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Editorial: Amid Delta climb, Church must lead regarding vaccines
A couple of months ago, it seemed like we were in the clear. Masks were off at Mass, dispensations were being lifted, and — the best part — the numbers were in free fall. In mid-June, national cases of COVID-19 were around approximately 10,000 per day — still not ideal, but a fraction of what they had been in the troubling months of the winter of 2020-2021.
That is no longer the case. In mid-August, cases have risen to 124,000 a day — 12 times what they were only weeks ago and the highest daily count since February. Hospitals are once again being overwhelmed, and younger people, including more children, are getting sicker. This is the work of the Delta variant, which now accounts for almost every diagnosed case of COVID-19 in the country.
But though cases are rapidly climbing again, the pandemic is not the same as it was this time last year. We know more about how the disease is spread. We have better treatments in place. And those over the age of 12 have access to vaccines — a reality that last year seemed too good to be true. Vaccines, as many experts have said in the past 18 months, are the most effective way out of the pandemic. While “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 can occur in vaccinated people, the data is showing that it is the unvaccinated who end up in the hospital and at far greater risk of death or long-term illness.
Unfortunately, vaccines have become a source of great division — medically, politically and ethically. These divisions have now trickled down into the Church, as was recently exemplified by two letters: one approved by the cardinal archbishop of the nation’s second largest archdiocese that stated clearly that “while any individual is free to exercise discretion on getting the vaccine based upon his or her own beliefs … priests should not be active participants to such actions” by issuing a religious exemption; and another from the bishops of Colorado that states that “a Catholic may judge it right or wrong to receive certain vaccines for a variety of reasons, and there is no Church law or rule that obligates a Catholic to receive a vaccine — including COVID-19 vaccines.”
Conscience protection is absolutely critical for people of faith. But so is our obligation to promote the common good and lay down our lives in service for all, especially the weakest among us. What the Church needs now is clarity and proper formation of conscience. People are sick, and infection is spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has declared the COVID-19 vaccines to be morally licit and has said they can be used in good conscience. At this moment during the coronavirus pandemic, the Church has both the opportunity and the obligation to encourage the People of God to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Good strides have been made. When the vaccine was first being distributed, many bishops publicly received their first shots, encouraging Catholics within their dioceses to get it as well. Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have both received the vaccine. And Pope Francis has spoken of the importance of equitable vaccine distribution around the world. But more needs to be done, especially on local levels, to turn the tide.
A good example of this is Military Services’ Archbishop Timothy Broglio’s support of the Pentagon’s reported vaccine mandate for servicemen. “Certainly, no vaccine is an absolute, but the military is bound to live, work and recreate together,” he said. “It seems prudent to ensure they do not infect each other.”
Another worthy example is a pastoral letter issued by Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, OFM, of Parramatta, Australia, reiterating the importance of getting vaccinated “as a means to protect yourselves and others.”
“It is overwhelmingly evident that the virus is spreading largely among the unvaccinated population,” he wrote. “Hence, being fully vaccinated is an important step in not only keeping us safe but also our families and others in the broader community safe, and enabling us to get back to some sort of normality.”
From the start of the pandemic, scientists have said that vaccines were our way out of the plague that is affecting the whole world. Miraculously, they were developed in record time. The Church should do everything it can to encourage their adoption.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young