In June 1995, a $500 reward was offered to any Canadian priest who would preach a homily.

Now, you might think priests were chomping at the bit to ease the crunch on their church’s coffers by making some easy cash through the pulpit. But there was just one problem: the homily in question has to be strictly devoted to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.

“That was an experiment,” says Joseph Pope, the 74-year old Toronto stockbroker who issued the reward. He put forth the offer to gauge how common a preaching topic Pope Paul VI’s encyclical was in the Catholic churches of the land. As it turned out, it wasn’t very common at all.

“Not one priest came forward to say, ‘I’ll donate the $500’ or ‘I’ll donate the $500 to charity,’” says Pope, adding that the reward still stands.

Faith and morals

Pope has long been a critic of Canadian Catholic bishops and what he sees as their reticence to instruct on matters of faith and morals, as dictated by the Vatican. In 198, he issued a series of “open letters” to the bishops taking them to task on several points.

“The venture, while a good and only too necessary one, did not appear to find much favor with our bishops,” Pope wrote afterward.

Described by The Toronto Star as a Bay Street legend, Pope has cut back on his working hours in recent years, taking naps during the day and leaving more of Pope and Company’s stock broking work to his sons. But he hasn’t retired.

He has worked in the field for 56 years and founded his firm, which specializes in unlisted stocks, in 1962. In his spare time, he pilots his own plane, studies rare Bibles and Catholic manuscripts and keeps his eye on developments in Canadian Catholicism.

“I’ve been well trained in moral and dogmatic theology,” he says during an interview in his central Toronto home, “I’ve had very good teachers and training and I recognize aberrations. I feel it’s my duty to try to do something about it.”

Pope sees Humanae Vitae as a key sticking point, since it is his belief that a tolerance of contraception leads to widespread abortion. “Impurity leads to hardness of heart leads to abortion,” he says. “One follows the other.”

For that reason, he is particularly troubled by the Canadian bishops’ tepid response to the first issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968.

“In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, these persons who have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience,” the bishops said at September, 1968 Canadian Catholic Conference meeting in Winnipeg.

“It’s gibberish,” says Pope of the statement. “It defies rational analysis. You can’t draw any meaning from it.”

In April, 1969, the Canadian Catholic Conference clarified its stance somewhat by issuing a statement which said “nothing could be gained and much lost by any attempt to rephrase” what was stated at Winnipeg.

The bishops went on to explain that the Catholic is not free to inform his conscience without consideration of the teaching of the magisterium of the Church. They said “such teaching in some ways imposes a great burden of responsibility on the individual conscience.”

One the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae in 1993, the Canadian bishops reiterated major themes of the encyclical, including the emphasis on natural family planning. “We understand the very real difficulties (Christian couples) face in remaining faithful to the tenets and values of the Church’s teachings.”

“The bishops aren’t doing their job,” responds Pope. “Pope Paul VI urged all priests to give proper instruction in these matters. They don’t do it.”

He has also been taking on the Canadian Church’s continued use of the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible in recent years, despite the version’s classification by the Vatican as unsuitable for catechetics and liturgy.

According to the CCCB, the bishops have formed a committee to study the matter. But that doesn’t sit well with Pope. “What’s there to study?” he asks.

For the future, Pope has more open letters, advertisements and booklets planned. His next missive? “Canada in Schism.”