Catholic members of the U.S. military should not be forced to receive a coronavirus vaccine against their conscience, Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy P. Broglio said in a statement Tuesday.
The remarks represent a shift from Broglio’s previous public comments supporting the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate. Broglio’s statement also comes as hundreds of thousands of service members remain unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, according to the Pentagon. Broglio oversees 1.8 million Catholics affiliated with the U.S. military, though he is not a member himself.
“Notwithstanding the moral permissibility of these vaccines, the Church treasures her teaching on the sanctity of conscience,” he said in the statement. “Accordingly, no one should be forced to receive a … vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.”
But he repeated that getting immunized would not be seen as sinful, despite some vaccines’ remote links to abortion-derived cell lines. (The shots themselves don’t actually contain fetal cells.)
A few weeks before the Defense Department issued a vaccine mandate in August, the archbishop expressed backing for it, saying that senior Catholic officials including the Pope had “recognized the morality of the vaccine,” in an interview published on Aug. 9 by the Catholic News Agency.
For service members who have religious objections to receiving a vaccine, the path for how they might seek an exception to the vaccine is defined by their individual military service’s regulations, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said during a meeting with the media on Tuesday.
Broglio also said in March that Catholics in uniform should receive doses, citing the approval of senior Church officials.
Since the Defense Department formally mandated the 2.1 million people in uniform to get a coronavirus vaccine, vaccination rates have been increasing. As of last week, active-duty members of Navy had the highest rate with about 90 percent fully vaccinated. The Marine Corps had the lowest rate among active-duty service members at 76.5 percent.
About 81 percent of active troops in the Army and Air Force were fully immunized.
Each service will make its own calls regarding vaccine exemptions on the grounds of religious beliefs, the Pentagon said when the mandate was announced.
“There is a religious exemption possibility for any mandatory vaccine, and there’s a process that we go through to counsel the individual both from a medical and from a command perspective about using a religious exemption,” Kirby said.