Vatican says it won't punish those who refuse COVID-19 vaccine

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Under construction at the World Health Organization on April 15, 2020.

Vaccines are an emotive issue, sometimes an ideological matter, occasionally religious, and certainly decisive as the world grapples with the COIVID-19 pandemic that has claimed approaching 2.5 million lives worldwide with more than 110 million cases.

The Vatican has said it will not punish those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine following media reports of a decree that implied employees could lose their jobs if they refuse to get a jab without legitimate health reasons.

News agencies had reported on Feb. 18 that Vatican employees refusing a jab to counter the novel coronavirus without a valid medical reason risked being fired.

A decree by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, effectively the governor of Vatican City, said getting a vaccine was "the responsible choice" because of the risk of harming other people, Reuters news agency reported.

Vatican City, at 108 acres (44 hectares) is the world's smallest state, has several thousand employees, most of whom live in Italy according to the news agency.

The Holy See began its vaccination program in January and Pope Francis, who is 84, was among the first to get the jab.

The Vatican decree said that those who cannot get vaccinated for health reasons may be given another position, presumably where they would have contact with fewer people, but will receive the same pay even if the new post is a demotion, Ireland's RTE reported.

But the decree said those who refuse to get a vaccination without sufficient reason would be subject to a specific provision in a 2011 law on employee rights and duties.

The article in the 2011 law says employees who refuse "preventive measures" could be subjected to "varying degrees of consequences that could lead to dismissal".

After news stories about the decree, many Italians took to Twitter to criticize it, with some saying it was contrary to Pope Francis' general call for mercy.

On Feb. 18, Vatican News carried a reported headed, "Vatican: No punishment for those who refuse COVID-19 vaccine."

It reported, "The Vatican City State Governorate releases a statement explaining a recent decree on the need to vaccinate employees who work in public-facing jobs, saying the directive seeks to strike a balance between protecting the community and an individual's freedom of choice."

It added, "The decree, reads the note, "was issued to provide an urgent regulatory response to the primary need to safeguard and guarantee the health and well-being of employees, citizens, and residents of Vatican City State.

"The presupposition, therefore, is that of protecting the individual employee and the working environment, in the case of the event that a public health emergency could be set off ."

Pope Francis had warned on Feb. 8, "It would be disastrous to put our trust in the vaccine alone as if it were a panacea attempt exempting every individual from constant concern for his or her own health and for that of others.

"The pandemic has once more shown us that in the celebrated expression of the English poet John Donne, 'no man is an island' and any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."

Francis addressed members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for the annual exchange of New Year greetings when he reviewed multiple crises affecting parts of the world, including those caused by the pandemic.

"The pandemic forced us to confront two unavoidable dimensions of human existence -- sickness and death," said the Pope.

"In doing so, it reminded us of the value of life of every human life and its dignity, and every moment of its earthly pilgrimage from conception in the womb."

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