It's the 21st century, and one would hope that after its own sexual abuse scandals, its decades of declaring condoms a sin in Africa even as HIV ravaged much of the continent, its continued belief that homosexuality is a sin, and its ridiculous promotion of "the rhythm method" as birth control that intelligent people would have long ago stopped listening to the Catholic Church when it comes to sex.
But judging from the continent-wide attention given to the statements of Bishop Stephen Jensen of the Diocese of Prince George, people are listening -- and the worry is that in the case of many Catholic parents that they may be agreeing.
In response to the provincial government's HPV vaccination program, the bishop advised parents, "While the vaccination program is not inherently wrong, parents need to make an informed decision and communicate it in a way that can serve to strengthen their child in the virtue of chastity and reinforce her appreciation of abstinence as the only truly healthy choice.''
The position of the bishop would be disturbing even if he were simply parroting the standard church line, but the fact is he isn't! In fact, he twists the position of the Catholic Medical Association just enough that he can claim to not be contradicting their statements, while weighing the scales with a heavy hand towards discouraging parents from having their children vaccinated.
The largest association of Catholic physicians and health-care professionals in the United States -- which is largely looked to by Canadian Catholics, as our own country doesn't have a similar organization -- published a position paper in 2007 which made the following points:
- There is no ethical objection to the HPV vaccine either as a strategy against disease or in its production. Patients and parents must have the opportunity to give informed consent to its administration.
- The fact that HPV is spread primarily by sexual contact does not render vaccination against it unethical. Healing and preventing diseases, no matter what their source, are acts of mercy and moral good. Prevention of HPV infection is distinct from, and should not be construed as encouraging, the behaviour by which HPV is spread.
The paper which advised only on Gardasil, the only available HPV vaccine at the time, made the following recommendation: The CMA supports widespread use of Gardasil for girls and women in the age range for which the vaccine has been recommended by the ACIP, because it is effective, safe, and ethical to use, provided certain conditions are met.
(The italics are theirs, not mine, to emphasize the point.)
One of those conditions, it should be noted, wasn't that the vaccine had to be agreeable to the local bishop's sensibilities!
And in what should be a truly controversial move even within Catholic circles, the bishop has announced that the diocese's Catholic schools will support parental rights and ignore the legal decision known as mature-minor consent.
Under the legal concept of mature-minor consent, students would be able to choose to get the HPV vaccine -- even if their parents didn't consent -- if the minor felt it was in his or her best health interests.
And when it comes to sex, I tend to believe that the kids have a lot more knowledge of their intentions as to whether they will abstain or not than their parents do.
The bishop seems to believe that the best route for ensuring their health is for girls to remain chaste, that HPV is a consequence of sin, and if we take away the consequences of sin we encourage it. But even if you accept that view on sexuality, what if the "sin" that spreads HPV isn't that of the woman or girl?
The fact is that an unconscionably high number of women are the victims of sexual assault. And some of those assaults are happening within the church!
A research paper from Public Safety Canada in 2004 stated: "Although the number of abusive priests is small (approximately 4% of all priests), sexual abuse by religious leaders represents a particularly serious betrayal of trust."
The most recent figures I could find state that there are currently over 8,000 Catholic priests in Canada. If that four per cent statistic is accurate that means there are over 320 priests who are or have committed sexual abuse.
For whatever reasons, the majority of sexual abuse cases committed by priests seem to have been committed against boys -- perhaps a reason the bishop didn't address the fact that the HPV vaccine is now also recommended by the government for boys who are at more at risk of contracting HPV cancers."
Still, as a quick Google for sexual assault cases involving Canadian priests will reveal, some of those assaults are committed against girls. What advice does the bishop have for them? Will God heal them?
And whatever advice the bishop offers, why should they take it from an organization that for so long took more interest in protecting the offenders within it than protecting the children undergoing harm?
As many feminists and other enlightened souls have noted, any group largely dominated by men and seeking to make decisions about women's health, particularly their sexual health, tends to get things wrong. When that group is composed entirely of men who are supposed to live a life of chastity themselves, who teach and have been taught that any sex outside of marriage is a sin, it's hard to think they'll be any more likely to get it right.
Bishop Stephen Jensen has gotten it wrong. Any parents who listen to him will have gotten it wrong. Studies have shown that two-thirds of sexually active women not protected by the HPV vaccine go on to contract HPV, and while that incidence will drop even amongst those not vaccinated as vaccination rates go up, that's a slow process.
Unfortunately, the idea that every Catholic child not vaccinated for HPV will be chaste and therefore safe has about as much chance of happening as there is of the Catholic Church embracing a new age of enlightenment and accepting the sexual norms of a modern world. It hasn't got a prayer!
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