Understanding The Saskatchewan Bishops’ Decision to Issue an Updated Letter on HPV Vaccination

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While many parents and community members are relieved and gratified by the Bishops of Saskatchewan’s recent decision to rescind the letter expressing concerns regarding the HPV vaccine and issue a new letter in its place, others are troubled.  It seems to some that such a decision by the Bishops is evidence of a weakening of Church teaching on chastity and even that the Bishops were cowed into submission by a hostile media.  Here at the Archdiocese we have heard from many who were confused and hurt by the first letter but also from some who are confused and hurt by the retraction of that letter.

In light of this situation, it is important to explain this decision more fully.  First of all, it is important to note what the two letters have in common.  Both letters uphold and emphasize both parental responsibility and the virtue of chastity.  The Bishops’ position on these issues has not changed.

Nevertheless, the Bishops’ attitude towards the vaccine has changed, and this for very good reason.  After almost a decade, we know much more about the vaccine than we did when it was first introduced.  The original letter was written in that context and reissued (sometimes with minor edits) every school year.  Until this year, no one noticed the letter was slowly going out of date with respect to what we knew about the vaccine.  That was a mistake which those involved deeply regret and are unlikely to make again.  And that was the mistake that led to the confusion for which the Bishops apologize in their updated letter.

The original letter expressed concerns in two key areas: impacts of the vaccine on health and impacts of the vaccination on sexual behavior.  Studies since the introduction of the vaccine have demonstrated both the relative safety of the vaccine, and that the vaccination is not leading to any increase in promiscuity (which, even apart from moral considerations, could also have had further impacts on health).  Furthermore, the vaccine itself has been updated and is now effective against more strains of HPV than was the case when the original letter was written.

The Bishops of Saskatchewan are not the only body to have updated their position on HPV vaccination in light of these developments.  Other groups of Bishops have done the same, as has the conservative American College of Pediatricians, which is often skeptical of the same kinds of practices and ideologies in mainstream medicine as many faithful Catholics.  (https://www.acpeds.org/human-papillomavirus-vaccine-update)

Lastly, a few words to those concerned about the kind of mixed messaging that the retracted letter mentioned.  As a parent striving to raise children faithful to Church teaching, I am very concerned about the kinds of messages they get about sex in the name of public health.  But it has become clear that HPV vaccination is far different from the standard “Don’t have sex, but if you do, here’s a condom,” rhetoric that surely does undercut the Church’s message of chastity.  I think there are at least two ways in which these are very different kinds of actions. 

First of all, children are generally vaccinated for HPV at an age where questions of sexual activity are still a bit removed from their consciousness.  (Though I acknowledge that is not the case for everyone.)  When I received vaccinations for a variety of things in middle school, I knew very little about those diseases and their transmission, certainly not enough to change my lifestyle.  The potential link between this vaccination and sexual activity may not be very strong in the minds of many young people.  The link between sexual activity and a condom is immediate and explicit.

Second, and more importantly, the vaccine can be important for the future health even of young people committed to chastity.  Just because my son or daughter is committed to chastity, and I am confident in their ability to live this out, there is no guarantee that they will enter a marriage with someone with has never made mistakes in this area.  Furthermore, either my child, or their future spouse, may be the victim of unwanted sexual contact.  Parents who desire to undercut any perceived mixed messaging while still getting their children vaccinated might consider how to discuss these issues with their children.  Finally, while HPV is widely considered a sexually transmitted infection, it is possible to encounter it in non-sexual contexts where fluids are exchanged.

Given what we now know about the vaccine and its impact on behavior, the Bishops knew they needed to update their letter.  The principle that parents should make these decisions based on the best information (scientific and moral) available remains.  But the information itself has been updated.  That needed to be acknowledged in a new letter.