Canada’s pro-life movement and the Catholic Church are both opposed to abortion, yet there is no intimate understanding between them.  The Canadian Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in Ottawa has liaison with a dozen or more political, economic and interfaith social justice action groups, but it has none with the 300,000 member pro-life movement.

In truth, there is little communication between them and what there is of it, is not of the happiest kind.  During an eight-months’-long campaign in 1986 and 1987 to get parliament to protect the unborn through a Private Member’s motion, CCCB officials saw fit – for reasons known only to them – to inform MPs that the Bishops were not at all certain that this was the right way to go about it.  This advice helped to defeat the motion.

Cardinal Carter

The situation is ore ambivalent with bishops in their individual dioceses but there, too, almost anything can happen.  An example is the donnybrook created by Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter of Toronto in late March 1981.  The Cardinal has an excellent record of speaking against abortion, not just privately but publicly.  But to the horror of pro-lifers across the country, who had been building strong pressure on the Liberal government and MPs to include protection for the unborn in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (then being drafted), he declared it neutral in respect to abortion.  Why?

In the fall of 1980, when Pierre Trudeau had just introduced his Charter, feminists quickly objected to the word “person” in Section 7, which read: “Every person has the right to life, liberty and security…”  Influential feminist Doris Anderson (at that time head of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women) and others demanded that “individual” be substituted for “person,” fearing that the philosophical concept of “person” might be interpreted by the courts to include unborn babies.

The Liberals trod softly, because of pro-life criticism, compromised and substituted “everyone” for “person.”

A second argument, developed a little alter, was that the Charter might make matters worse by constitutionally locking in abortion on demand under the Equality Rights sections.

These objections, which stirred pro-lifers into lobbying MPs in the first place, soon gave way to a more explicit protection for the unborn.

In Ottawa the two political groups, Campaign Life and Coalition for the Protection of Human Life, lobbied MPs daily.

In early March 1981, full page advertisements appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, with French versions in Ottawa’s Le Droit and Montreal’s Le Devoir.  In mid-March the same was published as a centerfold advertisement in Toronto’s Catholic Register.  The ad listed 800 people and their occupations from the four Western provinces, selected from 3,000 names.  These included no fewer than 20 Western R.C. bishops, a dozen regional heads of R.C. religious orders, with many members in Quebec or Ontario, as well as numerous individual leaders of Protestant communities.  All objected to the Charter for not including protection for the unborn.

A tremendous pressure campaign was under way.  The Catholic Bishops of British Columbia produced a vigorous statement of their own, favouring an amendment.  But all went for naught in one blow.

Some MPs had complained to the Cardinal about all these Catholics pressuring them.  Why the Toronto Archbishop listened to them remains a puzzle (even aside from the fact that the two political pro-life organizations were not exclusively Catholics).

At any rate, the Cardinal contracted lawyers of the federal Department of Justice.  When they assured him that there was nothing in the wording of the Charter which would inhibit a future parliament from freely legislating on abortion, he issued his March statement declaring that the Charter was neutral with respect to abortion and would not worsen the existing situation.

This unwanted intervention on a matter which, while bearing moral overtones, was essentially one of legal interpretation, had the inevitable disastrous side effect.  It completely wrecked the main thrust of the pro-life campaign.

On being informed of the Cardinals’ statement, a group of MPs reportedly threw papers in the air in jubilation.  All members of the English-speaking Liberal caucus were informed by circular.  They were off the hook.  The inter-party pro-life caucus died there and then and has not been heard from since.

The Charter, as everyone knows, was adopted with much hoopla by all parties.  Of the Liberals only two, Garnet Bloomfield (Middlesex), a Baptist and Joseph Hudecki, M.D. (Hamilton), a Catholic voted against the Constitution on the grounds that, if it didn’t protect life from conception to natural death, it wasn’t worth having.

Six years later, in 1987, the Supreme Court of Saskatchewan rebuffed Joseph Borowski’s nine-year-old $600,000, court argument that protection for the unborn was implied by the Charter’s Section 7, “Everyone has the right to life…”  One of the reasons for the judgment was that the Charter did not mention the unborn by name.


With individual bishops, the cause for misunderstanding with pro-life is often lack of communication.  With the CCCB this lack, it seems to me, is only a symptom.  The real cause for the unhappy relationship lies elsewhere.  Some of it is traceable to factors which can be justified – or at least explained individually, one by one – but most of it results from differences in theological outlook and attitude.

