As more institutions enact COVID-19 vaccination mandates, Catholic leaders are divided over whether or not the faithful can seek religious exemptions from the orders.

On Aug. 6, the Catholic bishops of Colorado published a letter pushing back against the mandates, writing that they violate “personal freedoms of conscience and expression,” and embedded a template letter for parishioners to get an exemption signature from their pastor.

Meanwhile, priests in the Archdiocese of New York were advised in a memo from the archdiocese on July 30 to not get involved in religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates because doing so would be “acting in contradiction to the directives of the pope.”

The memo, sent by Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, archdiocesan vicar general, and John Cahill, archdiocesan chancellor, also stated that “there is no basis for a priest to issue a religious exemption to the vaccine.”

The questions around the morality of getting a COVID-19 vaccine is often tied to their connection to abortion-derived cell lines.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has encouraged Catholics to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production. Whereas, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed, tested and produced with abortion-derived cell lines. However, the USCCB guidance states it is morally acceptable to get any of the vaccines if there isn’t an option to choose.

The Vatican guidance states that “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

In the letter published on Aug. 6, the Catholic bishops of Colorado make the case that “the Catholic Church teaches that a person may refuse medical intervention, including a vaccination, if his or her conscience leads them to that decision.”

The four prelates are Archbishop Samuel Aquila and Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez of Denver, Bishop James Golka of Colorado Springs and Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo.

In a conversation with Crux, Berg explained that in addition to questions from parishioners they published the letter in response to an order from the City of Denver that mandates city workers, healthcare professionals, school employees and others must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

The order includes religious exemptions. However, Berg said they decided it was still important to clarify their stance, and provide the template to parishioners.

“Being the Catholic Church we have to respect the rights of conscience and in the possibility some coercion or force might be used we wanted to reassure individual Catholics that there was a vehicle by which they could request a right, which was given to them by the state,” Berg said.

The bishop also emphasized that the letter is in no way advocating against Catholics getting the COVID-19 vaccine. He noted that his diocese has worked to get people vaccinated, and with the spread of the Delta variant each pastor works closely with local health authorities to make sure the proper protocols are in place to limit potential spread of COVID-19.

“I am a concerned citizen about what’s happening with [COVID-19] in the U.S., with the spike in the Delta variant and the difficulties in places that really haven’t turned out for the vaccinations,” Berg told Crux. “My position as a bishop and as a concerned citizen of the country is get vaccinated. This is what I’m promoting.”

Another key part of the letter from the Catholic bishops of Colorado is the call for any COVID-19 vaccination mandates to be predicated with religious exemptions. Brittany Vessely, the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic bishops of the state, told Crux that all four of the state’s Catholic bishops are pro-vaccine, but also favor respect for individual conscience.

“There are morally permissible vaccines to accept if you wish to be vaccinated, but nobody is to be compelled by the government or their employer to be vaccinated,” Vessely said. “That’s when it becomes a freedom of conscience and expression issue and a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Vessely further noted as more mandates are rolled out on the local, state and federal level they will continue to advocate for religious exemptions for anyone with a conscience concern about getting the COVID-19 vaccines.