— Kevin Fellman, Palo Alto, California
Answer: In the Jewish reckoning of the universe (cosmology), the term “heaven” is applied to three separate realities. The first heaven is where the clouds are and birds fly. The second heaven is where the stars and planets are. The third heaven is where God is, along with the angels and saints. The first and second heavens will pass away, at least as we know them now, but the third heaven will forever remain. A well-known reference to the third heaven is from St. Paul, who wrote (likely of himself): “I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Cor 12:2-4).
Question: Could you address the validity of vaccination mandates, especially related to the lockdown of the unvaccinated in Austria? Has the government overstepped the mark? What is the correct theological argument to “you must take the vax to keep others safe”? I am concerned that the vaccine might injure me or others, or even lead to death, or have long-term effects like sterility in order to protect the general public.
— Elizabeth, via email
Answer: The bishops have generally encouraged Catholics to get the COVID-19 vaccinations. However, both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicate in their statements that no one should be compelled to be vaccinated. The USCCB writes: “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has noted recently that ‘vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health but also on the duty to pursue the common good.’ … For a vaccine to be effective in protecting society, most people need to be vaccinated in order to break the chain of disease transmission from person to person throughout the community. [Hence] … those who refuse to get vaccinated must do their utmost, by taking all the necessary precautions, to avoid ‘becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons'” (“Answers to Key Ethical Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines”).
There have been many situations in this and other countries where the vaccine is mandated either legally or practically — for example, one may be threatened with job loss and exclusion from places of trade or restaurants. While this may not be an absolute mandate, practically speaking, the loss of one’s livelihood can be experienced as compulsion. There are additional concerns with privacy in requiring disclosure of medical information. Further, some have religious and medical concerns about these vaccines and seek exemptions. Most of these matters involve civil law and must be adjudicated in the courts. In many cases, the courts are rejecting mandates as unconstitutional or in violation of other laws. Hence, in this country, there is hope that vaccine mandates with no exemptions cannot be enforced.
As for Austria, it is difficult to say. They may not enjoy the constitutional rights we do in the United States. But that is about civil law. In terms of the moral law, it is difficult to justify such extreme measures that may well amount to coercion, in violation of Catholic norms. However, as noted above in the USCCB statement, those who refuse the vaccine ought to be willing to take certain measures to protect others who cannot be vaccinated for medical or moral reasons. Hence, wearing a mask or observing other precautions, such as regular testing, might be reasonable and fall within the parameters of Catholic teaching.