These observations may astonish those who have not been aware that there is a problem.  Others, may be perplexed.  Take for example, the same Toronto Cardinal writing the following lines in an obviously vexed mood in the March 1981 statement mentioned earlier:

“The right to life of the unborn remains an issue of first magnitude.  The position of the Catholic Church upon the direct killing of a child in the womb of its mother is undoubtedly the clearest and most unanimous of all Catholic oral teaching.  “Pope Paul VI, who was a very gentle soul, calls it an “unspeakable crime.”  Pope John Paul II constantly refers to it as a ‘plague,’ a ‘sin,’ a ‘tragedy of inhuman dimensions.’  Practically every conference of bishops – the Canadian Conference on numerous occasions – has spoken out in similar terms.

“Indeed the unanimity is such the frequency of condemnation is such, that a certain bewilderment sets in when someone claims we ‘should make a statement.’

We are led to wonder in what world these people live!

One thing, of course, is certain.  Whatever statement pro-life people were expecting, it wasn’t to hear a Cardinal absolve a Charter of Rights, when its drafters had made no bones about their intentions to exclude protection for the unborn.

But his has been discussed already and is not now the concern here.

Rather, what should be noted in these lines penned by the Cardinal is the idea that he and his fellow bishops had done all they could; that there was nothing else they could possibly do; and that anyone who thought differently must surely be living on cloud nine because all one had to do was to look at the evidence!

This then we must do: look at the evidence.  But what evidence?  The Cardinal mixes three groups as if they are one, which from one point of view, they certainly are: Pope, bishops, Episcopal conferences, all speak for one church. But, for the sake of analysis, we must begin by separating them.


With the coming of television, the Church’s chief pastor has become her chief teacher in practice as well as in theory.  Worldwide exposure started with the funeral of Pope John XXIII in 1963, the first such event televised to all continents at the same time via satellite.  It expanded with the world travels of Pope Paul V (1963-1978), and became a regular feature with John Paul II.  Papal declarations on these visits receive worldwide coverage in the media.  While files of newspaper clippings on Canadian bishops and the CCCB have maintained their very modest size over the years, those on the Pope have grown bulkier every year.

Indeed, a number of Catholics who do not like to be reminded of Papal teaching, have become positively unhappy with the present Pope who refused to be silent about abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and contraception.

They think it’s his Polish background, or his isolation from the world or his inadequate grasp of the need to compromise, or his inability to understand ecumenism, or his lack of proper theology, that makes him dwell o these subjects.  If only he would stop mentioning them and devote his efforts to economic and political justice, he would be all right, he would be truly progressive.  Why, it is thought, doesn’t the man understand that abortion is just one of a hundred issues, like housing or unemployment of inflation?


If protection of human life from conception to natural death is a priority with the Popes, is it with the individual bishops in Canada?  Certainly, the year 1983 seems to have made a difference.

In late 1982, Morgentaler announced a new national campaign for total accessibility to abortion.  In 1983, he moved beyond the boundaries of Quebec to “liberate” women in the rest of Canada.  After several stillborn attempts, he opened his “clinics” in Toronto and Winnipeg in the summer of 1983, closing in Toronto until his acquittal by a pre-selected jury in November 1984 (while losing in Winnipeg altogether), then resuming his defiance of Canadian law by reopening in Toronto and going on a cross-country speaking tour of universities in 1985 to bolster his cause.

At the universities, Morgentaler was hailed by students and professors alike. But pro-lifers, too, had rallied their supporters and used these visits to witness to a radically different kind of women’s liberation.  The noise of battle had a stiffening effect on a number of bishops.  Some wrote pastoral letters.  Others even joined the pro-life counter demonstrations, a step unheard of before 1983.

1970 – 1983

The earlier period (from after the legalization of abortion in 1969 till 1983) was marked by a flurry of activity only during the first few years.  Episcopal statements during the years 1970 to 1973 resemble the post-1982 period insofar as they, too, were essentially a reaction to political activity on behalf of more abortions: Globe and Mail editorials in 1979s; numerous demonstrations by shrill, vocal feminists in 1972; and, in 1973, Morgentaler emergence as the movement’s champion.

