Birth Control: Is Canada Out Of Step With Rome?
By Msgr. Vincent N. Foy (Life Ethics Information Centre, 128 pages, $9.95)

Reviewed by Doug McManaman
The Interim

For 18 years, I’ve been teaching young people what exactly is the moral difference between contraception and the legitimate use of natural family planning and I’ve had no difficulties getting them to understand the reasonableness of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The difficulties have instead come from adults raised in an era that institutionalized a careless reading of Newman’s doctrine on conscience. It would have been nice if such a misreading could have contained itself, but tumours are often malignant. As Etienne Gilson wrote: “Philosophers are free to lay down their own sets of principles, but once this is done, they no longer think as they wish — they think as they can … any attempt on the part of a philosopher to shun the consequences of his own position is doomed to failure.”

If my malformed conscience tells me that drinking a cup of coffee is mortally sinful, and the Holy Father tells me it isn’t, but I am still convinced that it is, then I am bound to follow my conscience, for otherwise I would be doing what in my best judgment is offensive to God. But if my malformed conscience in no way reproaches me for telling dirty jokes to a group of young students, but a colleague of mine does, my conscience is at that moment altered, even if he has no time to explain himself, but promises to later on. My best judgement now, as opposed to a moment ago, is that what I am doing might very well be imprudent. I can no longer tell those jokes in good conscience, because I know, at the very least, that someone I respect is convinced that what I am doing is morally questionable. I am duty bound to follow my conscience, which has undergone a slight modification as a result of a piece of new information.

If this is true, then it is hard to see how a Catholic can, in good conscience, proceed to introduce contraception into his married life, knowing that for 2,000 years the church has taught that contraception is seriously wrong and that this teaching was officially reiterated in 1968 and many times since then. It is even more difficult to imagine how a Catholic religious leader could entertain the notion that a Catholic can do so “in good conscience,” in light of the monumental backing and brilliant elucidation Humanae Vitae has received from the greatest moral thinkers in the world since its publication, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Janet Smith, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, William May, Donald DeMarco, Paul Quay, Carlo Caffarra, Louis Bouyer and Pope John Paul II, to name but a few.

But there are many who do entertain such a notion  and it is the arguments and statements of these people that Monsignor Vincent Foy takes on in his book Birth Control: Is Canada Out Of Step With Rome?

Although at times I was slightly put off by the apparent lack of tactfulness here and there and some rather abrupt statements that, while not false in themselves, require lengthy explanation, in time I began to consider the real possibility that perhaps I have a few more years ahead of me before I am made completely aware of the full scope of the depravity of contraception.

This book is very interesting reading and will prove to be a great resource. It may not contain the prose of a poet or exhibit the architectural reasoning of a philosopher, but it is highly informative, rich on textual evidence, clear, exciting, thought provoking and is perhaps better compared to the air-tight case of a good lawyer.

For example, on page 68, Foy calls our attention to a very important point regarding divine assistance. In light of church teaching on the sufficiency of grace and Trent’s condemnation of the opinion that holds it is impossible to keep God’s commandments, it is hard to see how the following section of the Winnipeg Statement can be admitted by anyone with genuine faith in providence and in the availability of divine grace: “A certain number of Catholics find it either extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own all elements of this doctrine” (n. 17; Cf. paragraph 26).
Is it any wonder that a large majority of Catholics practise contraception or that young people have been consistently told they can’t say no, only to be offered condoms, prescriptions, leaflets and a certain type of counsel?

When the textual evidence in this book is carefully considered, it is hard not to conclude with the good monsignor that the Winnipeg Statement probably has more in common with the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops than with anything that has come out of Rome since 1968 or even before.

Doug McManaman, a new contributor to The Interim, teaches the philosophy of religion at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ont. The book Birth Control: Is Canada Out Of Step With Rome? can be ordered by calling (416) 204-1202 or send a cheque  for $9.95 plus $2.95 S&H to Life Ethics Information Centre, 3rd Floor, 104 Bond St., Toronto, Ont., M5m 1X9.