Of vaccination, a Pope, and anti-Catholic slander

At First Things there is an interesting piece about how enemies of truth, and therefore of God, created a “black legend” around a Pope with disinformation.  The target Pope wasn’t, this time, Pius XII, but rather Leo XII (+1829).


Just as every Easter long-falsified stories about Jesus are warmed up by journalists to increase the print-run of their magazines, so similar nonsense is brought forth whenever issues of science and religion are covered in the media. Whenever one needs to fill an empty page, magazines are quick to run a story about the “persecution” of Galileo and the “fight” of the Church against science. Therefore, I was not surprised that in the current discussions about the ethics of vaccination some claimed that Pope Leo XII (1823–1829) prohibited vaccinations.

The legend appears in a contemporary account by G. D. Godkin, who writes in his biography of King Victor Emmanuel II about the late pontiff with little respect:

He was a ferocious fanatic, whose object was to destroy all the improvements of modern times, and force society back to the government, customs, and ideas of mediaeval days. In his insensate rage against progress he stopped vaccination; consequently, small-pox devastated the Roman provinces during his reign, along with many other curses which his brutal ignorance brought upon the inhabitants of those beautiful and fertile regions.

In the words of moral theologian Fr. Richard M.Cormack, SJ [Booo!] (1922–2000):

In 1829 Leo XII declared, “Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, the vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.” [Does that even pass the smell test?]

This alleged statement was often used to ridicule the Holy See and Catholic faith. It “proved” that Catholics did not use reason but blind faith and trusted rather divine providence than their intellect. Just like papacy rejected the unification of Italy and acted “irrationally,” so it had (according to Godkin) denounced all progress.

How could a man like Leo XII, after successful inoculations in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia, really reject a treatment that saved innumerable lives?

He didn’t. The whole “announcement” was made up to discredit Leo XII. A black legend was born. Later, when pressured to present evidence, some historians tried to justify the forgery by suggesting that Leo XII had perhaps said something of the sort as Cardinal, and thus before his election, but could again not produce the actual source of the statement.

In reality, Catholics had endorsed vaccinations since the 1720s. It was, after all, Catholic missionaries, mostly Jesuits, who began inoculating Amazon Indians against smallpox in the 1720s. In Europe, Catholic orders set up modern hospital care, and church officials, such as the archbishop of Bamberg in Germany, introduced public vaccinations in the 1780s. In Rome, Pope Pius VII (1800–1823) voiced support for the treatment, and already in 1805 more than eight-hundred newborn Roman babies were vaccinated. The president of the Jimmy Carter Center, Donald Hopkins, notes in his history of small pox, The World’s Greatest Killer. Smallpox in History, that even in the remote villages of Bohemia in the early 1800s the priests constantly reminded their parishioners of the importance of being vaccinated.

Pius VII, who resisted Napoleon, who had imprisoned him, and whom Catholics therefore venerated as a living martyr, was the immediate predecessor of Leo XII. His support for vaccinations should have made historians, who repeated the above-mentioned black legend, cautious: How often did a papal successor reverse course so completely, from endorsement to prohibition—and without a trace in the official papal pronouncements? For anti-Catholic historians the account simply had to be true, because it fit their own perception of Catholicism as intellectually and morally inferior.

For those, who wish to read a thorough refutation of the vaccination legend I recommend the article by Yves-Marie Bercé and Jean-Claude Otteni, The Practice of Smallpox Vaccination in the Papal States (in French). The story that the Catholic Church rejected vaccination as an interference with divine providence is anti-Catholic slander—nothing more.

BTW… if you want to read more about modern disinformation, try this.  It is enlightening, to say the least.

Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism by Ronald Rychlak and Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa.

UK link HERE

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  1. xylkatie says:

    One thing that is totally absent from the current vaccination debate is that many vaccinations, such as variations of the MMR, rely on the use of tissues taken from (aborted) fetuses. While it is easy to call for lawsuits or other ways to bully those who against vaccinations, the profound moral dilemma that vaccinations (cultured from abortive fetuses) present cannot be ignored. Ethical alternatives need to be made available as a matter of course. See: http://www.immunize.org/concerns/vaticandocument.htm.

  2. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Let’s make distinctions.

    1) Some diseases are life-threatening to the general population. Others are survivable annoyances.
    2) Some vaccines are made ethically, respecting the dignity of the human person. Others don’t.
    3) Some vaccines are made available for us to use as we, parents, see fit. Others are forced upon their populations.
    4) In Africa many people avoid the use of vaccines because …. well, there are several versions of the story.
    5) Some vaccines prevent actual diseases. Others, under the guise of public health, are purported to sterilize the recipients.
    6) Some diseases are caused even within moral conditions. Others result from profoundly immoral behavior.

    Outside guess here, but the Church doesn’t oppose the use of vaccines as described in the first sentence of each construction, saving condemnation for the second sentence.

  3. Boniface says:

    I thought we were talking about anti-Catholic black legends, here, not the relative merits of vaccination.

    Anyway, great post. There are so many of these well, lies out there about the Church and her history. Most of them were invented in the 19th century.

