Part Three: Catholic Theology

This is the third part in a series on the Churches and pro-life issues.  Part One on The United Church appeared in the April 1986 issue and Part Two, covering the Anglicans, in the May edition.

Two related articles, “Pro-abortion Catholics?” and “Pro-abortion feminists and nuns” appeared respectively in the February and May editions.  Two introductory articles to this current series, discussing the leaders and the issues of secular feminists, which appeared in October and November 1985, are available in the pamphlet “Feminism and its Canadian Connection,” (60 cents per copy, $5.00 for ten, $40.00 for 100, plus postage and handling) from Life Ethics Centre, 215 Victoria Street, Suite 506, Toronto, Ontario M5B 1T9.

Fr. Alphonse de Valk is a historian and a Catholic priest of the Congregation of St. Basil.

As has been observed by others, the phenomenon unique to the age in which we live is not really the computer, the television or even the nuclear bomb.  It is that never before has “irreligion,” atheistic of agnostic, been taken universally for granted.  In one-half of the world religion is actively persecuted, and, in the other it is ignored as irrelevant.

In the Western world, irreligion rapidly expanded with the coming of the permissive society in the sixties.  In Canada it was reinforced by government measures taken under the sixteen-year rule of Pierre Trudeau (1968-1984) who believed that modern society must be secular.  However, everywhere in the West, pluralism – that is, tolerance of a plurality of views and ideas – has come to mean the imposition of secularism and the removal of religious views from law, politics and the public forum.

But secularism also invaded the religious communities themselves.  Among Roman Catholics its greatest opportunity came also in the early sixties, when the Church was in the process of re-examining age-old customs and attitudes.  Many mistook updating for “letting the reins go” in their own personal lives.  Living in countries with a hitherto-unknown prosperity and affluence, openness to the world became openness to irreligion.


As we have seen, Canada’s largest community of Protestants has been singularly unable to withstand the secularist onslaught.

The United church is a Christian community of faith entirely restricted to Canada, without binding external relations to any other body.  It rules itself by majority vote and generates decisions on faith and morals according to the contemporary interpretations of its members.

The Anglican community, too, has found it difficult, in fact impossible, to resist the modern forces of unbelief and irreligion, especially in family and sexual morality (see Interim May issue).  Canadian Anglicans have a wider base than the United Church by being part of an international Anglican community.  Yet, as noted earlier, the 28 “provinces” are, in reality, fully autonomous, They may, if they wish, consult with one another, but consultation is neither required nor binding.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is especially honoured, and as such may function as a focus for unity; yet, again, he has no authority of a binding nature to make this function work, not even in his own “Church of England,”


The situation of the Canadian Roman Catholics is very different from either the United or Anglican Churches.  There is no such thing as the Catholic Church of Canada.  There is an organization called the “Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops” (CCCB), and obviously there are Canadian Catholics, but these have neither power nor authority to teach anything which is nor part of the belief and teaching of the universal Church.

The universal Church itself cannot make changes to the inherited “deposit of faith.”  The Christian faith was revealed to mankind by the Son of God, the Messiah, Who, after a long preparatory period (depicted in the Old Testament) came on earth to teach the nature of God and man’s relationship to Him, in a manner which only He could do.

The Catholic Church holds that Christ is the beginning, the head of the church.  The Pope is His Vicar, His representative on earth, with powers to bind and loose.  He is chief teacher of all who hold the Catholic faith that comes to then from the Apostles.  Bishops, who, together with the Pope, are in “Apostolic Succession,” share this teaching authority, “provided,” the Second Vatican Council states, “that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith and morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively.”

Family Morality

This teaching of the Church, in addition to the doctrines of faith, also covers morality, including sexual-family morality.  Indeed, the latter outweighs other areas in importance because its subject is the human being himself.  Nothing in nature is more vital and intimate to the human person than his of her sexuality and nothing in nature corrupts man and civilization more decisively than organized and widespread abuse of sexual matters.  Problems of housing, unemployment, inflation, finance – each important in itself – pale in comparison with what happens to society through mistaken or false teaching on human sexuality.

Despite social pressures during the last 25 years, the Catholic Church has refused to abandon age-old standards.  It continues to reject abortion (for any reason), contraception, sterilization, euthanasia, pre- and extra-marital sexual relations, homosexual activity, divorce, artificial insemination of humans, suicide, and other related matters, contrary to the objective moral order willed by God.  It continues to reject them as sinful and harmful, the first as an offence to God, the latter as causing injury to society, injury to self and injury to nature.

Canadian Bishops

Canadian Catholic Bishops – as teachers of the local Church – have striven to uphold the teaching of the universal Church.  If they have not always done as well as they might have (something which will be left for examination in a future article), it should be understood first that they have made no concession of principle.  Hence, the rage of a Morgentaler, the moping of some clergymen, the enmity of the academics and the hostility of the media.

