For the first time in 20 years, a Canadian bishop has dared to call a Conference to discuss the encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life0, published in July 1968.  Its twentieth anniversary was a good occasion to do so.

To the surprise of some, the October 15 meeting called by Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto, but led by Bishop Marcel Gervais of Sault St. Marie, quickly turned from the papal encyclical itself to the Canadian Bishops’ response to it, the so-called Winnipeg Statement, issued in September 1968.  Judging by reactions from the over 200 participants to the questions-and-answers dialogue, some of which were quite heated, the majority in the audience fully approved of the former but disapproved of the latter.


The Conference opened with a few words from Archbishop Ambrozic, and an off-the-cuff address by Bishop Gervais.  It proceeded with interesting accounts from Natural Family Planning representatives, indicating NFP’s present position of being the most scientifically-advanced method of birth regulation while, at the same time, being the only one fully respectful of human dignity and the human person.  It concluded with a comprehensive address by Father Michael Prieur, moral theologian at St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario, on the challenges which the living out of the 1968 encyclical will pose to the Christian community in the 1990s.

The sparks of the question-and-answer periods were set off by the speakers’ theme of “Where was I on July 29, 1968.”  Bishop Gervais stated that at that time people’s reaction “ranged from rage to disappointment.”  As Father Prieur would explain later on, he was one of the disappointed, being taken aback by the headline “Pope bans Pill” in the Times of London, where he was studying for his doctorate.  He, like many others, had thought the teaching would change.  It took him five years, he acknowledged, before he came to accept HV not only as valid, but as prophetic.

Good conscience?

However, some people in the audience were remembering a different disappointment, not a disappointment with the stand of Pope Paul VI, which they had fully supported, but with the Canadian Bishops.

In September 1968, the Bishops, meeting in Winnipeg, had declared that: “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 chooses that course which seems right to them does so in good conscience.”


This statement, some participants argued, nullified the Pope’s stand.  How can it be said that people act in “good conscience” when they adopt methods destructive of marriage, they asked.  Surely this must be called “misuse of conscience.”

In response Bishop Gervais insisted that the Bishops had not defended the principle of contraception.  Rather they had simply pointed out that people must act according to their conscience, whatever the state of that conscience.  The Bishop’s statement was not permissive, he said.  It dealt with individual cases, as the Bishops found them in 1968.

In reply, other participants noted that the practical effect of the Bishops’ statement had been interpreted as very permissive.  Indeed, as a signal of general approval for doing as one saw fit, regardless of what the Pope had said.  That is how it had been interpreted across Canada, they stated.  And that is how, it is understood today.  Had not the time come for the Bishops to withdraw their ill-fated Statement?

Unless the Bishops come out in full support of the Pope’s teaching that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil and may not be practiced by Catholics, no matter what, nothing much will come of efforts to promote HV, one participant noted.  Please repudiate the Winnipeg Statement, he asked.

Bishop Gervais answered that he didn’t see why the Bishops would do so.  Critics attributed too much influence to the Bishops, he said.  Moreover, other countries which did not adopt the Canadian response were no better off today than Canada.  He could see no plans of Canadian Bishops to change their statement.

The Conference closed with the observation that the Second Vatican Council had spoken explicitly on freedom of conscience, an observation which did not bridge the disagreements.


As a postscript to this conference the following may be of interest:

  • In the spring of 1988, the Bishops of Austria formally repudiated their 1968 statement, which was similar to the Canadian one.
  • As has been explained in the historical survey which appeared in The Interim in 14 articles from April 1986, under the title “Sexual revolution, feminism and the churches,” the question of “freedom of conscience” has played a key role in the attitude of Canadian Bishops vis-à-vis the legalization of contraceptives (1967), the widening of grounds for divorce (1968), the legalization of abortion (1969), and subsequent actions of legislators with respect to abortion proposals.  In general, Canadian Bishops’ interpretation seems  out of tune with that of Rome. (See especially Part XII, The Interim, February 1988.)
  • The problem of acting according to one’s conscience may be set out by the following illustration:

1)      Adolf Hitler killed three million Poles, six million  Jews and 20 million Russians and Ukrainians.

2)      Hitler sincerely and fully believed these peoples to be a pest on earth.

3)      Therefore, Hitler may be said to have acted according to his good conscience…

Now nobody that I know believes that Hitler acted in “good” conscience.  So where is one to draw the line?  Can it be said that people who act “sincerely,” therefore act in good conscience?  I would think not.

How is one to resolve this dilemma?  By agreeing that when someone transgressed an objective moral norm, there can be no question of speaking of a “good conscience.”

In the case of Hitler most people will refuse to use the word “conscience” at all; rather they would substitute terms such as “acting out of fanatical or perverse conviction.”

(The problem remains insoluble for those who do not believe in “objective moral norms” or who think that mankind cannot ascertain what they are.  Such people are skeptics who have abandoned the religious principles by which most such norms are known.)

  • The case of legalizing the killing of pre-born babies is similar to the one explained above.  It is inappropriate to say that legislators approving the killing of pre-born babies could be acting “in good conscience” when they transgress the moral norms of time immemorial.
  • What is the situation about artificial contraception?  On November 11, 1988, Pope John Paul II, speaking to 300 theologians attending a conference on Humanae Vitae in Rome, stated that many people have accepted the idea that their consciences established moral principles.  “In this way, there has been a radical breakdown in the bond of obedience to the holy will of the Creator, which is the basis of human dignity.”

And again:

“When Paul VI defined the contraceptive act as intrinsically illicit, he meant that the moral norm does not admit exceptions…”  (Pope chides Catholics who “follow consciences,” Toronto Star, November 12.  Full text not available at time of writing.)