One group to adopt this attitude was the growing chorus of theologians who had dissented from Humanae Vitae. Some of them were clever in making false statements look good, such as that Catholics were forthright in the defense of human life – but only in certain areas like abortion – while being ambivalent about other areas such as the destruction of human life in war (Contraceptives? No! Bombs? Well…) Such derisive put downs became popular, fitting in with anti-Vietnam activity in the USA. Above all, of course, they were agreeable to people seeking an excuse for their own defiance of the Church teaching on matters of sexual or marital morality. The early seventies were the years when the number of priests and nuns fleeing from their vowed commitments reached an all time high in the history of the peacetime church.

Like-minded spirits pushed in the same direction. The CCCB proposal to institute “Respect for Life days” did not fare well. Only the first of these, in 1971, was devoted exclusively to the unborn. But this proved unacceptable to a Catholic Women’s League workshop preparing for a meeting with the Bishops. Led by an Edmonton contingent (the same that pushed for women’s ordination at the April 1971 meeting), the gathering refused to endorse the 1971 day. Respect for life, they said, confusing the issues thoroughly, should include all life and hence opposition to war and capital punishment as well. After two more years, Respect for Life day died.

Similar wooly thinking could also be read in Catholic weeklies. Said an Edmonton priest in 1974: “I am getting a little tired about abortion as the great moral and social evil of our times.”

“Oh yes,” he said, “abortion is a clear-cut issue and easy to rally around, but the gut issue is not spoken about. This is the injustice which we have perpetuated, which is practically condoned by the very people who are upset about abortion.”

This mixture of ignorance, inappropriate self-flagellation and injustice towards pro-life carried the day among many people.

Distant tone

The emphasis on economic and political issues became increasingly associated with a distant tone toward pro-life among bishops. In April 1973, the Bishop’s Conference in Ottawa published what would prove to be its last declaration on abortion for the next ten years. It contained only five paragraphs and was entitled For a Society Hospitable to Life.

The Bishops repeated that “abortion was an abominable crime’; they re-affirmed “the basic obligation of the state to protect the right to human life, particularly on behalf of those unable to defend themselves.” They even called for more support for “pro-life groups and services.”

But, they quickly added, “making this a society hospitable to life, is a foremost requirement of social justice” (and this will include) “working to change economic and social realities in the direction of justice and respect for life. From doing this we must not flinch.”

Those who oppose abortion, were warned, “must take seriously that (they) care too little about the special problems of mothers and the burdens or rearing children once they are born.”

The Bishops did not say by what logic the rebuke was being applied. Did they know that by that time this accusation as a common technique of the pro-abortionists to silence the critics of the abortion law? Perhaps not. But the charge that pro-lifers harbour an uncaring, insensitive attitude towards the vulnerable, the victimized, the oppressed and the poor already born, was part of the propaganda launched by those supporting issued from abortion to zero-population growth.

This rule was applied to no other group in society. Only those who oppose abortion were told that unless they had a full slate of solutions, they had no right to criticize. Anyone was free to criticize South Africa’s apartheid, Salvadorean death squads, or the alleged immoral practices of international corporations.

No one asked them their views on the killing of the unborn. But let someone say he opposed the killing of the unborn, and a crowd would gather demanding to know where he stood on this or that controversy, in such and such a country. Then after having heard him out, they would accuse him, no matter what the reply, of being a “one issue” fanatic.


In 1976 the Quebec bishops published their second collective letter. It consisted of a serried of reflections, mostly hesitant and tentative. The Bishops reiterated that abortion was unjustified, but the tone in which it was said seemed to indicate a view almost as critical of the anti-abortionists as of the pro-abortionists. This letter leaves the impression that unless society adopted a series of measures in the areas of unemployment and financial assistance, it was somehow less than honest to deny women abortions. The Globe, always quick to fail the pro-life camp, picked up on it right away, “Quebec Bishops urge détente on abortion,” read the headline.

As could have been predicted, this playing to the galleries did not gain the Bishops the respect of their dissenting theologians. Quebec priest-theologian Thierry Maertens, for one, contemptuously contradicted them, claiming that they were utterly incompetent to judge such matters. (Someone should have raised the question wheter he, them, was no longer celibate.)

When, in December 1981, Quebec issued a third, much firmer, collective letter, it, too, got raked over the coals, especially by the feminists and the editorial staff of the Jesuit monthly Relations, under the editorship of Julien Harvey. (Discussed earlier, see July-August 1986 article).

Let it suffice to note that dissent certainly influenced bishops against their task of forcefully presenting the teaching of the Church. Perhaps this should be counted as a fourth characteristic. Even by the late sixties some bishops felt that they could not give clear directions to their clergy because of a crisis in authority. “If they (the clergy) don’t follow through, the bishop loses face,” the argument went.

For the bishops, dissent was not only a question of being attacked but also receiving the wrong advice. The CCCB, in an attempt to provide information on issues of biomedicine and bioethics to its members, engaged Dr. David Roy of the Bioethics centre at the University of Montreal for two years, 1980-1982, at a cost of $90,000 a year.

