Archbishop says troops shouldn't have to follow military COVID-19 vaccine mandate. But what does the pope say?

Rick Rouan
USA TODAY

The Archbishop for the Military Services said Catholic U.S. service members who object to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine based on their conscience should not be punished.

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio said in prepared statement on Tuesday “no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”

At the same time, he affirmed Vatican guidance that the COVID-19 vaccine is morally permissible within the faith. That, however, does not mean a Catholic could not form “a sincerely held religious belief that receiving the vaccine would violate his conscience. It does not,” he said.

Nurse Jose Picart administers Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder’s first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, south of Seattle, on Dec. 16, 2020.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered U.S. service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they receive an exemption. Those who refuse could be discharged.

“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 said in his prepared statement

As the military weighs requests for exemptions, here are some key questions answered.

What is the Catholic Church’s stance on the COVID-19 vaccine?

The Catholic Church has not opposed the COVID-19 vaccine. In a note to Catholics in December 2020, the church outlined the “moral aspects” of the vaccine based on the use of cells from aborted fetuses used to develop them.

The Vatican concluded that without an alternative vaccine developed without aborted fetus cells, “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

The note was signed by high-ranking Vatican officials after review by Pope Francis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a similar analysis.

Pope Francis has said it would be “suicide” not to get vaccinated (he has received Pfizer). 

“It’s a bit strange, because humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” the pope said, noting that children for decades have been vaccinated against measles, mumps and polio “and no one said anything.”

Can a military service member refuse the vaccine?

The pope's point about other common vaccines comes into play for the military. Troops can try to refuse the vaccine through a medical or religious exemption, but Military.com reported “it is unlikely either will be approved if soldiers making the request have not already refused other mandatory vaccines.”

That includes inoculations against smallpox, influenza and hepatitis. The military requires 17 vaccines depending on a service member’s occupation, location of deployment and mission requirements.

An Army chaplain will interview troops claiming a religious exemption to evaluate the objection. Those troops also will meet with a medical professional about the risk of not being vaccinated, according to Military.com.

What do other faiths say about vaccines?

Most religions do not have a theological objection vaccination, according to a 2013 study by Vanderbilt University. That includes most Christian denominations, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Scientology.

Several faiths have made statements encouraging vaccine. The Islamic Society of North America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, for example, encouraged vaccination in previous statements.

Christian denominations that object to vaccines include Dutch Reformed Congregations and some faith-healing denominations, according to the Vanderbilt study. Christian Scientists believe disease can be cured or prevented through focused prayer, but it doesn’t preclude vaccinations.

“Church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church,” according to a church statement.

Some faith leaders have opposed religious exemptions for vaccines.

What happens to a service member who refuses the vaccine without an exemption?

Army guidelines allow for troops who refuse the vaccine to be discharged. They would face “administrative or non-judicial punishment,” which could include discharge.

First, those who refuse would receive counseling and would be required to watch a CDC video explaining how the vaccines work. Then they would meet with a medical professional about their concerns.

If they continue to refuse, the soldier’s commander would work with the Army’s legal arm, potentially leading to discharge.

Senior leaders in the Army who do not have an exemption would face suspension and discharge for refusing the vaccine.

Do troops have better vaccination rates than the public?

As of Oct. 13, about 1.4 million service members were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 338,000 partially vaccinated. Another 47,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 322,000 were fully vaccinated.

Among active-duty military members, nearly 97% have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and about 84% are fully vaccinated, according to the Pentagon. Among the entire military force, about 81% have at least one dose and about 65% are fully vaccinated.

Nationwide, about 78% of people age 18 or older have received at least one dose and about 68% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When is the deadline for military members to get vaccinated?

Deadlines for receiving the vaccine are different for each branch of the military.