Canada took wrong side in Humanae Vitae debate


Catholic Register, 4 July 2018

The summer of 1968, with France undergoing a social revolution and America burning, was not a congenial time for a reaffirmation of traditional morality in face of the sexual revolution. But the courageous Blessed Paul VI did just that in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, published 50 years ago this month.

The encyclical, which reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching about the immorality of contraception — shared by all Christian denominations until the 1930s — was met with widespread ridicule in the world, and vigorous, organized and sustained dissent in the Church. It unleashed a generation-long battle to which St. John Paul II devoted the first 15 years of his pontificate, first with the “theology of the body” and second with Veritatis Splendor, his encyclical on the moral life. 

The Canadian bishops were key players in that battle, proposing a novel understanding of conscience which gave a green light to those who chose not to abide by the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

By September 1968, when the Canadian bishops had their plenary meeting that year, it was clear that in opposing the sine qua non of the sexual revolution — widespread contraception and access to abortion — Paul VI was standing on the shore as a cultural tsunami was about to hit. The bishops of Canada decided to leave him there alone. It was a great capitulation to the spirit of the age.

Gathered in Winnipeg, the bishops issued a statement on Humanae Vitae. They protested that they were standing with Paul VI, but that did not fool anyone. The statement expressed the maximum discomfort of the bishops and left no doubt that they would altogether prefer not to address the subject at all. 

In the key paragraph, the Canadian bishops said that it was possible to “accept the teaching of the Holy Father” but find that because of “particular circumstances” it did not apply:

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