The course of events was as follows: In 1966 the CCCB announced that the Bishops would no longer object to the legal sale and distribution of contraceptives forbidden under Article 150, this despite the fact that the Catholic Church considered them an evil. They advised Catholics and other legislations that the question was really for them and not the Church to decide.

In 1967, the CCCB declared it would not oppose the legal widening of grounds of divorce (beyond adultery) this despite the fact that the Church teaches marriage to be indissoluble.  Once more the CCCB advised legislators to follow the principles of 1966, namely to distinguish between laws of a merely religious nature and wider laws pertaining to the common good of society, and then to make their decision.

In New York, bishops were taking the same position for the same reasons, namely that the law could not be enforced.  Bit in Italy, Pope Paul VI called upon Catholic to oppose the proposed divorce bill in that country.

–         in February 1968 the CCCB issued a pastoral letter on abortion in response to Justice Minister Trudeau’s announcement of the previous December that abortion would be legalized, a decision already publicly denounced by the Catholic Hospital Association.  The Bishops explained why abortion should not be legal, but this time they did not mention the rights or duties of legislators.  Had the authors had a change of mind?  Had the Committee decided that legislators – Catholic or others – were duty bound to reject the proposed legislation?  The document said nothing.

–         On month later, in March 1968, the CCCB delegation under Bishop Remi De Roo appeared before the Parliamentary Committee for an oral presentation.  This was preceded and concluded with assurances that the delegates had not come “to impose their views.”  In answer to a direct question from a Catholic Creditiste on the Committee, Rene Matte (Champlain), whether Roman Catholics were “morally bound” (to vote against), Bishop De Roo refused to affirm this, deflecting the question with the statement that “in the final analysis,” the legislator “must follow the dictates of his conscience.”  He added that this conscience had to be well-informed and that the legislator should legislate for the common good and not just simply go along with the majority.

When later on, Cabinet Minister Allan McEachern made enquiries at the chancery of the Archdiocese of Ottawa what the Catholic view was, he was refused an answer and told it was up to him.

When John Turned, the Minister of Justice went for advice to the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, he met with divided opinions, one priest telling him it was up to him, another disagreeing with this advice.

Other events

On July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming – after six years of discussion – the traditional Christian view.  Both the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage must be maintained and each marital act should remain open to procreation.  This came as a chock to those Catholics who had allowed themselves to be convinced that a change was in the offing.

–         In September, the Bishops issued a statement absolving from guilt those who were using contraceptives but who, in good conscience could not accept the Papal teaching.  They were careful to point out that they had approached this participation in the teaching authority of the Church “in the same spirit of solidarity…with the People of God” as could be found in “our recent submissions to the Federal Government on contraception, divorce and abortion.”

–         In December 1968, the CCCB issued a Statement reaffirming its opposition to abortion.  This time the Bishops explained a little more clearly why they were taking a stricter position on abortion than on contraceptives.  “In fact, different principles apply,” they said, “because abortion involves the supreme right to life.”  Hence, they states, our position is “not…purely personal or private or religious…but…rooted in public law and social action.”  Yet they weakened their statement by adding that legalizing abortion might not reduce back-street abortions and that this matter required further study.

–         Finally, in April 1969, the CCCB, at its semi-annual meeting, issued a similar “no, but” statement.  A three-sentence press release reiterated its “firm opposition,” then requested “at the very least an amendment which will respect the freedom of…hospitals and…medical practitioners.”  An amendment of the kind suggest by the Bishops was actually discussed, but denied as being necessary.

–         In May 1969, the House of Commons approved the committing of abortion be it only under certain conditions.


With respect to the 1966 civil approval of the sale of contraceptives and the 1968 Catholic prohibition of their use, the Bishops had granted the same kind of autonomy.  Individual Catholics could privately set aside Catholic teaching on contraceptives – if they acted in good conscience.  Legislators could do the same with respect to laws on contraceptives and divorce which contradicted their (religious) beliefs  In both cases they could remain “good” Catholics.

On abortion the CCCB reflected a continued uncertainty of though.  It had touched upon, but not sufficiently developed, the true nature of the issue – that no human being or institution may authorize the killing of another innocent human being.  At the same time, they had failed to demolish once and for all the argument that legalizing abortions might be the lesser of two evils.  This teaching can never be applied as long as there is a choice other than the two evils.  Consequently, it may never be used to justify abortion for there is always a choice not to have one.  As a result of this perplexity they left in abeyance the moral duty of legislators to reject all legislation approving abortions.


The CCCB’s view of civil law’s relationship to moral principles was not shared by the Vatican.  The difference was noted for example, by Mr. Mark McGuigan, a Member of Parliament, and a former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor.  He described Pope Paul’s expression of displeasure at the proposed recommendation for civil divorce in Italy in January 1967 as an “unwarranted intrusion into Italian Politics.”  He hailed the CCCB’s October 1966 Statement, with its distinction between moral and civil laws, as displaying “a much more profound understanding of the legitimate separation of Church and State.”  (Later on he went further and argued that the same distinction between civil and moral law should apply also to abortion).

