* School Masses and Mask Mandate
Some have noticed that I have returned to wearing a mask while greeting people before and after Mass. People have asked if I am vaccinated. Yes, I have been vaccinated, but the federal Center for Disease Control and Michigan’s Department of Health both strongly recommend that masks be worn by all, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, when indoors and close contact with people is unavoidable, due to the highly contagious nature of the delta variant. Specifically, the CDC current guideline states: “To maximize protection from the ‘Delta variant’ and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.’” Oakland County is considered, at this time, to be an area of substantial transmission. I think the guideline is sound advice and I would encourage all to have a mask available and wear it when interacting with each other indoors. This pertains to all, not just those who are unvaccinated. Even if vaccinated, I encourage parents to wear them with their unvaccinated children to help set an example for the children. The two best tools we have for stopping a new, large spike in the coronavirus are the vaccines and masks. When we get vaccinated and wear masks in appropriate settings, we are fulfilling our moral responsibility to help bring about the common good.
Does this mean that masks are mandated at Masses and gatherings at St. Regis? Not at this time, but please note, if the Oakland County Health Department or the Archdiocese of Detroit issues any mandates, we will put them into practice at St. Regis. Because the numbers at most Masses still allow for sufficient distancing, and we have the two sections where every other pew is roped off for those who choose to sit there, at this time masks are strongly encouraged while entering and exiting and coming forward to receive Communion, but not currently mandated, with one exception—School Masses.
Whenever there is a school Mass (usually Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 8:30, but this also includes all-school Masses for Brother Rice), all who are attending need to be wearing a mask/face covering. These school Masses will be in the church, and we will be seating the children across the front section of pews. We will reserve the back few rows in most sections for others who are attending. Thank you, in advance, for taking seriously our common responsibility to help overcome this virus.
*Catholic Religious Exemption for Covid-19 Vaccine
Both Deacon Francis and I, along with a number of other priests and deacons, have been asked by individuals to sign some type of document that allows them to claim a “religious exemption” for staying unvaccinated. Some want it for college, others for their place or work or travel which are mandating the vaccine unless exempted for medical or religious reasons. For Catholics, such a religious exemption is not simple. The Church, in its official pastoral guidance, is not opposed to any of the vaccines. [Think of Pope Francis and his strong encouragement, for all who are able, to be vaccinated, and to do so as part of our responsibility for the common good.] It would be more accurate to say that the Catholic Church strongly supports vaccination, unless medical reasons or a personal decision of a well-formed conscience leads one to not do so. Notice, that for Catholics in this particular situation, the religious exemption would not be universal but tied to the personal conscience-based decision of an individual.
Given that there is no broad Catholic religious exemption, can a case be made for individuals to opt out based on a personal decision of a well-formed conscience? Yes, there is. Whether that would be sufficient to satisfy the definition of a religious exemption being used by different institutions would be up to the specific institution. In many ways it is analogous to the situation of young Catholic men who did not want to serve in the military when their draft number came due during the Vietnam War era. Today the situation would be a bit different, given the strong condemnation of all wars by Church leadership in the last few decades, but at the time the Catholic Church had a general consensus that there could be something called a “just war” if certain conditions were fulfilled, and most of the Catholic leadership in the United States were strong supporters of the Vietnam War effort as just, especially in its early stages. If a young man asked for a Catholic religious exemption (called “conscientious objection”), the Church could support a limited or what was called a “selective conscientious objection,” if a person had come to a clear belief that this particular war was immoral. But Church leadership, given its understanding of just war theory, usually did not support a general or blanket conscientious objection to all wars. Unfortunately, the U. S. government did not recognize “selective conscientious objection” but only a complete objection to all wars, and so conscientious objector status was rarely given, based on a Catholic-based religious argument.
