The bishop and the vaccine
Interview on Faith Alive!
01 October, 2017
Fr Brendan Hoban, (BH) interviewed by Monica Morley (MM)
Some controversy, Brendan, during the week about an intervention by Bishop Alphonsus Cullinane into the debate about the vaccine for young girls that protects them from cervical cancer. What’s the background to this?
Well, in recent years there’s been some controversy about how safe that vaccine actually is. It’s backed by the World Health Organisation and other international scientific bodies and for some years practically every young girl was vaccinated and then when people began to raise concerns about it some people became a bit fearful of it and the numbers accepting the vaccine declined.
Doctors and the medical community generally see this fear as putting more and more at risk of cervical cancer and they’re really anxious about it because there’s no real evidence to suggest that there’s any danger in getting it and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s putting lives at risk not to get it.
Are there figures on this?
This month about 30,000 girls are expected to be vaccinated but because of the opposition to it, the take-up figures have fallen to around 50 per cent.
Over the years the vast majority of young girls got the vaccine but the percentage not getting it is increasingly because of the controversy that’s being stirred up about it. And doctors are very worried about this.
So where does Bishop Cullinane come into this?
Well, last week he entered the controversy by suggesting that parents who have worries about it should be listened to. He said it’s not only a medical issue, it’s a lifestyle issue.
What exactly did he say?
Well, he said that the vaccine is only 70% safe. And he asked the question: would you get on a plane that was 70% safe? He said that the money spent on the vaccine would be better spent helping young people to stay clean and chaste. He also said that being vaccinated might lull girls into a false sense of security making it more likely that some of them would engage in more risky sexual behaviour.
What was the reaction to it?
The reaction was immediate and swift.
Doctors pointed out that there was no scientific evidence to back his statement.
Letters to the papers said he was putting the lives of thousands of girls at risk.
Others again said he had no medical or scientific competence to make the judgements he was making. That he had no particular competence in this area.
The minister for health, Simon Harris, described Bishop Cullinane’s comments as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pathetic’ and that his attempts to be a medical expert have been ‘disappointing’, ‘dangerous and damaging’ to a very important public health campaign.
What‘s your own opinion?
I think he was completely irresponsible in saying what he said.
If hundreds of girls don’t get this vaccine the repercussions in later years could be horrific, so it’s a very dangerous road to take. Some people may think that because a bishop said the vaccine was dangerous that they should take his advice and not get it. But the people to be listened to here are medical people and scientific people and the evidence from them is over-whelming, that it’s irresponsible not to get the vaccine. Simon Harris said that 300 women will get cervical cancer in Ireland this year and 100 of them will die.
Why do you think the bishop decided to get involved in this?
I don’t know really. His fears about increased sexual activity among young people may be part of the reason. It’s amazing how when the subject of sex is raised Catholic bishops can become so exercised about it.
This is a health issue, pure and simple, and I think many people including bishops and priests and especially parents will be very unhappy that a health issue, pure and simple, is being used to make a point about sexual activity in young people. The problem here is that if people heed what he’s saying it could damage their daughters’ health in the long term.
The media will love this?
Yes, why wouldn’t they.
Those who are hyper-critical of the Catholic Church couldn’t have written a better script of a story to comment on: a bishop complaining about sex and commenting on a subject he knows virtually nothing about and putting girls health at risk.
I’m afraid no matter how you look at it Bishop Cullinane has given every critic of the Catholic Church a stick to beat us with again.
That’s bad enough but putting people’s health at risk is a more serious business. Simon Harris said “Keep your view to what your area of expertise is. Bishops I’m sure have many good qualities. Medical doctors they are not”.
I think most people would agree with that.
Firstly, my sincere sympathies to fr Brendan Hoban on the death of his brother.. loving them is easy, it’s much harder to let them go. I’m writing here to praise and support Brendan for his so honest letter in Irish Times.. Saturday 30th September.. Bishops views on HPV vaccine… how difficult it must be to keep going on doing what you do best, when you have to cope with the excruciating embarrassment of the intervention of Bishop Cullinan in the continuing medical debate. It beggars belief with all the bad press the Catholic Church has had over the last few years,.. it would seem that Bishop Cullinan has learned nothing.. My prayer for you is that God will continue to give you
I would prefer if a priest of my church would have responded somewhat as follows:
“The bulk of research so far seems to indicate that the vaccine is safe. (High probability of truth).
There are girls who suffered serious health conditions after reception of the vaccine (fact) but cause and effect is not accepted by the medical profession. These deserve support from priests and should receive assistance from the state.
It is understandable that parents would have their daughters receive the vaccine but from a Catholic Church point of view, God wishes people to refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage. This is the best way of preventing transmission of sexual disease and is also in keeping with the true nature of the human being.”
The above creates distance between the views of the Bishop of Waterford and the ACP (if that is what the ACP wants to do) without resort to the ad hominem personal attacks and condemnation of the person in question. The latter contribute little to the kingdom of God and merely mimics the general practice of the culture with its two exaggerated statements concerning the influence of the bishops and their sensitivity to matters sexual.