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A group of ultra-conservative Catholic doctors wants to carve out vaccination exemptions for Catholic medical workers on the grounds of conscientious objection.

The Catholic Medical Association of Australia operates with the support of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the supreme body which brings together bishops and archbishops. It recently wrote to all government leaders asking for safeguards against discrimination for Catholic health workers in hospitals and aged care who claim a conscientious objection to mandatory vaccination.

The association’s position relates at least in part to a faith-based objection which some Catholics have to the AstraZeneca vaccine which was developed using cell lines which originated in cells extracted from a foetus aborted in 1973.

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Earlier this year the Vatican clarified the ethical and moral issues surrounding use of AZ in the face of spreading resistance to it from Catholics. In a coincidence of timing, the Catholic Church in Australia attempted to calm religious concerns over the use of AstraZeneca in April, at the same time as the government’s expert immunisation advisory group, ATAGI, voiced its concerns about the medical risks of AZ.

The association’s push for protection against discrimination has been given prominence by The Australian, although with little clue given of the organisation’s antecedents.

So what is the Catholic Medical Association?

The association was established in late 2017 as a voice for Catholic doctors to counter the gathering strength of the voluntary assisted dying (VAD) movement. Victoria passed VAD legislation in 2017, making it the first of four states to do so. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has fought the laws tooth and nail and lost.

The association has overt political aims. The launch of its Victorian branch was attended by right-to-life Victorian Liberal MPs Robert Clark and Kevin Andrews as well as the socially conservative Labor MP Christine Campbell and Deputy Premier James Merlino. The politicians shared canapes with Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli and episcopal vicar for health, aged and disability care Bishop Tony Ireland.

Earlier this year the association lobbied federal parliamentarians to support George Christensen’s (Children Born Alive Protection) Bill which would force medical practitioners to resuscitate aborted foetuses.

Behind the scenes, four chaplains are responsible for its medical theology, led by Reverend Dr Paschal Corby who is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. Publicly its best known figure is Victorian anaesthetist Dr Eamonn Mathieson, who shepherded the association into being in 2017. 

Eamonn Mathieson and the COVID-19 Medical Network

As well as being the driving force behind the association, Mathieson has been until recently a leading figure in the COVID-19 Medical Network, a group of doctors who came to prominence during Victoria’s lockdown last year. As well as campaigning against the lockdown, it has lobbied for COVID treatments which are either discredited or highly questionable. 

Earlier this year the Therapeutic Goods Administration sent a formal cease and desist letter to Mathieson’s group for advocating hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. 

The network has also lobbied federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to adopt ivermectin, normally used for parasites such as head lice, as a frontline therapy against COVID. It has hosted webinars featuring former Liberal MP Craig Kelly and a Kelly favourite, Dr Vladimir Zelenko.  Other webinar topics have been “No scientific reason to vaccinate against SARS-CoV-2” and “Mask wearing is a symbol of subservience”.

(Mathieson has declined to answer Crikey’s questions but provided a text message saying he was no longer with the network. He declined to say exactly when and why he left.)

Creating confusion?

The intervention of the Catholic Medical Association puts it at odds with Catholic Health Australia, the national body for Catholic not-for-profit hospitals and aged care, which this week publicly affirmed that mandatory vaccination of health workers was “essential”.

The association declined to answer Crikey’s questions about it lobbying to make vaccination a matter of conscience. Its intervention also muddies the waters on the ethics of vaccination as (seemingly) settled by no less an authority than the Vatican.

In April the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference — which has given its seal of approval to the Catholic Medical Association — said ethical questions about AstraZeneca had been examined by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which found it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID vaccines that had used “cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process”. 

“If you are only offered one option, you may receive whichever vaccine you are offered, including the AstraZeneca one, with a clear conscience,” the bishops said.

The association insists that although the church has deemed that “the cooperation with evil” in the production of the vaccine was “material and remote”, this did not preclude that some individuals could sincerely object in conscience to any participation in evil, “or that the risk of COVID would justify such participation”.

“However, the church does assert that freedom of conscience is a principle that must be respected and protected,” it wrote. “The dignity of conscience and the legitimacy of conscientious objection must be upheld.”

Tomorrow: how the religions are dealing with vaccination.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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