U.S. service members should have the right to refuse the military's COVID-19 vaccination requirement on conscientious grounds, the Catholic Church's Archdiocese for the Military Services said Tuesday.
The statement by Archbishop Timothy Broglio focuses on potential objections over the use of fetal cell lines in vaccine development, after the church advised Catholics to avoid the single-shot Johnson & Johnson shot, if possible.
Broglio's message lends support to troops who claim religious exemptions to vaccination mandates and who are increasingly unable to meet services' oncoming inoculation deadlines, particularly in the Air Force, with two-shot vaccines that take longer.
About 25% of all service members are Catholic.
"No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience," Broglio wrote in the statement, which was first reported by Defense One. "The denial of religious accommodations, or punitive or adverse personnel actions taken against those who raise earnest, conscience-based objections, would be contrary to federal law and morally reprehensible."
In December the Vatican said that it is “morally acceptable” for Catholics to get the vaccine, even versions that may have used research tied to fetal tissue, given the dangers of the pandemic. In a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was approved by the Pope, the Vatican said that those who have access should endeavor to obtain vaccines that didn’t rely upon fetal cell lines for development, but that in some cases, “vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients.”
Researchers used cell lines originally from elective abortion tissue created decades ago to produce proteins for some variants of the vaccine, but that tissue wasn't put directly into the vaccine.
The Air Force faces the closest deadline for inoculation on Nov. 2. About 91% of active-duty airmen have been at least partially vaccinated, according to the service's latest data on Oct. 12.
That means as many as 15,000 airmen have potentially missed the window to be fully vaccinated by the deadline with the two-shot Pfizer vaccine approved by the Defense Department, as well as the two-shot Moderna vaccine.
The Catholic Church has said those two vaccines are morally permissible, but the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "more problematic" for Catholics. The one-shot vaccine used a human fetal cell line from the retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus that was aborted in 1985 for its production and manufacturing, Reuters reported.
"If it were the only vaccine available, it would be morally permissible, but the faithful Catholic is to make known his or her preference for a more morally acceptable treatment," Broglio said in the statement.
The archdiocese did not immediately respond to an interview request Wednesday.
The Air Force said it is not yet prepared to release the number of airmen who have applied for religious exemptions. "We plan to release the number of approved exemptions once we get to that point," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek wrote in an email Wednesday.
Medical exemptions are also allowed by the services. Both the Defense Department and individual services have detailed procedures for exemptions to vaccinations, including the COVID-19 shots, that require troops to apply through their chains of command.
Two service members who recovered from COVID-19 asked a federal judge to put an immediate stop to the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine orders.
Only days remain -- Oct. 19 is the last possible date -- for airmen to make the deadline by taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires a two-week period following the shot.
The services have made it clear that troops could face punishment if they resist COVID-19 inoculation without an approved exemption. A total of 62 service members have died from the virus during the pandemic, and recent deaths were all among unvaccinated personnel, according to the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wants the services to carry out the vaccine mandate issued in August with understanding and compassion, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
"What the secretary's expectation is, is that commanders will try to get these troops to make the right decision based on education and information," Kirby said. "And for somebody that refuses, they'll be given a chance to get more context from medical service providers as well as their chain of command."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.