On the eve of Mother’s day 1973, CTV’s Sunday night programme W5 showed him committing an abortion in his Montreal “clinic.”  Shortly thereafter, charges were laid and a trial by jury began, with a prosecutor brimming with over-confidence and a clever defense lawyer quietly absolving all practicing Catholics from jury duty.  By the end of the year, the prosecutor had lost his case and appealed.

When, at the same time, a promised review of the abortion law by the federal government appeared permanently sidetracked, quiet returned to the abortion front.

Bishops’ Reaction

While all this was going on, what were the Bishop doing?  In 1970, the total Episcopal response consisted of a six-paragraph statement from the CCCB issued in October 1970, and one letter from one bishop in December of that year.  The CCCB release was essentially a restatement of earlier views.

It noted that although civil law was involved, abortion is primarily a moral question and that, no matter what the civil law may say, to be involved in an abortion is objectively evil.  The release was addressed to the faithful and not to any level of government which might not have listened anyway, being in the midst of the October FLQ crisis.

The December 1970 letter came from Archbishop Routhier of the Northern Alberta Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.  It was sharply worded and opposed widening of the abortion law, warning that “Catholics who thus violate the law of God and the Church by contributing directly by word or deed to abortion, incur excommunication.”

It is use of direct language, the letter stands in isolated splendour, even to this day.  It’s publication in the Western Catholic Reporter of Edmonton, at that time a weekly read nationally by Catholics, ensured it a wide audience.

Gerald Emmett Carter (then Bishop of London, Ontario) resorted to television.  In 1970 he courageously explained the religious and rational objections to abortion on CBC’s Sunday and Religion, doing the same thing in 1972 in the “bearpit” sessions of the University of Western Ontario, seen nationwide on the CBC program,  Under Attack.  It was a time when almost no one was willing (or able) to say anything.

In October 1971, the first collective letter appeared – one from the Bishops of Manitoba. Ontario followed in May 1972, and Quebec and the CCCB in 1973.  Obviously, bishops preferred this collective method to writing their own pastorals.  But the disadvantages were immediately evident: a tendency to generalities, an absence of boldness and a preponderance of caution.  Add sentiments of the prevailing climate of opinion, and one gets pro-life pastorals which exhort people, but, please, everybody, do not jump up at once.

These letters, together with the statements from individual bishops such as Philip Pocock, Archbishop of Toronto, issued in conjunction with the Ontario collective letter of May 1972, and the 1973 letter by Archbishop Joseph-Aurele Plourde, Archbishop of Ottawa (at that time also President of the CCCB), bear several common characteristics.

First, they show that like the agitating feminists, the Bishops had not understood the 1969 amendment to the Criminal Code.  Amazing as it may appear with hindsight, they still thought in terms of the idea originally put forward by the government, namely that the 1969 legislation was intended to protect the unborn!

Hence, the CCCB statement of October 1970, said that we “sincerely hope that Canada may be spared a law widening the ground for abortion.”  Archbishop Routhier expressed the same thought; while the 1971 Manitoba letter spoke of “striving to maintain the civil law’s protection of the unborn.”

In May 1972, the Ontario Bishops did note that: “legal abortions among the people of Canada have multiplied so suddenly and on so vast a scale as to constitute something like an explosion of death among us.”  But in a separate letter, Archbishop Pocock again urged all Canadians “to make known to Members of Parliament their opposition to any easing of restrictions on abortions.”

Almost a full year later, in April 1973, the Catholic Register reported that Archbishop Plourde of Ottawa, had “once again appealed to the conscience of Christians to guard against abortion propaganda and to oppose any effort by the Federal Government to legalize abortion.

Thus awareness that abortion had been legalized four years earlier, dawned only slowly.  By the close of 1973, however, this fact had finally been digested.  In October 1973, Archbishop Plourde asked the Catholic Conference to support groups which were planning demonstrations on Parliament Hill for November.

In November 1973, Cardinal Flahiff of Winnipeg, and Archbishop Philip Pocock, Toronto, in almost similar worded letters to all the priests and religious, urged support for a letter-writing campaign to federal government ministers.

