one is upholding the commandment to love God by witnessing to the moral truth established by God that unborn human life is sacred and inviolable. Moreover, in this view, what’s at stake in being vaccinated or not is the moral truth established by God about unborn human life. However, no actual person’s life (oneself or one’s neighbor or one’s community) matters decisively in the analysis.  

This is a case of what Pope Francis has called the “isolated conscience”—an appeal to an individualistic conscience that assumes from the start that it has no need to be answerable to a larger public. It’s not so much that such a conscience is aware of such obligations and has decided it is not important to honor them. Instead, such a conscience is not even aware of these obligations to begin with.

Those pursuing a religious exemption from the perspective of an isolated conscience truncate the Great Commandment: The love of God is construed as permitting the exposure of oneself and one’s neighbor and one’s community to the risk of fatal infection. Such indifferent and harmful recklessness undermines the credibility of a sincere claim of religious exemption.

Religions play to their worst instincts when they suppose that divine claims give them special empirical knowledge and absolve them of basic ethical obligations. By contrast, the pandemic offers religions a moment to credibly blend the insights of faith with the findings of science and with the requirements of ethics. Can religions in the U.S. seize this occasion to be a unifying force in our divided society and to affirm the universal obligation to respect the dignity of every person? In order to answer that question affirmatively, religions should reject religious exemptions to COVID vaccination.


Sep 7, 2021