Communications between Canada and Rome are not always without strain, but, in this regard, as in so many others, the Second Vatican Council proved providential.  It sat for four consecutive fall sessions from 1962-1965, attended by some 2600 bishops from across the world.  It re-affirmed and cemented the unity of all those attending it, at a time when it emphasized a new openness to the world and to separated Christian communities.  Following it, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) wisely instituted a regular Episcopal synod to be held in Rome every two years, later on every three years.

This body of delegates from across the world acts as a sounding board and as an instrument for the continued consolidation of unity among the world’s bishops, perhaps precisely because it is a consultative forum only and not legislative.


Despite the steadfastness of the universal church, irreligion has made severe inroads among North American Catholics.  Some say, it is precisely because of the Church’s refusal to accommodate herself to the permissive society that the faithful are deserting her.  This refusal is symbolized above all, by the 1968 papal encyclical On Human Life (Humanae Vitae).

In Canada, as elsewhere too, the papal stand upholding the teaching against contraception led to a chorus of Catholic dissent, most of it centred in academic circles.  In 1986, as in 1968, these same circles, some enhanced with formally-established theological schools independent of episcopal control, continue to threaten Canadian Catholicism.

The collapse of the moral/intellectual tradition among Catholic academics, laity as well as clergy, together with the pressure from undigested ecumenism, the assaults of secularism and the misrepresentations of the mass media, are sowing confusion everywhere.

Academics who dissent from Church teaching, speak loudly; the others bury themselves in their books and act as if they have heard nothing.  Meanwhile, bishops and superiors of religious orders either claim ignorance or, failing that, suggest their hands are tied because of academic autonomy or because those on whom they counted for advice, their own theologians, have themselves joined the ranks of the dissenters.


Dissent from the principles of revealed religion constitutes a two-fold assault.  It is an attack on the nature of the Church as well as an attack on religion itself.

Catholic dissenters from Church teaching have been fighting a guerrilla war for years.  As they have gone unchallenged, they have grown bolder.  Hemmed in by limited resources and by the reluctance of local hierarchies to act, the Vatican has been unable to do much.  Recently, however, it publicly asked Father Charles Curran, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America in Washington to retract a number of his interpretations.

Curran teaches that the Church errs on abortion and euthanasia; on masturbation, pre-marital sex and homosexuality; on contraception and sterilization: and on the indissolubility of sacramental and consummated marriage.  His views, illustrate once again how closely tied together these issues are.

Curran does not deny that he “dissents” from Church teaching which, he says, he has always treated with respect.  He “merely” claims, he states, that it is legitimate for a Roman Catholic to do so, at least in non-infallible teaching.

A number of Curran’s colleagues and supporters, who themselves dissent from Catholic teaching, have rallied to his support.  As in the case of Professor Hans Kung, when newspapers took up Kung’s own charge that the “inquisitors” were after him, the cry has gone up once again that the Church is assaulting “academic freedom” and “freedom of conscience.”  It is ever such.  (For example, “Is the Vatican conducting another Grand Inquisition?”, Tom Harpur, Toronto Star, May 25,1986).

Two authorities?

A truer version was aptly presented by a recent letter to an editor:

“For the Catholic theologian there are not “two authorities,” the “authority of the conscientious intellect and the authority of the Church.”  The authority that must guide the theologian’s studies, in addition to the relatively few ex cathedra pronouncements, is the constant day-to-day traditional teaching of the Church, which is called the ordinary Magisterium.  The theologian’s work is not an independent of esoteric pursuit outside the Magisterium, but one conducted in union with it.  It must be an expansion or clarification thereof.  The theologian builds from the inside; he does not sand outside looking in.

This business about theologians being on the “cutting edge” of knowledge betrays the fundamental flaw in some theologians’ thinking.  The metaphor is taken from the physical sciences, but the physical scientist as such is not concerned with eternal, immutable truth.  The scientist is content to advance hypotheses about the physical world that can be proved or disproved experimentally, depending on available technology.  Theology is unlike medicine or any other science because it attempts to deal systematically with a body of truths already revealed and known from Scripture and the living tradition of the Church.  The Catholic theologian accepts this as his starting point and does not try to invent new “truths.”


In Canada, practically every Catholic college or seminary has dissenting teachers.  There is another aspect as well.  Some Canadian Catholic Colleges or Faculties are integrated with provincial universities.  This never used to be a problem but in come cases has become so now.

Montreal used to have a Catholic university with a Pontifical Faculty of Theology.  When the Church in Quebec relinquished control of the education system during the sixties. It also surrendered its Catholic universities.  In Montreal half a dozen or more priests in the Faculty of Theology secularized themselves along with the university, some getting married, others abandoning the Church.  All of them. However, insisted on their “right” to continue teaching Catholic theology, using their academic tenure as the main lever with which to resist those who demanded they leave.

The battle raged all through the seventies.  Naturally, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), measuring all issues by its own secular standards, broadcast charges of inquisition, censorship, and so on.

