A real shot in the arm -- a holistic and holy approach to health
For The Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, November 06, 2010
Re: HPV decision show Catholic school trustees should be appointed by the bishop, by Juliet Guichon, Nov. 2.
One of the few things that Juliet Guichon and I agree upon is that society ought to embrace the means available to prevent diseases like the human papillomavirus (HPV).
The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada in its recommendations regarding HPV prevention states as its first recommendation: "1. Counselling and other educational activities should stress (a) that abstinence is the most efficient way to prevent HPV infection but must include avoidance of not only penetration of the vagina or the anus but also any anogenital contact and the sharing of sex toys."
In Catholic education, we take that very seriously and we seek to teach students about the beauty and nature of human sexuality, marriage and conjugal love, abstinence and chastity, virtues and prudential decision making, including delayed genital sexual activity, in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
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.
The element of faith is integrated into every instructional plan in every program, to develop its relationship to the world of human culture.
Judgements of what is right or wrong are ethical or moral decisions. The Catholic moral tradition develops through prayer, study reflection and the recognition of the Holy Spirit at work through various sources. Such sources include health and social service providers, the experience of the Christian community, moral theologians, bishops, church teaching and Sacred Scripture. No source of knowledge pertinent to the issue at hand should be neglected.
Pope Benedict XVI recently said that the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of "risk" bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love is particularly disturbing. The reflexive and recurring emphasis on risk-reduction strategies as the front line of defence, though no doubt well intentioned, takes its cues from contemporary culture and its values -- its secularized way of looking at the human person, sexuality, relationships, sacrifice, and commitment.
The argumentation about risk reduction and cost effectiveness reflects utilitarian ethical theory.
Although it has many strands, utilitarianism generally disregards moral considerations in evaluating human behaviour, and instead shifts codes of conduct to the realm of consequences, e.g. HPV transmission percentages, cost effectiveness of treatment, the number of fatalities due to cervical cancer, etc., all of which are important. However, utilitarianism, untethered to objective moral and philosophical truths, advances no internally consistent rationale for delaying sexual activity or limiting sexual partnerships.
It thus yields interventions that should only be considered secondary measures of HPV prevention -- use of condoms and/or vaccines. Although the ideal moral standard, abstinence and fidelity, is also the most effective means of primary HPV prevention, it is relegated to the periphery.
If we don't attempt to change sexual behaviour that is responsible for transmission of the HPV, but attempt to solve the problem by getting a series of shots, then we don't have to exercise self-control, nor develop virtue, but can use medicine to palliate our vices. The technological solution requires no change in behaviour. It does not really address the cause but masks it, and actually undermines efforts to achieve the most efficient solution.
Parents, physicians, educators and governing bodies should adopt a holistic health-oriented approach that addresses sexual attitudes and behaviours recommending delayed genital sexual activity.
From the outset, the government has announced that this is a voluntary program and the Alberta bishops have made it made it clear that, in the case of minors, parents must decide whether or not their child is to be vaccinated.
To vaccinate is not an inherently evil action but rather a partial prophylaxis. Even on the physical level, there may be unintended and unwanted consequences but, more importantly, it does not address the spiritual, emotional and moral dimensions of a person's well-being.
A Catholic institution is committed to a more holistic approach as it witnesses to and hands on the teaching and values of Jesus Christ which considers sexuality to be a great and powerful gift, that sexual activity is appropriate only within marriage, that chastity is a virtue, and abstinence leads to spiritual and moral well-being and is the best protection against risks of disease. Words spoken and actions undertaken within a Catholic school must be consistent with this witness.
Accordingly, it will come as no surprise that we will urge all boards to say "no" to the administration of the HPV vaccination program in Catholic School districts.
Fred Henry is the Catholic bishop of Calgary.
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