    A similar one is the claim that medieval popes banned human dissection, which is equally untrue. Sen. Arlen Specter repeated that one from the floor of Congress just a few years ago, in order to accuse opponents of embryonic stem cell research of being anti-science in general.

    For a secular history book with several good chapters on some of this, see Ronald Numbers (editor), “Galileo goes to Jail, and other myths about science and religion” published by Harvard in about 2009.

    For a solid Catholic-specific book, Diane Moczar’s “Seven Lies About Catholic History” is excellent.

  4. jhayes says:

    Xylkatie, for the benefit of those who don’t have the time to read the document you linked, it should be pointed out that it says that the Church’s position is that vaccines made from aborted fetuses can be used if there is no other effective vaccine available.

    the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women);

  5. Imrahil says:

    Dear Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    well, I don’t think the outside guess is true in cases 1 (there’s no obligation to hardship for hardship’s sake), 2 [see the document linked above: illicit to produce the vaccine, licit to use when they have been produced anyway, if done under protest], 3 (in general*), 6 (there’s no obligation of the Christian not to mitigate the consequences of his immorality if he does so in an otherwise lawful way).

    *Governments have no business to force an immoral vaccine (i. e., 2+3) upon a populace, however much people on their own might claim to be excused on the basis of merely remote material cooperation.

    Also, it can certainly be debated whether they have the right to force people to vaccine themselves against a mere annoyance (3+1) – except, I’d say, if the eradication of the illness is seriously possible; or whether they have the right to force the people to take a comparatively dangerous vaccine even if it is done for the higher good. This latter was the case w.r.t. smallpox; people did die from the vaccination, and it was mandatory on government orders. But this was a parenthesis; assume a rather unproblematic (moral and health-wise) vaccine against some half-way serious illness (e. g., measles, if there were not the problem no. 2), then government does have the right to mandate vaccination.

  6. Imrahil says:

    Er, replaces measles by “rubella”. I was misled that they were also called “German measles” in the sources.

  7. Phil_NL says:

    “In 1829 Leo XII declared, “Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, the vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.” [Does that even pass the smell test?]”

    Well, not the Catholic smell test. But I must admit that in this country we have a much of hardline protestants who went down that exact road, and till this day use similar language. Not that it makes the slander any better, of course – but it does mean more work to resist it.

  8. Gerard Plourde says:

    One of the difficulties with the debate concerning mandatory vaccination is the fact that the vast majority of us have no experience of the seriousness of the diseases involved. Most of us were born at a time when the regimen of vaccination and the use of antibiotics was well established. A quick perusal of the death records before the advent of penicillin and widespread vaccination shows high infant and child mortality. This is the reason that the Church even permits the use of vaccines that may involve non-licit production methods. She recognizes that the greater need lies in the protection of the health of society and that the recipient of the vaccine is not a true participant in the original harm.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    My one and only sister died of encephalitis because she contracted measles, all of us kids got different types of measles before the vaccines were invented. Sorry to disagree with so many, but I am not against vaccinations. My mother, who is still alive and 87, grew up in St. Louis and remembers vividly the number of babies and young children who died of whopping cough when she was a child herself. If the production does not include fetal matter, we are allowed to use vaccines.

    I also grew up during the polio outbreak in the 1950s. Some of my peers contracted polio and had to learn how to walk all over again, some damaged for life.

    Science is not evil in and of itself. And to make an ideology out of being anti-vaccine seems irrational.

  10. Traductora says:

    The bizarre thing is that it is Evangelicals who are leading the anti-vaccine campaign, but Catholics who are getting blamed. There is nothing wrong with vaccination; obviously, it has to be proved safe and effective first, but vaccination against common childhood diseases, smallpox (in its day) and polio have saved millions from blindness, deafness, sterility, paralysis – and death.

    Many Evangelicals are into strange health quackery, usually associated with pyramid marketing schemes. I live in the South and have many friends who go to big Baptist churches that seem to spend half their time promoting “healing oils” and weird “Biblical” food supplements – and opposing “unnatural” vaccines. Why Catholics get blamed for the ignorant attitudes of Protestants, I will never understand.

  11. Gerard Plourde says:

    Oddly, it should also be noted that a segment of the non-religious population adheres to the anti-vaccine creed.

  12. capchoirgirl says:

    There are pro-life versions of just about every vaccine, if you want to take the time to find them. Being pro-life isn’t a reason to NOT get vaccinated. Also, what may be “an annoyance” to a healthy person can be much more–even deadly–to someone with a compromised immune system. This includes young children, the elderly, anyone going through cancer treatments, anyone who has had an organ transplant, etc. It’s a much wider range of people than you may think

  13. Athanasius says:

    Nevertheless one should use due prudence when getting a vaccine, he should not do it because the industry which profits heavily from them says so. The CDC admitted this year what everyone in the field knows, the flu vaccine is less than 23% effective if they get the strands right, and people who get the shot shed the live virus for up to a week or more which can infect others, even if they’re still immune. These things are made from lines which came from aborted fetal tissue, which should be another reason for pause. Instead of the knee jerk reaction with every epidemic, they should be something one does only with sufficient reason.

