(CNN)The Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas will not issue letters of exemption for the Covid-19 vaccine on religious grounds, the diocese told pastors Monday.
After "careful and prayerful consideration" based on reports from pastors in the diocese that they have received a small amount of such requests, Bishop George Leo Thomas said he believed that issuing vaccine exemptions would contradict guidance from Pope Francis, according to a communication obtained by CNN.
"For the past several months, our Holy Father Pope Francis has made it clear that the various forms of Covid vaccines are morally acceptable, urging Catholics across the globe to become vaccinated, not only for their own safety and well-being, but also out of concern for the weak and vulnerable in our midst," the bishop said.
The announcement comes as much of the nation debates mandates over vaccines. Health experts say mandates are vital to getting enough of the population protected to curb the spread of the virus, while some officials and segments of the population are arguing such mandates impinge on personal freedom.
Some religious groups have been entwined in the debate, as they have said that Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates violate their religious expression.
Despite early controversy over vaccines in the Catholic Church early in the pandemic, Pope Francis said in a public service announcement released August 18 that "getting the vaccines that are authorized by the respective authorities is an act of love. And helping the majority of people to do so is an act of love -- love for oneself, love for our families and friends and love for all peoples."
Thomas also noted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine "affirmed the moral acceptability of the Covid vaccines."
"Parishioners are free to assert their right to declare conscience objections on medical or moral grounds should they so desire," Thomas said.
Las Vegas is in Clark County, where on Wednesday the Southern Nevada Health District reported the county had surpassed 300,000 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
Controversy over fetal cell lines
Discussion over the church's stance on vaccines began early in the distribution and centered around the use of fetal cell lines in research and production.
The month before receiving a vaccine in January, Pope Francis said that "the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive."
But in March, some Catholic Bishops raised concerns over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and urged members to get another vaccine where available.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as at least 6 other dioceses from across the country released statements expressing "moral concerns" over the shot due to its use of lab-grown cells that descend from cells taken in the 1980s from the tissue of aborted fetuses.
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used cell lines originating from fetal tissue to test their vaccines but are not used in vaccine manufacturing or production, whereas fetal cell lines were used in Johnson & Johnson's "development, confirmation and production," according to Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at Nebraska Medicine.
Those cells are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue, said Lawler.
Johnson & Johnson used the fetal cell line that it did because it is "a well-studied industry standard for safe and reliable production of viral vector vaccines," Lawler said.