Over the last 20 years the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has tackled a large number of economic and political issues, both in and outside Canada, while by and large avoiding the ethical issues thrown up by the “permissive society” and its so called New Morality. Should this avoidance be questioned? Should it be recognized as a problem? If so, how and why?

To help clarify what is involved let me use an example from outside Canada. In 1983, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in a column in The Chicago Catholic, posed the following question and answer: How specific should the Church be in making pronouncement on social issues?

“Religious groups,” he answered, “can err by being too specific about the remedies to social and political ills, but they can also err by being too general. Suppose ten years ago and ever since, the U.S. bishops had confined themselves to deploring the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and reminding Catholics- and others who would listen- that abortion is gravely immoral. Would they really have been living up to their duty to contribute a solution to this serious social evil? I think not.”

There, an American Cardinal briefly sets down part of what has puzzled a number of us for years. Unlike Canadians, American Catholics can point to concrete support, not just general statements, from their Bishops opposing the legalizing of abortion by their Supreme Court in 1973. This public support includes practical proposals. It also consists in direct political action, via Congressional Committee hearings, for legislative restrictions on abortion funding and for a constitutional amendment to restore legal protection to the unborn.

In passing, one may note that the political action undertaken by the American Bishops during the last 14 years has not always pleased American pro-life groups: on occasion, it has deeply divided them. Still the witness of their invention has been worth the controversy.


The other part which puzzles many people- and this applies to Americans as well- fits the Cardinal’s remark about the danger of “being too specific about the remedies to social and political ills.” This danger seems twofold: first, there is a noticeable trend among both American and Canadian Bishops Conferences to get deeper and deeper into economic-political questions. Where then does the jurisdiction of bishops- and of bishops’ conferences- end and that of the laity begin? Second, they get into economic details and specifics for which they have, normally, neither the technical expertise nor a theological mandate. This may well undermine the  authority of the Episcopal office more quickly among citizens at large than will its silence about sexual marital issues among Catholics.

An example is the appearance of the Bishop of Victoria, Remi De Roo, before the House of Commons Committee on free trade in November 1987. The Bishop was opposed to free trade. So were other delegations appearing before the Committee. But while the latter presented specific economic arguments to demonstrate that a free trade pact might cause this or that advantage or disturbance, the Bishop of Victoria brushed the whole project aside as simply “morally unacceptable.”

When a Bishop uses the term “morally unacceptable,” he implies that something is theologically in error, that it offends against “faith and morals,” with the latter covering basic principles of social justice. Such a serious charge requires detailed proof. No proof was forthcoming. Instead the Bishop straightforwardly identified free trade as an evil, as nothing less than “determining the future of Canada without concern for justice and ethics” and as a brutal battle for “survival of the fittest.”

Since rhetorical overkill is not uncommon among politicians, we know how to dismiss it because it means little enough.  Even Bishops have been known to practice this art. But for a Bishop who pretends to speak with the moral authority of his Church to brand a large economic scheme as utterly contemptuous of justice, ethics and the basic needs of Canadians, and to do so with sweeping generalizations and prophecies of economic doom makes the Catholic Church look foolish and gravely undermines her authority.

Many people are convinced that both Canada and the Church would be better off if the CCCB and its delegates spent less time on  economics and more on the defence of the family which, it should be noted, also has its economic aspects.

The call to follow a “duly formed” conscience in harmony with divine law is not an attack on personal freedom. Freedom exists to do good and adhere to truth, never to knowingly follow error. The latter is called license and is not a “right” at all but a wrong.

Catholics Only

The CCCB  does not have a family commission. It does have a family commission. It does not make submissions to Parliament on pro-life or pro-family issues. It never speaks of abortion as a human rights issue. Rather, it seems to regard abortion as a Catholic issue only, as apparently do some individual bishops. With the exception of some Episcopal invitations in 1973 to write to MPs and to demonstrate on Parliament Hill, Episcopal abortion statements are directed to Catholics only as believers but not as legislators, politicians or voters. Even the language  reveals this, as in the CCCB’s only public protest addressed to the YWCA for electioneering in favour of the removal of abortion from the Criminal Code. It begins, “Because the Catholic Church believes that abortion is the taking of human life, the YWCA’s stance is clearly one which faithful Catholics cannot…support…” Here abortion is made a denominational issue.

Perhaps we should be reminded once again, that abortion has always been reminded, once again, that abortion has always been an evil and was condemned as far back as the Sumerian Code (2000 BC), the Code of Hammurabi (1800 BC) the Assyrian Code (1500 BC) and the Hittite Code (1300 BC) condemned the use of “abortion causing drugs and instruments” in his medical oath. This oath stood the test of time for 2400 years until, some decades ago, Medical Associations began to remove its abortion clause.