  14. moon1234 says:

    The vaccine debate is a curious one. Many of today’s vaccines are given with the assumption of effectiveness and that the benefit outweighs the risk. Take tetanus for example. In order to actually get the debilitating effects of tetnus you need to be infected with a very specific virus and the same time as the tetnus bacteria. The tetnus bacteria is treatable with antibiotics today long before it would cause paralysis or death. The actual infection rate in the us over the last ten years numbers less than 20. The number of people disabled from the vaccine runs over 50 EACH year. So if your risk of being harmed by the vaccine is higher that from the disease itself, does it not become immoral to subject yourself or those under your care to the vaccine?

    It is also necessary to determine if the vaccine is the cause of the decline of debilities diseases over the last century. In many cases it is not. Improvements in public sanitation, knowledge of sanitary procedures, etc. led to the steep decline in morbidity and mortality. This can eaily been seen by comparing when the reductions in infections occur and when the vaccine was widely deployed.

    I am not opposed to vaccines, but I think each one needs to be evaluated for efficacy, safety and benefit. Blankety accepting vaccines as good, especially when their use is po idea profit for those selling them, is not good science. That is why I bristle when I hear catholic leaders pushing vaccines without taking any of this into account.

  15. Elizabeth M says:

    Sure, you can choose to not vaccinate your children. Remember though you are putting at risk the elderly, infants, and those with compromised immune systems. I live in one of the counties affected by this out brake and I have an infant. My family has canceled plans for a trip to a popular attraction. It was our choice, but influenced by others choices. I’d love to tell some of them: You’ve put my family at risk by your choice.
    I do not wish my children to suffer diseases that can be prevented. God gave those scientists the knowledge to invent vaccines.
    There USED to be pro-life versions of MMR. Merck, the only company in the USA that makes this vaccine, no longer makes an alternative to the one developed from human aborted fetus.

    One question I can’t find the answer to:
    Does this vaccine come under a sort of “double effect” rule? From what I understand, the current MMR vaccine was developed from tissue of children aborted in the early 70’s(?). They haven’t needed to create a new one yet. In essence the vaccine one would receive now would be from the older cells not a new abortion. Clearly I’m no scientist and finding the facts of how “vaccines cultured on and containing residual components of aborted fetal tissue” without stepping into the lab are made is a daunting task. (Shocking – not everything is online! sarcasm)

    Yes it is sickening to think that any human died to create any vaccine. By having these conversations I hope we can push the companies to create a better solution.

    Does “the good of the many out way the good of the one?”

  16. jhayes says:

    Elizabeth M wrote One question I can’t find the answer to:Does this vaccine come under a sort of “double effect” rule?

    See HERE I quoted part of it in my 11:59 post above.

  17. Imrahil says:

    Why Catholics get blamed for the ignorant attitudes of Protestants, I will never understand.

    I might read to much into this. But I think it is for the following reason:

    The world sees that some people within Christianity have ignorant attitudes, based on Christian thinking. The conclusion they draw are (as we know) wrong; but there’s no denying that the questions do come up on a Christian background, and are answered by them using attitudes which some Christians do share and do share on a religious ground; what is more, the general attitudes (though often not the precise applications) are shared by parts of the pious Catholic flock as well (such as the attitude – which is rather un-Catholic in fact – that the pious thing is to be anti-intellectual, and that science and intellect are bad and always suspect). “That bad weather comes all from the stuff they dare to do in Cape Canaveral”, as the old lady says in The Apartment (my father reports similar attitudes from older people in his youth, around here).

    And – I digressed a bit – in any case, the world may have the subconscious feeling that when it comes to Christianity, we, the Catholic Church, have the real thing.

    This is, or may be, why we are blamed for the ignorant, but Christian-backgrounded, attitudes of Christians.

  18. robtbrown says:

    Having been vaccinated for Shingles and Pneumonia, along with my yearly flu shot, my position is obvious. And throw in a tetanus shot a few years ago when I split open my head to the tune of 12 staples.

  19. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:


    When I mention #6, I had vaccines such as Gardisil in mind — since the only way to catch the diseases it prevents is through profoundly immoral behavior; a sensible argument can be made, and indeed is made in a few quarters that Gardisil is being made mandatory so as to remove the last vestiges of taboos against sexual immorality.

    I don’t count myself as ideologically opposed to vaccines, any more than I count myself ideologically opposed to computers. I simply think the case for their widespread use is much weaker than most people do.

  20. Imrahil says:

    Dear Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    as for Gardisil, I have heard some substantiated medicinal criticism on its advisability. That being said, that the disease it prevents is only possible due to profoundly immoral behavior is new to me, as according to my small-scale information it can be spread by normal sex.

    And in any case, we are not bound to let diseases which we have contracted by immorality run their unaided natural way.

    And yes, if there would be a morally spotlessly produced vaccine against HIV, then, go for it.

    >>I simply think the case for their widespread use is much weaker than most people do.

    And I simply think that what is not forbidden, is allowed.

    I do resent the fact, though, that the verdict of “vaccine criticism” is thrown, by some activists, against anyone who oppose any vaccine for whatever reason. It would be absurd to not vaccine against polio. It is defensible to not vaccine against chickenpox.

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