The bishop of Springfield in Illinois is requesting that parishioners wear masks to Mass in compliance with a recent state public health order, but will not require COVID-19 vaccinations.
While noting that “our parishes are asked to follow the new mask mandate in indoor public places,” Bishop Thomas Paprocki added that “no one is to be excluded from attending Mass for not wearing a face covering.” He made the announcement in an Aug. 30 message to his diocese on state mask and vaccine mandates.
“The obligation to attend Holy Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation is paramount since eternal life is the most important consideration,” he said, emphasizing against turning people away from Mass for not wearing masks.
The bishop also noted that “some people may be excused from attending Mass for not wearing a face covering for medical reasons.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) on Aug. 30 issued an indoor mask mandate for all people ages two and older, who are “able to medically tolerate a face covering.” He also required health care workers, college students, and school teachers and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Paprocki on Monday said that the parishes in his diocese “will also continue other safety measures” to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The mask mandate, he said, would not apply to priests, deacons, and lectors while they are celebrating Mass, as “the sanctuary of the church is not a public place.”
Regarding reception of COVID-19 vaccines, the bishop stressed that “[v]accine participation must be voluntary and cannot be forced.” He is not requiring diocesan employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, nor is he requiring attendees at Mass to have proof of vaccination.
Although “the Church promotes vaccination as morally acceptable and urges cooperation with public health authorities in promoting the common good,” he said, a person’s health and moral conscience must be respected. He cited the December 2020 note of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which recognized the conscientious refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine tested or produced with cell lines derived from elective abortions.
“While we encourage vaccination, we cannot and will not force vaccination as a condition of employment or the freedom of the faithful to worship in our parishes,” said Paprocki.
Bishop Paprocki’s declaration stands in contrast to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s recent requirement that all archdiocesan employees, including clergy, receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Archdiocese of Chicago stated only medical exemptions will be given in such cases.
Although the vaccine will not be mandatory, Paprocki added that it is “imperative” that those who do not get vaccinated “recognize their moral duty to take other measures to protect others from harm.”
“Whether or not one is concerned about personal risks associated with COVID, each person has a moral duty to act responsibly out of concern for his or her neighbor by diligently following other safety measures,” he said.
His letter also touched on the topic of vaccine exemptions for “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”
“Moral objections of conscience should be respected, but should not require a letter from a priest or other clergyman, since the objection is based on the person’s individual personal conscience, not some specific tenet of the Catholic faith,” Paprocki said.
“It is not even apparent what any such letter from a priest could helpfully say, beyond restating what I have here recounted, which is that the Catholic Church teaches that some persons may have conscientious objections to the taking of the COVID vaccines, and that these conscientious convictions ought to be respected,” said Paprocki.
Catholics, explained Paprocki, “are not bound to refuse the vaccine as a form of immoral cooperation with abortion.” All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have some connection with cell lines derived from elective abortions decades prior. Vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna used the cell lines in testing, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the cell lines in production and testing.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that use of COVID-19 vaccines with such ethically problematic connections is morally permissible when no other ethical option is available, due to the gravity of the pandemic.
Paprocki added that “each Catholic must make his or her own decision, in light of each person’s particular situation and moral responsibilities.”
“The Catholic Church recognizes that some Catholics will be bound in conscience to refuse the vaccine,” he said.