Vaccines and Popes

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Blessed Pope Pius IX
Blessed Pope Pius IX

Pope Francis is not the first Pope to promote a vaccination campaign, especially among the poorest: as early as 1822, during the lifetime of the inventor of the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner, a massive vaccination campaign began in the Papal States ruled by Pius VII.

Olga Sakun – Vatican City

Chief Editor of Vatican News Andrea Tornelli analyzed some of the documents shedding light on the Popes’ attitude towards smallpox vaccination.

This is discussed, in particular, in the decree signed by the then Secretary of State Cardinal Ercole Consalvi. It notes that the smallpox epidemic in Europe “should convince all nations to accept and equally gratefully practice smallpox vaccination.” This decree speaks of the vaccine as “a gift from God” and “a powerful tool that divine providence has placed at the disposal of loving fathers for the salvation of children.” It was to the fathers of the family that the decree on vaccination was first of all addressed, and the refusal of it was regarded as “a prejudice of some parents, which is stronger than the very love of offspring.”

To spread smallpox vaccination throughout the Papal States, Pius VII established the Central Vaccination Commission as well as the Vaccination Council. All doctors were required to learn how to vaccinate, and they had to receive a special certificate, without which they were deprived of the right to medical or surgical practice. Fathers of families in the Papal State also received a certificate of vaccination, the refusal of which was punishable by deprivation of social benefits: “refuseniks” were placed at the very end of the line for receiving benefits.

However, the ambitious plans of Pius VII were not destined to come true: his successor Leo XII in 1824 abolished the duty of smallpox vaccination by a special message, declaring it voluntary, while the vaccination remained, as before, free of charge. This is the Pope’s decision welcomed the famous “anti-vaccine” of that era, the Roman poet Giovanni Gioacchino Belli.

Belli attributed the idea of ​​vaccination to the “Freemasons” – the Freemasons; in his opinion, the vaccine usurped the role that God gave to mother nature. Later, Gregory XVI resumed the smallpox campaign, relying on the legislation of Pius VII and Consalvi and establishing the Congregation for Public Health in 1834. Pope Gregory XVI ordered to vaccinate all prisoners in the territories of the Papal State.

The last ruler of the Papal States, Pius IX, also promoted a vaccination campaign in 1848, with a focus on the poor. By special notice dated April 23rd, he ordered that everyone who vaccinated and returned eight days later for a medical examination should receive a 2 paoli award.

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