Abortion is not and never has been a “Catholic” issue except in the mind of Planned Parenthood strategists who in the sixties fingered the Catholic hierarchy as the sole opponent of legal abortions. This technique isolates abortions. This technique isolates opposition to a few recognizable few, thereby suggesting that everyone else approves of it. It was routine in almost every article on abortion that appeared in the popular press.

In summary, the CCCB currently exhibits a threefold tendency: a reluctance to face sexual-marital social issues; an ever deeper involvement in economic issues; and a tendency to treat abortion as a merely Catholic issue, instead of human rights issue. As a “Catholic issue, soon becomes an issue “for Catholics only” in the mind of the man in the street, including Catholics this has specific consequences.

Each of these three tendencies can be traced to CCCB positions in the years 1966-68. And so can a fourth tendency, which may be described as the CCCB’s version of “We are privately against abortion but we can’t impose our views on others.” It will be readily recognized that such a point of view is associated with the “for Catholics only” attitude. But one should be aware too that it goes further.

Let me clarify the difference between political and theological components with a current example which will also illustrate point four must mentioned. In the Church, theological principles must form the intellectual ground for any public policy statement or position. Doctrine, truth, must always come first. Circumstantial factors, on the other hand are outside forces or facts which, while difficult to control or alter, do influence decisions or attitudes, yet they make their weight felt in the ordinary course of events.

Mitges’ Motion

In February 1987 the CCCB secretariat sent a letter to MPs commenting on private member’s motion, itself only a first step in modifying the Charter of Rights in favour of the unborn. The secretariat told the MPs that the Bishops did not necessarily regard the motion as “the most suitable means to implement this right to life of the fetus.”

This comment angered pro-lifers across the country who regarded it as an unwarranted interference, or at best a thoroughly inept one. In June the motion was lost. In October the CCCB issued a Statement of Clarification. The last part of this runs as follows:

“At the time the letter was written, the Dr. Mitges motion was under at least three layers of doubt. It did not ask the Government to amend the Constitution Act, but only to ‘consider the advisability of amending’ it. So, there was question of its import, especially as a private motion. Secondly, the process for Constitutional  amendment was even more uncertain at the time of the letter than it is now, after the Meech Lake Accord. Thirdly, there was the matter of the freedom of each Member of Parliament to make a personal decision about the motion; and the Bishops wished to safeguard their freedom of informed conscience.”

The first and second arguments of this clarification may be classified as circumstantial that is, developed from the specific political context surrounding the issue. One may or may not agree, depending on one’s understanding of the issue. Personally, I don’t pretend to understand why they are even mentioned. I don’t pretend to understand why they are even mentioned. I suppose the Secretaries had to say something, perhaps to make the third point less pointed.

The first half of the third point is more ambiguous. It may still fall into the circumstantial category. One may ask, as a point of information, “Was the freedom of MPs to make a personal decision about the motion actually threatned?”

By the standards of secularists, it may have appeared threatened because supporters of the Mitges’ motion were calling upon MPs to follow a duly formed conscience in harmony with moral standards forbidding the killing of unborn babies no matter how tiny. Now, secularists deny that morality has anything to do affairs; they do not recognize an objective morality; they claim  that all morality is subjective and private. Thus, they may have regarded the pro-lifers’ attempt to refer to a higher standard as improper. Someone must have been aware of this rather gentle moral pressure because someone indignantly wrote  the CCCB complaining about it. But note that the indignant people did not protest when the Prime Minister put real pressure on his followers by unashamedly instructing his Cabinet Ministers either to vote against the Motion or to absent themselves from the House of Commons at the time of the vote. Coercion by cabinet solidarity or by caucus discipline is so common in Canada that it has become a threat to the good of our society.

The call to follow a “duly formed” conscience in harmony with divine law is not an attack on personal freedom. Freedom exists to do good and adhere to truth never to knowingly follow error. The latter is called license and is not a “right” at all but a wrong. The final statement of the Clarification is puzzling for it says that “the Bishops wished to safeguard the MPs freedom of informed conscience.” What does this sentence mean?

The two national pro-life organizations, Alliance for Life (educational) and Campaign Life Coalition (Political) have replied to the Clarification, pointing out that this sentence contradicts the Church’s own teaching. This declaration lifts the issue from the circumstantial to the altogether different pane of theological principle. The latter holds that freedom of action can never be absolute, except when it is in total agreement with God’s law. In other words, one cannot rightfully grant or rightfully claim freedom of action the action contradicts God’s law. That is why the 1969 law legalizing abortions is null and void. In the eyes of God there is no objective justification for abortion, let alone for legalizing it. Abortion, as a political issue, touches upon the respective jurisdictions of church and state, bishops and laity. These relations have been volatile throughout history leading to tensions of one kind or another, sometimes creative sometimes destructive. Certainly, no perfect solution applicable to all times has been found.

