On Thursday, May 13, the CDC announced new public health guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals in the United States. During a press conference, CDC director Rochelle Walensky announced that Americans who are vaccinated can safely gather outdoors and indoors without wearing masks or physically distancing. Based on the downward trajectory of cases and the scientific research, Dr. Walensky said the words that so many have longed to hear since the pandemic began. She told the vaccinated population, “You can do things you stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The CDC provides more detail on the guidelines on their website, which clarifies that a “fully vaccinated” individual is someone for whom two weeks has passed since their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or since the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “If you don’t meet these requirements,” the CDC says, “you are NOT fully vaccinated. Keep taking all precautions until you are fully vaccinated.” These precautions include wearing a mask and staying at least six feet away from others.
For obvious reasons, many of those I’ve spoken to are excited about these new guidelines. Not only does it mean we can begin to live our lives more normally again, but because it hopefully will encourage the vaccine-hesitant to get their shots. Obviously for those with family members who cannot get vaccinated due to health reasons or age (the vaccine is not yet available to children under 12), things remain complicated.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the changing guidelines provoke new social and moral questions. Those of us who are vaccinated have to consider whether to wear a mask while out in public in order to help those who aren’t vaccinated feel safer? Some might wonder whether wearing a mask after receiving the vaccine is just virtue-signaling. Additionally, those who are not vaccinated (including those who have decided not to take the vaccine for moral reasons), might be tempted to act as if they are—so that they can return to normal daily living.
As Catholics, we have the deposit of faith and the Magisterium of the Church to help us make these decisions. St. Paul offers some practical guidance in his first letter to the Corinthians that is relevant here. After he explains that Christians are not morally prohibited from eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols, he cautions that they “make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). In other words, he’s advising us to be mindful of our public actions. Even if they aren’t sinful in themselves, we also want to avoid causing scandal.
On his Facebook page, Catholic writer Mark Shea applied the same principle to the CDC guidelines. He wrote, “I regard mask-wearing now as Paul regarded eating meat. I’m fully vaxed and don’t need to. But if it eases those around me or the house rules of the store or theatre or parish still require it, I will wear the mask out of consideration for others.”
While his position is a prudential judgement based on the application of principles from Sacred Scripture, the Church’s Magisterium is explicit in its guidelines for those who are not vaccinated. In December 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a note on the morality of the Covid-19 vaccines. While acknowledging concerns about remote material cooperation with evil because some of the vaccines were developed using cells derived from a baby aborted decades ago, the note states explicitly that in the case of the Covid vaccines, “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience.” The document adds, “the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.”
Since the vaccines became available, Church leaders—including Pope Francis—have repeatedly advised that people get vaccinated. In an interview back in January, Francis remarked, “I believe that ethically everyone should take the vaccine … It is an ethical choice because you are gambling with your health, with your life, but you are also gambling with the lives of others.” Other Church leaders have followed suit. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein both received their first dose of the vaccine in January. American Cardinals O’Malley, Cupich, and Gregory all encouraged the faithful to get the vaccine as well.
Internationally, Catholic leaders have actively encouraged vaccination and vaccine equity (which Adam Rasmussen described as a human right in an article in March). For example, the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, has championed initiatives in South Korea to provide vaccine access to people in lower-income countries. Cardinal Yeom explained that this is important because “the social and economic crisis remains severe, especially for those who live in poverty… It is the weak and the poor suffering the most when a crisis hits.” Meanwhile, bishops’ conferences in Africa have endorsed the moral liceity of Covid vaccines and encouraged their use—pushing back against anti-vaccine propaganda that has taken hold in some areas of the continent.
The leadership of the Church recommends the vaccine for the faithful because, as the CDF note states, “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.” The Congregation goes on to insist (emphasis added):
“Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, 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, and who are the most vulnerable.”
As with all moral choices, the love of neighbor and concern for the well-being of others must be at the forefront of our discernment. This is the reason the CDF says that those who do not get vaccinated for reasons of conscience must do whatever they can to protect those who are vulnerable to COVID. At a basic level, this means that the unvaccinated should follow the standard precautions outlined by public health officials such as the WHO and CDC—maintain at least six feet of distance from others, wash your hands, and wear a mask.
This moral obligation to care for others is especially relevant for those who attend Mass. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”
As in many dioceses around the country, my bishop is lifting the general dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass. A friend of mine, who has an unvaccinated daughter with a medical condition that puts her at risk of serious complications if she contracts COVID, asked me, “What am I supposed to do at Mass if a mask-less parishioner sits behind us? Am I now forced, for the sake of my daughter, to question them in church asking if they are vaccinated?”
Hopefully Catholics attending Mass will not deceive others about whether they have been vaccinated. If you have not been vaccinated, the moral duty to wear a mask remains. If you have not been vaccinated, the morally responsible thing to do is to keep your distance from children and other vulnerable people.
As we navigate this next phase of the pandemic, may the Holy Spirit move all of our consciences to ever greater concern for our neighbor.
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.