A mathematician by background, with a doctorate in theology, Roy (a priest) was requested to update not only the Bishops by means of current material on the technical and ethical aspects of specific biomedical issues, but also to conduct diocesan seminars. This he did, delivering half a dozen “packages” of documents on as many subjects. Unfortunately, being a disciple of “contextual” ethics, he contradicted orthodox teaching in almost every instance.

His thinking on abortion, for example, regressed from his mistaken argument in 1979 that abortion was permitted in the first two weeks or so, to the opinion expressed in 1983 that if anything was certain, it was that pro-life’s rejection of abortion under all circumstances was totally wrong. Needless to say, he didn’t hide his views while on speaking tours across the country, where he was billed as “official spokesman” for the CCCB.

Evidence, again

What finally then, is one to think of Cardinal Carter’s 1981 reference to the National Conference of having spoken out on numerous occasions. Over the period 1968 to 1983 these pronouncements amounted to three pastoral statements, that is, statements directed to Catholics at large rather than to governments: the original one of January 1968 (not yet discussed); the six paragraph one of October 1970, plus the five paragraph one of April 1973.

Add two press releases, one of December 1968 and one in April 1969. Add one protest issued in November 1978 by then President of the CCCB, Archbishop Giles Oulette, against the YWCA for electioneering during the Federal elections in favour of removing abortion from the Criminal Code, and one arrives at a total of six declarations.

What about all the other sexual family moral questions which convulsed during the nation during this period of the “new” morality: teenage pregnancy, adultery, pornography, divorce, sterilization, suicide, euthanasia, venereal disease, homosexuality, in vitro fertilization? There was one Brief on the Family prepared for the Minister of Justice in February 1977, an October 1978 press release warning that the CCCB was keeping a watchful eye on federal health clinics (a project which had died sometime earlier, see Saskatoon); one letter dated December 1979 about a federally designed programme, written and sent to the Progressive Conservative government at their request; and one brief statement on child pornography, dated October 11, 1982. This brings the overall total to ten.

Is the fact that these statements number so few the result of episcopal  shyness in addressing governments on politically sensitive issues? Well no. When the Ontario bishops announced in 1973 that Canadian bishops would “not flinch” from “working to change economic and social realities…” they spoke the truth. From then on the process, begun in 1967, accelerated. There was an ever-expanding flood of words from the CCCB addressed to governments at home or elsewhere on every political and economic issue imaginable.

During the same 15 years, from 1968 to 1983, the CCCB freely exercised its right to comment on public affairs other than family morality. During this period, through various committees or its President, but chiefly through its Social Affairs Committee, it published no less than 127 government directed statements and protests on questions of political and economic justice. 47 of these concerned 19 countries other than Canada. To this are to be added statements and protests from various inter-church agencies in which CCCB representatives have a position. These declarations are so numerous that they may well be larger in number than those of the CCCB itself.

In other words, the comparison between public CCCB statements on questions of family, sexual and medical morality on the hand, and their positions on pipelines, Indians, immigration, unemployment, political developments in other countries, etc.. on the other, may well run 10 to 250, and this at a time when Canadian society was pre-occupied with questions about family morality. Again, not only is there a quantitative difference, but also a qualitative one. Of the 10 declarations on family morality, only four can be classified as “political,” that is, being directed towards the government, and these only barely. The six abortion statements were not among them.


In concluding this section, let us recall that the Bishops’ stand is part of a larger whole in the church which includes not only the Popes but also other specifically Catholic institutions which have opposed abortion.

Among them are Catholic hospitals, Catholic Nurses’ Associations, the Canadian Catholic Hospital Health Association, some Catholic Doctors Guilds, and, of course, the Catholic press. The Knights of Columbus have faithfully conducted Roses for Life sales on Sundays, year in, year out. The Catholic Women’s League, too, has continued to hammer out resolutions at their annual meetings as, for example, in 1972 when they adopted the eminently sensible resolution that the unborn child be defined in law as a human being.

When we summarize the position of the bishops as a group we find the following: initially they did not understand the nature of the 1969 legislation; afterwards they were unwilling to address the political implications of legalized abortion for Catholics in public office and unable to formulate policies on its social consequences; they promoted an emphasis on economic social justice issues almost as if to compensate for their silence on family life issues; and they were severely hampered in formulating policy because of dissent among moral theologians and laity.

Clearly, their record is mixed. They were sound on the fundamental evil of abortion itself, but unable or unwilling to do much more than reminding Catholics of it.

All of this has yet a deeper cause than meets the eye. For this we must turn first to the years 1966-1968 and examine the principles behind the Bishops’ stand on legal contraceptives, widening of divorce, politicians and abortion, and the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae, followed by an examination of the Bishops’ impatience with Rome and traditional moral authority.

To be continued

Alphonse de Valk, c.s.b., is a Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of St. Basil.