Well, then do bishops have a right to tell politicians what to do? Do they have a duty? Is this right or duty conditional or unconditional, restricted or unrestricted, to be exercised diplomatically or by slamming the fist on the table applicable to Catholics and non-Catholics? A library could be filled with books written on the subject. Here we are interested in details nor in what others say the Church should but in what the Church herself sees as her task.

One hard and fast rule has applied through the ages. Recently it was expressed once more by Pope John Paul II when he told the Bishops of Malta that as bishops they must make moral judgements, even on political matters, if “fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls require it.”

Returning to the specific subject of this article, readers have to ask themselves: where did these Secretaries get the notion that MPs have “freedom of conscience” to knowingly ignore the law of God and-the reverse side of this- that bishops cannot or should not intervene?

But consider the following. If abortion is an issue for Catholics only, well then opposition to abortion becomes for everyone else their private, subjective view. Clearly, one cannot impose this upon legislators who must be concerned with the views of all.  On the other hand, if opposition to legal abortions is nothing less than defending natural and divine law, then the CCCB has a greater responsibility than merely sending MPs a couple of its abortion statements. Indeed, it would have a duty to remind all of them straightforwardly that they do not have the right to legislate against the basic principle: that life must be preserved, and that acts of violence against life must be condemned and that they had better seize every opportunity to undo the legislation 1969.

Now the CCCB has never spoken in this fashion-at least not on family issues-not even during the abortion debates in the spring of 1969. At that time Quebec’s creditistes-all of them Catholics-were left to oppose the proposed legislation all by themselves (with the English language press pouring its scorn on them).

Meanwhile, the liberals- many of them also Catholics-proceeded to push the bill through, ignoring the letters and petitions from some 100 000 or so people. Indeed, in some sense the Liberals may be said to have followed if not a green light from the bishops then at least a yellow.

In March 1968, one year before the final discussion in Parliament, the CCCB

Delegation appeared before the combined Senate-House of Commons Committee holding hearings on legalizing abortion. The delegation was headed by Bishop Remi De Roo, at that time chairman of the CCCB’s theological commission. They presented cogent and strong reasons why abortion is unacceptable. But there was one hitch. At the very beginning Bishop De Roo opened the proceedings with the statement, “Ladies and  Gentlemen, we are not here to impose our view…” And Father E. J. Sheridan, S.J., member of the delegation, we do not believe that our moral principles must be enshrined in Criminal Law.” And it wasn’t.

It is my contention that both the 1987 and 1968 CCCB submissions are based on a faulty theology illustrated in 1968 by the apologetic tone (“not here to impose”) and the sectarian implication (“Our” view and “our” moral principle.) As it stands, it is difficult to see the difference between the secularist who professes to believe that one cannot tell politicians what to do, because, he says standards of morality applicable to everyone do not exist, and the 1968 and 1987 CCCB spokesmen who won’t tell them because they say they must protect the politician’s “freedom of conscience.”

Do all CCCB members hold to this kind of neutrality?  I dare say no. In September 1983, the CCCB’s then Administrative Board issued “Ethical Reflections on Respect for Life.” This statement, coming after ten years of silence in response to renewed anti-life threats from, among others, Henry Morgentaler speaks a different language not least because it draws heavily from papal declarations.

These  Reflections do recognize abortion as a human rights issue. They also state that “human law cannot go against laws written by the Creator in the heart of every human being.” And they present two important quotes from the 1975 Vatican Declaration on Procured Abortion.

First that the State “cannot declare to be right what would be opposed to the natural law…”

And then after explaining that “a law which allows abortion is radically immoral” and that a “Christian cannot accept such law either in its concept nor in its application,” it quotes:

“Nor can a Christian take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.”

The full quote in a slightly different translation reads as follows.

“22. Whatever the civil laws 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 that law. He cannot take part in applying such a law. Doctors and nurses, for example, must not be forced into the position of cooperating proximately in abortion and thus of having to choose between the law of God and the pursuit of their profession.”

Surely, the above implies that when such an immoral laws has been enacted, individual legislators have a duty to encourage them and tell them that this is not a mere option.

To be continued.

Alphonse de Valk is a Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of St. Basil.

For a more recent reaction from Bishops, see the Ontario Bishops statement elsewhere in this issue.