CALGARY, Alberta — Never one to shrink from a fight, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary is taking on the public health establishment that wants to give thousands of Catholic girls the human papilloma virus vaccine, which protects against the sexually-transmitted disease.
The media-savvy bishop may be found as often on the “left” of the political spectrum on economic issues as on the “right” on matters of sexual morality, but he can always be found. When he was targeted last month by an ad hoc group of lawyers, doctors and bioethicists for barring the doors of the city’s tax-funded Catholic schools to public health officials, he gave as good as he got.
Juliet Guichon, a spokeswoman for the would-be vaccinators and an assistant professor of community health sciences at the University of Calgary, dismissed Bishop Henry as “a non-elected official without expertise in evidence-based medicine or public health” and called on the (elected) Catholic school board to disobey the bishop on what was a purely health-related matter.
But Bishop Henry, who said he has deliberately “cultivated” the news media, responded with a column in the Calgary Herald, declaring that his opponents were not “doctors of the soul” and “for Catholics, there is no such thing as a purely ‘health’ issue. All activities proposed for a Catholic school need to be assessed in the light of our faith and doctrine. This is self-evidently necessary in the case of a vaccine against a disease that is transmitted by sexual activity, which impacts not only the physical, but also the spiritual, psychological and moral well-being of an individual.”
Bishop Henry admits there is no evidence that children who are vaccinated against HPV behave differently sexually that those who are not. But he points out in his column that the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada recommends public education as the best way of combating HPV, with the primary message “that abstinence is the most efficient way to prevent HPV infection.”
The government of Alberta provided a grant for the vaccine in 2007, but Alberta’s eight bishops agreed to oppose the vaccination in the province’s Catholic schools. These schools are wholly funded by taxpayers and governed by elected trustees: The bishops have authority under canon law but not Canadian law, and the Edmonton school trustees went ahead and allowed the vaccinations.
After trying privately for the past year to get the Calgary board to do the same, the group of doctors and other professionals calling themselves HPV Calgary went public in late June to urge the Calgary board to do the same.
But Mary Martin, Calgary board chairman, hasn’t budged. She said “the overarching concern or issue here is that anything we do within our Catholic schools has to be congruent with the teachings of our Church” — and that means “in alignment with the direction of the Alberta bishops.”
John Haas of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center said, “There is nothing intrinsically immoral in vaccinating for HPV, and it needn’t be seen as promoting promiscuity. Some girls who have led chaste lives may marry someone who has not, by whom they could be infected.”
But the center does take the position that the vaccine should not be forced on children by governments or school systems: “It should be a matter of parental choice.”
Alberta’s Catholic public schools, like those in Saskatchewan and Ontario, are by-products of the 150-year-old compromise between French Catholic Quebec and English Protestant Ontario that created Canada. As such, they are increasingly out of step with Canada’s increasingly aggressive secular culture, which asserts that religion is a private matter best kept out of public policy.
Salt and Light
Bishop Henry has never accepted that view. “We have to be salt and light for society,” he said. And for this reason he has striven to maintain good relations with the media and provide them ready access, even on stories in which the Church does not look good. He has supported strikers, condemned the Iraq War and globalization without drawing much criticism from pundits. Loud have been the complaints, however, when he attacked same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality. His best-known controversy surfaced in 2005, when he issued a pastoral letter on same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality and repeated his comments in a newspaper column. These led to two complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Bishop Henry stood his ground, and, after three years, both plaintiffs withdrew.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.