Morgentaler had just been acquitted and was being hailed by the media as a folk hero.  In order that the unborn may be protected, the Cardinal wrote, “It is absolutely necessary that the government in Ottawa sponsor a bill to amend the Criminal Code.”  The recent trial in Montreal, he said, pointed out very clearly, “that the present law on abortion in the Criminal Code does not protect the lives of our unborn children.”  Archbishop Pocock repeated these sentiments.

The year 1973, then closed with the realization on the part of bishops that the 1969 amendments, instead of protecting the unborn had condemned them to regular large scale killing year in, year out.  What was needed was a new protective law.  Yet on that note, attention was diverted to other matters.  As the years passed, nothing more was said about new legislation.

There followed ten years of inactions.  The 1976 collective letters from the Bishops of Alberta and Quebec do not constitute exceptions.  The Alberta letter was a brief, low key exhortation to the faithful to personally avoid the evil of abortion, more a reminder than anything else.  It was in no sense an attempt to rally the faithful.

Inactivity, 1973-1983

Was nothing done at all from then on?  With two exceptions, the answer is Yes.  But the exceptions are important.

In 1976, Toronto’s Philip Pocock, withdrew Catholic Charities from the United Way in protest against Planned Parenthood becoming a member.  This was a concrete response to a specific challenge.

His example was followed by the Archbishops of Vancouver (1983) and Edmonton (1984) but rejected in Halifax (1979), Montreal (1980) and Ottawa (1986).  There the local bishops preferred the word of Planned Parenthood (PP) and United Way spokesmen to that of local pro-life spokesmen, thereby escaping having to take action.  In all three places the Chancery’s attitude made pro-lifers angry.

As almost everyone knows, PP has nothing to do with the planning of families.  Rather, its purpose is to tell people how not to become parents, especially by means of contraceptives, sterilizations, and if necessary, abortion.  In Halifax and in English Montreal, pro-life information was actually denounced in letters read from the pulpit.  Whereupon Montreal pro-lifers did further research and discovered that the city’s United Way (called Centraide) subsidized no one, but six abortion referral agencies.  They advertised in the telephone book.

Toronto’s original decision to leave the United Way had been helped earlier when, in May 1975, the Ontario Bishops sharply criticized a proposed provincial conception control programme.  This included funding for abortion counseling and lowering the age of consent for surgical interventions without parental approval to 16.

Meanwhile, it should not be thought that there is any connection between the survival of Toronto pro-life groups and the resoundingly successful annual diocesan campaign for funds organized from 1977 onwards under the title “Share Life.”  Apparent from some token assistance to help Toronto Right to Life pay their office rent at one time, Share Life funds diocesan charitable agencies only.

The other exception to general inaction was the March 1977 pastoral letter of the Bishop of Saskatoon, James Mahoney – followed shortly afterwards by a similar letter from Bishop Adam Exner of Kamloops, B.C., which incorporated basically what the Saskatoon bishop had said.  The Saskatoon letter rejected a plan announced earlier that month by the Federal Minister of National Health and Welfare, Mr. Marc Lalonde, to start federally-sponsored family planning programmes and to establish provincial women’s clinics which would include abortion.  It called upon the three Members of Parliament who represented most of the Diocese of Saskatoon to publicly disassociate themselves from this plan.  It denounced the 1969 amendment of the law and accused the government of invading the privacy of the home.  And it exposed the government’s philosophy of “family planning” as more accurately being destructive of both the family and the dignity of the human person.  The pastoral letter concluded with a ringing declaration on the duty of citizens.

“I must remind you of your duty to uphold what is necessary for the common good of the country.  Those who defend abortions whether legalized or not, or who refuse to make a clear commitment to defend the rights of the unborn or the aged and the ill, or who in other ways promote the corruption of family life, disqualify themselves from public office, no matter what their other qualifications may be.  By being anti-life and anti-child, they strike at the heart of human society.

“Conscientious citizens may not support such politicians any more than they could support racists, hate peddlers, opponents of true social justice, or anyone else who, in a similar manner, threatens the common good.”

The letter was a crucial factor in successfully defeating the Lalonde plan.  But this Episcopal example of a concrete response to a specific political challenge was too much for a bishop in a neighbouring province. He listed it in his regular letter to his clergy as an example of unnecessarily provoking political hostility.

