My New Favorite Pope…

My New Favorite Pope… June 30, 2011
…is Clement XI!


Why, you ask?  Simply put, he is responsible for my favorite application to date of overwhelming theocratic power.  You may remember, several weeks ago, I mentioned in a Quick Take that I was delighted that Rinderpest, a viral disease infecting cattle, had been wiped from the face of the earth.  It is only the second disease in history to be deliberately eradicated by humans (small pox was the first).

When I originally posted about the Rinderpest victory, I assumed it was irrelevant to the general topic of this blog, but, as is often the case, I shoehorned it in in a fit of epidemiological enthusiasm. But a piece in Tuesday’s Science section of The New York Times turned up a Catholic connection:

In 1713, when it threatened the papal herds, Pope Clement XI asked his personal physician, Dr. Giovanni Maria Lancisi, to stop it. Dr. Lancisi was familiar with the work of Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini, a scholar at the University of Padua who accurately deduced that rinderpest spread by the “virulently poisoned breath of an ox” and its excretions and hide — not by fogs, astrology or other popular theories.

According to Dr. Scott, Dr. Lancisi prescribed quarantine measures that were nearly as brutal to humans as to cattle.

Charlatan “cures” were banned; priests were ordered to stop relying on prayer alone and to preach from the pulpit that all herds with any sick members were to be slaughtered and buried in lime, while healthy herds were to be kept isolated. Any layman who resisted or cheated was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Any disobeying priest was to be sent to the galleys for life.

Within nine months, the outbreak in the Papal States was snuffed. In the rest of Europe — where Protestants disdained papal orders — it persisted for a century and killed 200 million cattle.

It’s easy to forget how urgent and violent disease containment is when you live in the well-vaccinated Western world.  During the smallpox eradication campaign, people in containment zones were not always politely lining up to be vaccinated.  WHO doctors brought the full pressure of whatever local authority existed to bear, and many of the vaccinations might fall under the bioethically proscribed category of coercion. (As always, check out Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer for details.)

People who complain about coercion and government pressure in favor of vaccination usually seem to have forgotten the world we won an escape from.  We’re lucky that we haven’t been faced with the kinds of outbreaks that would require this response world wide.  We’re also lucky that science and health education primes most people to cooperate with public health officials and campaigns.  But every time science budgets are slashed or doctors keep the details vague, we get closer to a world where every epidemic requires the merciless commitment of Clement XI.

(P.S. Before I praised Pope Clement XI, I had to do a quick wikipedia check to make sure he wasn’t involved in the infamous Cadaver Synod, but, luckily, he’s got a clean record!)

If you don’t recognize the reference, you really ought to check the link
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  • What a great story! Thanks for sharing!

  • Interesting story.Also interesting that you favour the totalitarian approach to public health where people are forced to participate in vaccinations against their will for the good of the majority, and probably themselves too. A most interesting position for supposed 'liberals', but I guess that word doesn't mean what it used to.Incidentally, does this prove Catholicism is better than Protestantism?

  • You can't make a compelling pitch to people who don't want to lose their cows if they don't have a rough understanding of biology/germ theory/scientific method/etc. It's obviously preferable to have everyone be educated (and have a society that affords everyone the time to be educated), but, in the meantime, coercion to save their lives and their livelihood is in order.

  • Alfonso

    Finally anti-Catholic myths begin to unravel. Of course it is wrong to say that Pope Leo XII condemned the vaccine. But the reality is more fascinating. Both the Catholic clergy as many monarchs as “Carlos IV of Spain” actively promoted the vaccination (and before the cinchona bark for malaria), while Cromwell was left to die by not testing the bark Jesuit …
    In response to a Large Outbreak of smallpox in the Spanish colonies, King Charles IV Francisco Xavier de Balmis Appointed to lead an expedition That Would Jenner’s vaccine to introduce These colonies. In 1798, King Charles IV STATEMENTS The Civilian Population That Should Be vaccined. A Year Later, a copy of Edward Jenner’s book WAS Sent to King Charles IV by an Italian physician, weitere historical Attracting Attention to the prevention of smallpox. All These events culminate in the Issuance of a royal edict Announcing the Widespread Availability of the smallpox vaccine in Spain in 1800. THIS Vaccination Campaigns Be Supervised by the Catholic Clergy and immunization registries That Be Kept by Priests. I advise you to read this wonderful article:
    The Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to Bring Smallpox Vaccination to the New World and Asia in the 19th Century
    According to Rafael E. Tarragó “The Catholic Clergy Gave Their support to the Vaccination
    campaign. In New Spain the expedition and feted in WAS WELCOMED
    cities like Guadalajara and Oaxaca by Their bishops. The bishop of
    Oaxaca Encouraged the Clergy to support the Vaccination Campaign
    Preaching That Should none of Them feel no obligation to do so, thinking
    I Had the care of souls and Not That of teddies; Such a view Would show
    His ignorance, A Lack of charity, and a failure to Understand That He Who
    Is Able to save a fellow human being and do not does so commits a
    crime.The bishop of Puebla wrote a pastoral letter encouraging historical
    flock to get Vaccinate, Himself and I assisted in the formation of a
    Vaccination board. …
    French historian studies of Bercé about pope Leo XII, apparently already in a paper of 1983 mentioned the French clergy as a great booster of the vaccine in nineteenth-century France.