Archive, Letters

No to Covid Passes

This statement is the response of the Norwegian Catholic Bishops’ Council to a government proposal regarding vaccination passes.

1. Introduction 

1.1 The Norwegian Catholic Bishops’ Council

The Norwegian Catholic Bishops’ Council wishes to make a statement on the proposal by the Department for Health and Welfare on ‘prolonging the rules regarding a Covid certificate’. The Bishops’ Council represents the Catholic Church in Norway. Its members are Bernt Eidsvig, bishop of Oslo, Berislav Grgic, bishop of Tromsø, and Erik Varden, bishop of Trondheim.

1.2 Summary of the Council’s views on the proposal

That a state agency should offer a certificate of vaccination in order to document a dose receive (the way children receive a certificate when inoculated against rubella) is unproblematic. That the state should require a certificate of vaccination as a condition for participation in public life is something quite different, not unproblematic. The proposal leans in the latter direction. This is preoccupying.

The Catholic Church fully accepts that it may be necessary, during a pandemic, to introduce measures against contamination that are grounded in law, necessary, and proportionate. The Bishops’s Council considers, by contrast, that the proposal regarding a Covid certificate is obscure in principle. The proposal does not adequately communicate the extent to which a Covid certificate conditions citizens’ rights, above all the right to privacy and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and assembly. It is in conflict with the prohibition on discrimination. It interferes with the right to free movement, potentially even with the right to work. The introduction of a Covid certificate stands for a novel principle in our society, a novelty at odds with fundamental rights. Obligatory certification would have have consequences for religious life. The Bishops’ Council asks that the proposal be rejected.

2. Decisive objections to the proposal

2.1 The Department states that ‘the proposal is linked only to the Covid certificate as a form of documentation’. At the same time it admits that there is a ‘fluid boundary’ between rules concerning a Covid certificate and potential application of specific measures to prevent contamination. That a law proposal — which ought to be the most concise form of discourse — should presuppose ‘fluid boundaries’ between categories does not inspire confidence. A serious proposal for a Covid certificate would need to be much more precisely framed than the current document. This has already been pointed out by competent lawyers.

2.2 The proposal envisages prolongation of temporary decisions regarding a Covid certificate. These entered into force on 11 June 2021. It is proposed to prolong their application for a full year, until 1 July 2023. Restrictive application of a certificate has not yet been made. However, based on the political aims of the EU in this area, a desire is voiced to continue application. This is remarkable. The proposal raises serious questions of a national-constitutional and political-ethical nature.

2.3 It is evident that various kinds of certificates are in use in society. One example is the driving licence. A driving licence is obtained through private initiative. The candidate submits her or himself to an evaluation of competence and an examination of health. A Covid certificate is of a wholly different kind. A driving licence affords an individual, on certain conditions, social potential and increased freedom of movement; it does not restrict the movement of anyone else.

An obligatory Covid certificate would lead to the loss of rights and freedoms lodged in our constitution (cf. Grl. §§ 2.2, 16.1, 98, 100, 101, 102, 106, 110). It touches human rights. It presupposes a principle of discrimination that ought to be alien to a democratic state founded on principles of justice. Much is at stake. Given that the constitution and human rights are challenged, any proposal to introduce or prolong the use of a certificate — or to settle the terms of prolongation — is a matter to be decided by Parliament.   

2.4. What practical purpose is a certificate meant to serve? This appears to be unclear. If it is intended to serve as a measure to restrict contamination, we must bear in mind an empirical fact: Covid-19 spreads among both non-vaccinated  and vaccinated persons. This fact must be said to condition the usefulness of a certificate as a measure to restrict contamination. There are people who, for good medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated. This makes segregation all the more serious. The introduction of a Covid certificate would indirectly exercise mental and social coercion.

2.5. The Bishops’ Council has a specific responsibility to consider the effects a Covid certificate would have on religious life. The segregation rendered possible by a certificate touches the life of the Church. Freedom of religion presupposes freedom of assembly. This is especially relevant for Catholic Christians, for whom attendance at Sunday Mass is a religious obligation. In evidently critical circumstances it may be necessary, on clearly defined terms, to introduce temporary, legally formulated measures to restrict contamination in ways that affect the community. The introduction and application of such exceptional measures must be regulated by the highest legislative authority, Parliament. The proposal’s paragraph 7.4, on ‘Communities of Faith’, expresses an awareness of these difficulties, but does not sufficiently guarantee freedom of religion.

To require a normative Covid certificate would normalise segregation. The Church would potentially be hindered from serving its members through preaching, teaching, charitable initiatives, and sacramental ministry; members would be hindered from participation in Church services and activities. Government authorities would, at their discretion, be empowered to prolong the situation. The proposal renders possible implementation in a way that has grave consequences. These do not seem to have been considered. The proposal presupposes measures of control that are hardly realisable without further breaches of human rights.

The proposal does not exclude that a Covid certificate may be required for admission to institutes of education etc. It is, in other words, intended as a regular measure to prevent contamination (cf. 7.5). There is no adequate medical justification for such practice. This proposal for an adjustment of law could lead to situations in which assemblies of religious communities would be restricted to those who possess a certificate, have recently had Covid-19, or can show a valid negative test result. We consider this an illegitimate interference in — indeed, an insult to — the Church’s spiritual freedom. If we consider cases of historical precedence, in which government bodies have excluded specific groups from participation in religious service on the basis of biological criteria, examples come to mind with which Norway, in the year 2022, can surely not wish to be associated.   

3. Conclusion

The government’s proposal does not only regard pragmatic action in emergencies of public health. It regards the disproportionate intervention of state power in the lives of citizens. The proposal should be rejected on the grounds of principles of justice foundational to a democratic society. We find ourselves in agreement with those evaluations of juridical experts (in particular the analyses of Professor Hans Petter Graver) which point out that a Covid certificate cannot be required as a condition for movement in public areas, visits to private homes, and participation in religious services, and that it cannot be used as a criterion for exclusion in contracts of work.

+Bernt I. Eidsvig
+Berislav Grgic
+Erik Varden

3 March 2022