The Bishop of Calgary and the Minister of Health in the Canadian province of Alberta have traded criticisms over the local Catholic school district’s refusal to participate in a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination program. Bishop Fred Henry charged Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert with “ranting and raving” and irresponsibly resorting to the media to respond to the district’s decision, while Liepert claimed the district’s position itself was irresponsible.
Last week trustees with the Calgary Catholic school district voted against including the Alberta government’s new HPV vaccination program in their schools, citing moral concerns.
Speaking to the Calgary Herald, Bishop Henry said the health minister “paints a most extreme picture that we're exposing young people to cervical cancer."
"I'm saying, 'Liepert, take a deep breath' . . . It's a gross act of irresponsibility when he talks to the media and slams us."
The bishop said Liepert’s critical reaction last week was “distressing,” noting that Canada’s Catholic bishops are concerned not only about the vaccination program conveying the wrong message about premarital sex, but are also concerned about side-effects associated with the shots.
Liepert argued that the bishop should have consulted with health officials before asking Catholic schools not to participate in the program.
“I would suggest Fred Henry should look in the mirror before he starts talking about people who are irresponsible," said Liepert, according to the Calgary Herald.
"We have a universal vaccination program that takes place in schools, where it would make much more sense and would be much more cost effective to deliver the vaccine,” Liepert continued. “These guys are throwing a real monkey wrench into things.”
And yet, as Bishop Henry later told CNA, the district’s policymakers had in fact considered health experts’ advice in making their decision.
Bishop Henry explained that some school districts might decide against the vaccine, while others might not. Saying he thinks the latter decision “constitutes a problem.”
At least one other Catholic board in Alberta, St. Thomas Aquinas near Edmonton, has decided against participating.
The bishop said the decision to vaccinate should ultimately be left with the parents.
Speaking with Bishop Henry in a phone interview on Monday, CNA asked him why he thought there was such a critical response to the decision not to vaccinate in the schools.
“It’s because we are challenging some of the political correctness of our day in which people seem to think that if you come up with a vaccine, that’s going to solve all the problems,” Bishop Henry replied.
“No matter its effectiveness, the vaccine is not a substitute for chastity.”
To the health minister’s contention that the non-vaccination policy was not formed in consultation with the medical community, Bishop Henry explained that “for months we’ve been reading everything” from Health Canada, cancer societies, individual doctors, web sites, and other sources.
“We’ve probably read much more than Mr. Liepert has,” he suggested.
According to Bishop Henry, their studies had suggested the HPV vaccine was “not adequately tested” and could have “problematic dimensions” and “disastrous side-effects.” Adverse reactions, including some deaths, have been reportedly linked to the HPV vaccine.
In Bishop Henry’s view, there is a danger of the vaccination program “using young girls as guinea pigs.”
“Does this profit anybody other than the drug company?” he wondered.
Because of these concerns, Bishop Henry explained, there was “sufficient ambiguity” for the school district to refuse to participate in the voluntary vaccination.
Another concern rests in the Catholic teaching that the gift of sexual intercourse belongs to the “covenant of marriage.” Bishop Henry explained that “recreational sex” carries “profound risks” both spiritual and physical.
“The vaccine only applies to physical health,” the bishop said. Acknowledging the importance of educating children about sex and sexually-transmitted diseases, he said, the Catholic schools’ health curriculum “does exactly that.”
In addition to physical health, Bishop Henry told CNA, sex education ought to discuss the nature of sexuality and how it is to be used.
“We’re saying that chastity ought to be taught and emphasized,” he said, saying education should encourage delayed sexual activity.
While children are being “bombarded with all sorts of images about sexuality,” Bishop Henry continued, society has not “taken time to teach them right from wrong, and that’s what our curriculum is all about.”
“We don’t want to put ourselves in a kind of ‘compromising spirit’ by not trusting children to be chaste,” he said, adding that sex education should convey the message to students that “we don’t believe you young people are that stupid.”
The vaccination program, he remarked, “puts us in a potentially morally compromising position and we’re not going to accept it.”
A Catholic institution must “live faithfully according to its mission and its teaching.” Such vaccinations “should take place in health centers, but not in Catholic schools.”
Turning to Health Minister Liepert’s criticisms, the bishop said that after Liepert took his “first slam” at the bishop’s statements, “he might have phoned us and inquired.”
“He simply came at us,” Bishop Henry claimed.
The bishop said he did not see the point of further contact with Health Minster Liepert on this issue.
“He’s obviously ranting and raving and he’s not too interested in facts,” he insisted, charging that the health minister “doesn’t think there are moral implications to this issue.”
Saying the controversy is “wasting our time,” he charged Liepert with “spinning his wheels trying to make extremist statements.”
Bishop Henry also accused the health minister of spreading “misleading information,” clarifying that the Church is not condemning the vaccine.
The decision to vaccinate, he added, is a “parental decision.”
“We urge parents to educate themselves about the vaccination, about side-effects, to be fully informed before they give their consent,” he said.