Some Bishops seemed to think that there was no difference at all between them and Rome.  In August 1968, Bishop Alexander Carter of Sault Ste. Marie, then president of the Catholic Conference, in his preface to a booklet with the three statements on contraception, divorce and abortion had written: “The fact that this booklet is being published subsequent to the promulgation of Humanae Vitae adds to its interest.  Nothing in the encyclical, to my mind, is in conflict with the position of the Canadian Bishops.”

Yet, the Toronto Globe and Mail had noticed the day after the encyclical’s date of publication that the Pope’s stand was the opposite of that of the Canadian Bishops.  Instead of withdrawing opposition to changes in the law such as contraceptives and divorce, the Pope appealed to public authorities to resist whenever “by legal means, practices contrary to the natural and divine law be introduced into that fundamental cell, the family.”

The Globe was able to report cheerfully that the Pope’s “dangerous” appeal would have no effect whatever on the newly elected government of Prime Minister Trudeau; its plans to proceed with birth control and abortion legislation had not been changed.  The Prime Minister and the new Minister of Justice, the reporter observed, were both Catholics who knew how to separate “private religion and public business.”

The Bishops’ distinction between civil and moral law was not copied in other countries.  When the question of civil divorce was broached in Argentina, Church leaders opposed it.  They were defeated.  When the same issue was introduced in the Irish Parliament in 1986, Church leaders opposed it – to the utter disgust of the Toronto Globe.  To the surprise of many, the Irish succeeded in rallying such support that the measure was roundly defeated.

Humanae Vitae

As most people know, the release of the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 29, 1968 led to an open revolt among priests and theologians, organized chiefly by Fr. Charles Curran and a number of his colleagues in Washington, but reaching out across the continent and even into Europe.  The free discussion and debates during the Vatican Council proved too much for certain theologians whose anxiety for openness to the world became transformed into pressure for conformity to the world.  No subject lent itself so well to this as contraception, so newly enhanced with the appearance of the pill in 1960.

The debate perplexed many within the church as well as without.  While Pope Paul VI had stated that “we are in a state of reflection but not doubt,” then Father Gregory Baum of Toronto, followed by Curran and others, had launched the idea as early as 1964 that the law was in doubt, and that a law in doubt was a law suspended.

The meaning and the details of the fury surrounding the encyclical’s release in the U.S.A., as well as in Canada, may be found in two excellent chapters of the thought provoking book The Desolate City (1987), by Anne Roche Muggeridge.  Let it suffice here to note that the Encyclical worked as a catalyst.  One example recently came to light and illustrates it well enough.  In a full-page article in the Catholic New Times of June 28, 1987, Fr. Walter Principe, theology professor at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, proudly recalls how “he just couldn’t buy Humanae Vitae,” and feeling “a kind of prophetic call,” he went on the CBC right away and “encouraged people to form their own consciences on this – with respect, of course, for the Church as teacher.”  Today, Fr. Principe disagrees with the Church on a number of things.  The author of the article, Janet Somerville, lauds him as a “champion of today’s theological pluralism.”

The Canadian Bishops Conference met for a week in Winnipeg in September 1968.  After four days of intense discussion, a group under the leadership of the Bishop of Victoria, Remi De Roo, chairman of the Theology Committee, aided by the two Bishops Carter, especially Bishop Alexander Carter of Sault Ste. Marie, whose chairmanship of the meeting proved valuable, succeeded in achieving a two-thirds majority for a statement modifying the encyclical’s impact.  The Bishops expressed their support for the papal teaching adding, “however, that those who could not see their way free to accept it in good conscience, shouldn’t despair.  Follow your conscience privately,” they said, “and try your best.”

Nature of dissent

The exact nature of the Statement has been disputed ever since.  As one Catholic editor, Douglas Roche of the Western Catholic Reporter put it, “there is no mistaking the fact that the Canadians have taken a position distinct from the Encyclical – if the Encyclical is realistically interpreted.”

Sociological surveys have shown that many Catholics interpreted it as formal approval for ignoring Papal teaching.  For many years the topic was no longer mentioned from the pulpit, while in schools and pre-marriage courses such as the one in Edmonton from 1970-80, the encyclical was treated as merely one opinion among many and not a very important one at that.  Instead of church teaching, a medical doctor explained various contraceptive devices.

Are the Canadian Bishops dissenters who reject authoritative teaching?  Fr. Charles Curran thought so.  In his August 1986 press conference where he rejected the Vatican’s ruling that he is “unsuitable to teach Catholic theology,” he cited the example of the Canadian Bishops in Winnipeg as justifying his public dissent from the Church’s authoritative teaching.