The Saskatoon letter was the first Episcopal letter to focus on the political side of abortion in clear and precise language, especially in the declaration that to be pro-abortion is enough to disqualify a person from elected office.  During the following general election, pro-life supporters in Saskatchewan distributed 100,000 copies of a letter to voters and candidates, beginning an educational process so essential to a society, which allows its politicians – in a literal sense of the phrase – to get away with murder.

Quiet please

This brings us to the second characteristic of the collective letters; namely the exact opposite of what has just been discussed as an exception: their silence about the role of the legislature and the duty of the Christians in public office.  Most Bishops were wary of criticism of politicians.

The Liberal government was dear to their heart.  Many cabinet ministers were Catholic.  In Ontario most Catholics were born and bred Liberals.  Quebec voted for its favourite son, no matter what, as it had done in the past (something Trudeau had once ridiculed but form which he himself benefited enormously).  Moreover, the country had just survived the FLQ October crisis in 1970, a crisis many felt only Trudeau could have handled as well as he did.

Although in 1972 pro-life political activists had barely begun to organize, the Bishops were already cautious.  “We will do more by service and leadership than by protest, necessary as opposition sometimes is,” said the Manitoba bishops.

“It is by service and by true leadership that we shall succeed rather than by open protest, although protest can indeed become a necessary means,” repeated the Ontario bishops in May 1972.

Except for the momentary flare-up at the end of 1973, when Winnipeg and Toronto suggested a new protective law, Bishops, whether individually or collectively, did not touch the politics of abortion again until 1983.

In September of that year, the CCCB issued Ethical Reflections on Respect for Life.  Ostensibly the counterpart of the famous Ethical Reflections on the Economy issued on January 1, 1983, it was launched surreptitiously.  Copies were sent to the press, but no press conference was held.

Hidden in the midst of what was, this time, a lengthy letter covering the spiritual and theological aspects of the dignity of all human life, is the hard-hitting, key paragraph from the Vatican’s 1975 Declaration on Abortion on the duty to disobey an unjust law.

“Whatever the civil law may decree in this matter, it must be taken as absolutely certain that a man may never obey an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law approving abortion in principle.  He may not take part in any movement to sway public opinion in favour of such a law, nor may he vote for the law.  He cannot take part in applying such a law.  Doctors and nurses, for example, must not be forced into the position of co-operating proximately in abortion and thus of having to choose between the law of God and the pursuit of their profession.”

If the Vatican statement was deliberately buried in order not to arouse questions – as indeed it had been deliberately missed by the press in 1975, when the Vatican first published it – the strategy was successful.  Not a journalist reflected upon its import vis a vis Canadian politicians.

Canadian Bishops have never challenged or reproached Catholic politicians for their support of abortion.  On the contrary, not only did these politicians continue to enjoy the deferential treatment shown to members of the government in general, but leading personalities were honoured by Catholic institutions, without any reference to their role in legalizing and maintaining legalized abortion.

In 1982, St. Francis Xavier University, under the Chancellorship of the Bishop of Antigonish, N.S., bestowed an honorary doctorate on Prime Minister Trudeau.  During his years away from politics, John Turner (the architect of the 1969 abortion legislation as he proudly recalled it after his political return in 1984), became associated with the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Canada’s leading Catholic academic institution under the Chancellorship of Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter.  Jean Chretien, Cabinet Minister and chief negotiator for a Charter without protection of the unborn, was honoured by Windsor’s Assumption College in 1983, with their Christian Culture Award.

When a local pro-life group protested well in advance of the event itself, the sponsors received backing from the local Bishop, while those who opposed it were privately described as “fanatics.”

Describing pro-life activists that way in private was not unusual.  But earlier the Bishop of Hamilton, Paul Reding (since deceased), had publicly accused pro-life for supposedly having “tunnel vision” and being “fanatic.”

Episcopal accommodation of such politicians continues till this day.  Naturally, others follow in their footsteps.  In 1986, the Catholic Lawyers Guilds of Toronto and Hamilton could not understand why they should not invite as guest speaker at a dinner Ontario’s Attorney General, Ian Scott, the leading pro-abortionist in the Peterson Cabinet.

“Scott addressed them, after their “Red Mass,” explaining how their patron saint St. Thomas More, would have approved keeping Christian morality out of politics!

In 1978, Scott again attended Toronto’s Red Mass.  The same day he dropped all 1986 charges against Morgentaler et al.