John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., the bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., ordered on Aug. 17 that all staff at the diocese’s Catholic Center must be vaccinated against the coronavirus by Sept. 1, extending a vaccine mandate that had already been put in place for teachers and staff at the diocese’s schools. Bishop Stowe said it is important for the church to lead by example in confronting the pandemic.
“We have to be promoting the common good, and this is the one of the ways that we do it,” Bishop Stowe said in an interview with America on Aug. 17. “And the individual reasons for not accepting [vaccinations]—the conspiracy theories and all the other stuff that keeps people from getting the vaccine and even the confusion that’s been put forth by many Catholic sources—is just not a good enough reason to not accept the vaccine for the common good.”
The bishop said that pastors who choose to implement the policy at the parish level will have his support and warned that further mandates may be forthcoming as conditions warrant. Bishop Stowe also reinstated mask requirements for all Catholic Center employees.
Bishop John Stowe: “The health care system is now overwhelmed by a crisis caused primarily by those who refuse to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated. This is unacceptable.”
“This is an urgent matter of public health and safety,” Bishop Stowe said in a statement detailing the mandate released on Aug. 16. “There is no religious exemption for Catholics to being vaccinated, and Pope Francis has repeatedly called this a moral obligation,” he said. “The health care system is now overwhelmed by a crisis caused primarily by those who refuse to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated. This is unacceptable, and our diocese now joins those employers who have already made this basic commitment to the common good a requirement.”
With just under 58 percent of its residents fully vaccinated, Kentucky is among primarily southern states hardest hit by this latest surge in Covid-19 cases. About 2,700 new cases a day were reported this week in Kentucky.
Those numbers helped convince Bishop Stowe of the need for a vaccine mandate, but the threat was brought home when an unvaccinated staff member who had contracted Covid-19 unknowingly brought it into the Catholic Center, creating the need for other staff members to quarantine.
Bishop Stowe said he was further moved to act after a biweekly staff meeting where he heard a report from a local nurse about conditions in Lexington hospitals “and the number of people that are being admitted, the number of deaths of [young] people…and the fact that they they’re dying alone—they’re back to the situation where they can’t even have their loved ones present as they die.”
Bishop Stowe: “There is no religious exemption for Catholics to being vaccinated, and Pope Francis has repeatedly called this a moral obligation.”
“When we have such a readily available tool at our disposal to resist this virus and to bring [the pandemic] to an end, it seems pointless that we should be putting people further at risk,” he said, noting that Gov. Andy Beshear warned on Aug. 17 that Kentucky will soon not have enough space or personnel in its I.C.U. units to cover the people who are being infected. According to the governor’s update, Covid-19 cases among Kentucky children have increased more than 400 percent over the last four weeks—from 133 on July 16 to 548 on Aug. 16.
Bishop Stowe anticipates that some Catholics in Lexington will be unhappy with the vaccine mandate, noting significant resistance continues even to wearing masks as a third wave of the pandemic crests across the country. He said he was “absolutely” ready to respond to resistance to the mandate, though he saw no point in joining any more debates about the ethics or efficacy of the vaccines. Now “it’s more along the lines of trying to set the right example,” he said.
“We have something that is available to us to help resist the spread of this virus. It’s common sense.” Noting the pope’s frequent messages urging Catholics to get vaccinated against the coronavirus to protect themselves and their neighbors, he added, “There was a time in the Catholic Church when we followed the leadership of the pope.”
Bishop Stowe’s decision comes just over a week after a statement issued by the Colorado Catholic Bishops Conference, which reiterated that “the use of some Covid-19 vaccines is morally acceptable under certain circumstances,” but objected to vaccine mandates. The bishops included a model letter for filing for a religious exemption to employer vaccine mandates as the number of government agencies and private employers requiring vaccines grows. But in New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told archdiocesan priests that such religious exemptions were not supported by church teaching and should not be issued to parishioners. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy issued a similar instruction last week.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso issued a vaccine mandate for diocesan employees on Aug. 12 “for the sake of our brothers and sisters.” He wrote: “It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to know that the areas with the highest levels of infections and deaths are also those places with the lowest numbers of those vaccinated. Reliable reports indicate that more than 90% of those hospitalized with Covid-19 and the Delta variant are unvaccinated.
“Those who have chosen not to be vaccinated due to the fear of side effects must now recognize that the risk of side effects pales in comparison to the risk of death from the Delta variant,” he wrote.