Fortunately, Charles Curran is wrong.  Unlike his own public teaching and public dissent, the Canadian Bishops spoke about possible problems faced by an individual’s private conscience.  Directly contrary to Father Curran, they defend the Church’s authoritative, non-infallible teaching by quoting Vatican II: “This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra…”

As for moral theologians and other teachers, the Bishops specifically state that “It follows that those who have been commissioned by the Church to teach in her name will recognize their responsibility to refrain from public opposition to the encyclical; to do otherwise would compound confusion and be a source of scandal.”

Wise decision?

As late as August 1980, before the Synod on the Family in the fall of that year, Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter expressed the belief that the 1968 statement had been a wise one and, indeed, that even then it was the route for Rome to go.  What is the teaching of the Church expressed by its chief pastor, Pope John Paul II?

In a recent address to the Bishops of Austria, Pope John Paul II explained that “The promotion and formation of the Christian family is and remains the foundation for all further pastoral work.  The essential criteria for this is authoritatively laid out in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, based on the Synod of Bishops of 1980, which in regard to questions of sexual and conjugal morality, takes up and develops decisions based on the entire tradition of the faith and expressed in Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

No doubt may be permitted regarding the validity of the moral prescriptions expressed therein.  If at the time of the publication of the encyclical a certain perplexity was understandable, which showed itself also in many Episcopal declarations, nevertheless the continuation of development has ever more insistently verified the prophetic boldness of Paul VI’s admonition, drawn from the wisdom of the faith.”  (Osservatore Romano, July 13, 1987)


On the use of contraceptives itself, Pope John Paul II – like his predecessor Paul VI – insists on the complete validity of the 1968 encyclical.  So, for example, “Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified.” (Osservatore Romano October 13, 1983)

Six months earlier he had reiterated that it is absolutely necessary that “the pastoral action of Christian communities be totally faithful to the teachings of …Humanae Vitae and…Familiaris Consortio.  He continued, “It would be a grave error to set up pastoral requirements in opposition to doctrinal teaching since the very first service that the Church must perform for people is to tell them the truth of which she is neither the author nor the master.”  (Osservatore Romano., June 6, 1983).

On the idea of using contraceptives to prevent abortion, he says: “It is ever more clear that it is absurd, for instance, to want to overcome abortion through the promotion of contraception.  The invitation to contraception as a supposedly  “harmless” manner of the relation between the sexes is not only an insidious denial of man’s moral freedom.  It fosters a depersonalized understanding of sexuality which is directed merely to the moment and promotes in the last analysis that mentality out of which abortion arises and from which it is continually nourished.  Furthermore, it is certainly not unknown to you that in more recent methods the transition from contraception to abortion has become extremely easy.”  (Osservatore Romano., July 13, 1987)


The Pope repudiates theologians who teach differently.  On June 5, 1987, speaking to a conference in Milan sponsored by the Centre for Studies and Research on the Natural Regulation of Fertility, he explained:

“The difficulties you encounter are of various kinds.  The first, and in a certain sense the most serious, is that given within the Christian community voices have been heard, and are still being heard, which cast doubt upon the very truth of the Church’s teaching…A grave responsibility derives from this: those who place themselves in open conflict with the law of God, authentically taught by the Church, guide spouses along a false path.  The Church’s teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians.  Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral consciences of spouses into error…” (Osservatore Romano., July 6, 1987)

Similar convictions have led Vancouver Archbishop James Carney, addressing a natural family planning meeting, to state recently that “we will not have deep renewal in the Church until the faithful accept the Church’s teaching that artificial contraception is seriously immoral and form their consciences according to that norm.”


Theories that the civil law’s prime purpose is to ensure the freedom of the individual – including the legislator – if necessary at the expense of external moral norms, are unsound.  A “basic shared morality” can never be a value-free ad hoc arrangement but must be in conformity with basic natural moral law.  The latter provides a guide to the actions and conduct which should be pursued by human beings if they are to be fully human.  It also indicates what should be avoided as being detrimental to the achievement of this end.

Anything else leads to subjective value judgments which, instead of securing the maximum amount of freedom to individuals, will begin to tyrannize society.  Legalized abortion is one example of such tyranny.

Similarly, while some distinction between oral and civil law is necessary, it cannot be one whereby the legislator is allowed to flout the protection of human life itself.  Biology also tells us that the fetus is human and has a life of his/her own and there is no right to freedom to encourage or facilitate abortion as there is no right to freedom to encourage or facilitate homicide.  Those who in their concern for the sanctity of human life oppose abortion not only have the right, but also the duty to do so.  Those who make laws, in turn, have not merely the right, but the moral duty to act.  In this respect there is no such duty as “safeguarding their freedom of conscience.”  There is only a duty to tell legislators that abortion is an abominable crime.

Fortunately, Church authorities have done so.  In 1964, the Vatican Council reconfirmed the traditional Christian opposition to abortion in general terms.  In 1974, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spelled out what this means for legislators, as did the CCCB, following this lead, in 1983.  The 1987 claim that Bishops must safeguard legislators’ “freedom of conscience,” therefore, is really a regression to the years of perplexity in the late sixties.  Instead of going backwards, let us keep going forward.