In an analogous way, what such seekers of a religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine are asking for is a “selective conscientious objection” to the particular vaccines currently approved for use. Given the Church’s strong emphasis on the common good and the moral responsibility of all to help promote it, if a vaccine had no moral taint to it, is proven safe and effective, and is approved for regular use, then there would be little ground for a selective conscientious objection to that vaccine, based on Catholic moral principles. But, because all the currently approved Covid-19 vaccines have a remote connection to the use of cells from aborted human fetuses, either in the development and/or the testing of the vaccine, and additionally they are still under emergency authorization, there is perhaps room for a selective conscientious objection to these vaccines. For now, then, there is that small window that might lead some Catholics to conscientiously object to being vaccinated, based on Catholic moral principles.
Note some of the conditions, however, to truly claim a conscientious objection and therefore fall within a Catholic understanding of a religious exemption. It needs to be a decision of a well-formed conscience, not simply one’s personal belief or social/political statement. When people ask me for such a letter, I need to know that they have truly taken time to form their conscience well. I ask whether they have read the Pope’s statements on the importance of the vaccine and the permissibility to be vaccinated. Do they understand the difference between remote material cooperation (which is never morally sinful if one has a good intention) and immediate and/or formal cooperation? There is a “Faith Byte” on our video channel, available through the stregis.org website, which explores this whole area. Have they read the U.S. Bishops’ statement on the moral acceptability of the vaccines? Have they studied the way that fetal cells entered into the process in a specific vaccine? Have they refused other vaccines that have a similar remote relationship to cells form aborted human fetuses? If not, it is likely that one’s opposition to this vaccine is not based on a consistent moral objection. Have they prayed about it, bringing before the Lord both a true desire to support the common good and a desire not to be complicit with anything that is morally compromising? And, if they believe that the Lord is calling them to not be vaccinated, how are they witnessing to the common good in other ways. It is very difficult to claim a conscience-based decision not to be vaccinated and turn around and do and say things that discourage others from being vaccinated or refusing to take measures (like wearing masks) to prevent the spread of the virus. In other words, it takes maturity and prayerful discernment to make a decision of conscience, not just a desire not to be vaccinated.
If such careful formation of conscience has not been done, then I (nor do I think any priest should) cannot support a person’s desire to get a religious exemption based on Catholic teaching. If, however, after such reflection and prayerful discernment, one comes to a deep-seated belief that it is wrong to take the vaccine for oneself, then that would fall within the Catholic Church’s understanding of conscientious objection to this vaccine. I will post a link on the website to the National Catholic Bioethics Center which has a suggested letter that might fit one’s decision in conscience in that case.
* St. Regis Night at Jimmy John’s Field August 27th
This Friday we are inviting all to join us for a fun parish social at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica. It should be a great time for families of the parish to come together. The details and how to purchase tickets are elsewhere in the bulletin and on the stregis.org website. Tickets purchased in this way include a food/drink ticket and eating together beginning about an hour before the ballgame. It is my understanding that we have a few of our school children singing God Bless America that evening. Come out and support them as well. And, if nothing else, it looks like yours truly gets to throw out the first pitch. Come and see that potential fiasco! I need to get some of the baseball team to practice with me this week. Let’s hope for good weather. Get the tickets online via our website and join us this Friday, August 27th.
* End of John Chapter 6
We have our final installment of chapter six of John’s Gospel for today’s Gospel reading. Having talked about himself as the Bread of Life, having shocked the people about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, people are beginning to think that Jesus is a bit crazy. We know the whole story, including the Last Supper, so we do not find it so odd. John’s community that reads this gospel for the first time would have been gathering for Eucharist for many years before this gospel was put into written form and so would not find the words shocking. But clearly the focus is on the disciples of Jesus who are hearing such strange and vivid words for the first time. Will they find it impossible to believe and fade away like the rest? Peter’s response becomes that of every true disciple and a mantra we can say/pray as often as we need to: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” When the path of faith seems to be hard or unappreciated by others, we can join Peter in these words, for who else has the way to eternal life but Jesus Christ, crucified and risen?