The final solution of the dispute was to transform the Pontifical Faculty into a secular Department of Religious Studies, while the Archbishop moved his Pontifical Faculty – minus its dissenting staff – to the Grand Seminaire, which stood empty.

If Montreal was able to resolve its jurisdictional problems, be it in then at a price to the Church, which lost its University Faculty – Toronto hasn’t.  As one of the four original which constituted the University of Toronto Arts faculty, St. Michael’s College (SMC) taught Religious Studies, the Catholic variety, in the fifties.  Neighbouring to it was St. Basil’s Seminary with its own theology faculty.

In the mid-sixties St. Basil’s merged its faculty into an SMC Faculty of Theo-logy.  This, in turn, took much of the teaching role of the Archdiocesan Seminary, St. Augustine’s, as well as tying itself with other Protestant faculties into an ecumenical assemblage called the Toronto School of Theology (TST).  The latter then recognized St. Augustine’s and the Jesuit Regis College as Catholic participants, in addition to the SMC Faculty.

In the late sixties, Religious Studies (RS) courses became respectable for undergraduates throughout North America.  Consequently, RS departments sprang up everywhere on secular campuses, always with the provision that they be secular and concerned with comparative religion only, under no circumstances involving them-selves with what disparagingly referred to as “indoctrination” or “sectarianism.”  When in 1975, the U of T Colleges surrendered their departmental autonomy in the Arts courses to the University in exchange for being placed on its payroll, SMC lost control over hiring and new courses in its RS department.  Meanwhile, the Faculty of Theology was so hemmed in with secular academic rules and dissenting theologians that there, too, effective control has ceased to exist.

Today’s staff at the SMC Faculty of Theology, often cross appointed with RS, reflect the ravages and influence of irreligion.  Professors include one who is divorced and ceased to be a believing Christian a decade or more ago.  Another was hired 15 years ago – at a time when he was already known to be a lapsed Catholic.  A third professor, a Presbyterian when he was hired, has abandoned Christianity for the Moonies.  A fourth teacher, a priest, at one time publicly rebuked for unacceptable views on sexual morality by his then Archbishop, incurred excommunication later on for abandoning the priesthood and getting married without laicization.  A fifth professor, holding positions in both RS and English, lives with somebody else’s wife.  A sixth received tenure in 1982, abandoned his priesthood and the Church at the end of that year, threatened to sue when he was requested to leave, continues on the Faculty payroll today, and signs his name as Professor of New Testament, St. Michael’s College.

The problem of “lifestyle,” contrary to the Church’s teaching may be more acute in Toronto than elsewhere.  I mention it here as something tangible, something more easily discovered than dissent in teaching.  The latter, however, is far more widespread, by no means restricted to contrary lifestyles,  and much more destructive of religious faith.


A remarkable feature of the entire picture is that few administrators, not to speak of the faculty itself, feel obliged or seem anxious to do anything about it.  On the contrary, any attempts by the Vatican to reassert Episcopal supervision over teaching of Catholic universities have been denounced far and wide.

In 1979, Charles Curran attacked the Apostolic constitution Sapientia Christiana as contrary to “academic freedom.”  It re-iterated that teachers in disciplines concerning faith and morals need a “canonical mission,” that is, continued approval of the Church herself.  Curran’s idea that the Church must be at arm’s length from her own academic institutions had already been rejected by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education ten years earlier, in 1969.  Said the

Congregation at that time:

“To fulfill its mission, a Catholic university must be seen as existing not only in the world, but also in the Catholic Community: the Catholic hierarchy.  Obviously, the specific purpose of the Catholic university cannot be realized if those whose proper function in it is to be the authentic guardians of the deposit of the faith are relegated to a marginal place in its life and activity.”

Yet despite this, a March 1981 conference of Canadian heads of Catholic institutions, attended by delegates of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, expressed its determination to resist Canons 762-770, proposed for the new Canon law.  These Canons state that teachers of doctrine and morals should be subject to the Church, which should be able to remove them from office, if necessary.  The then president of SMC, apparently reflecting the opinion of the meeting, expressed his absolute opposition to the idea arguing that “such action would convulse the entire Canadian academic community.”

Five years later the same group of academic Catholic heads are still fighting Church accountability, despite the fact that it is now Canon law.  On hearing of a draft document to implement close Church supervision, the chairman of the newly-formed Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (president of Waterloo’s St. Jerome’s College, which has its own problems with Catholicity), was reported as saying it could have disastrous effects.  After expressing a series of objections, he finally offered the opinion – as it concluded the agreement – that any bishop’s attempt to enforce “doctrinal integrity” and “uprightness of life” would probably be illegal in Canada and in contravention of the Charter of Rights.

Here, then, the malaise stands before us in its boldest form.  Those in charge appear unwilling to see to uprightness of life or the correct teaching of faith and morals.  They throw up their hands and blame structures for their own unwillingness to act.  This, truly, is a sickness unto death.

To be continued…