While men and women have a responsibility to be vaccinated against COVID-19, they also have a responsibility to engage in dialogue with those who are hesitant, rather than trying to force them, said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.
During a briefing with journalists at the Vatican press office Sept. 28, Archbishop Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that while the academy has "always recommended the need for responsibility regarding vaccines, we never spoke of obligation."
"We spoke of responsibility to oneself and of responsibility toward those who, for example, cannot receive the vaccine," Archbishop Paglia said. "I hope that within the church -- where we are used to debating each other -- we can debate about this without excluding one another."
Archbishop Paglia, along with David Barbe, president of the World Medical Association, and Maria Chiara Carrozza, president of the Italian National Research Council, presented the discussions taking place during the Pontifical Academy for Life's plenary assembly.
The Sept. 27-29 meeting reflected on the theme, "Public health in a global perspective: pandemic, bioethics and the future." Archbishop Paglia explained that the assembly was not about the pandemic, but "about what we have learned from the pandemic and what guidelines we should follow and practice for a new future."
Addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy, the Italian archbishop said that "what is happening is useful for a wider reflection to understand how we must live our lives in a better way."
Acknowledging the divisiveness of the issue, even within families, Archbishop Paglia said that dialogue, not confrontation, was necessary to allay fears and doubts concerning the vaccine.
Carrozza emphasized the need for not only effective scientific communication, education and formation, but more importantly, for efforts to rebuild trust.
"Conflicts are born on the one hand from ignorance, from not understanding the effects of the vaccine," she said. But they also come from "the lack of trust in the authorities, in the government, in those who propose it and then, from suspicions of what could be behind it, as if it were a plot."
Barbe noted that even before the pandemic, the "'anti-vax' sentiment or movement has been rising in almost all countries," and there are added suspicions about the COVID-19 vaccine because of how seemingly fast it was developed and distributed.
"Most vaccines, historically, have taken many years to develop," he explained. "Our newer technologies have allowed us to develop it more rapidly. But some of those new technologies also involve mRNA and that made additional people suspicious."
He also said that changing recommendations -- such as vaccine mandates, the wearing of masks in public spaces or social distancing regulations -- were misinterpreted by some as "uncertainty or lack of consistency in our message" rather than the evolving understanding of COVID-19.
Barbe told journalists that he often draws a comparison with treatments for diabetes when explaining changing recommendations to his patients.
"I did not take care of diabetes now the way I did 10 years ago," he said. "Technology has changed, new medications have developed, our understanding of the disease is different but that happened over 10 years. When my patients come to me, they want to be treated with a modern approach, not (one from) 10 years ago."
Barbe said that the difference with the pandemic is that recommendations and regulations have "changed so fast, people simply can't understand why it is so different month after month."
"Things do change in medicine, things change in technology, and they will continue to change even in this pandemic," he said.