Originally published in Catholic Insight, 2003.
Bishop Alexander Carter, 1909 – 2002
By Monsignor Vincent Foy
The Church in Canada has lost one of its most notable bishops in the death of Bishop Alexander Carter. He was born in Montreal on April 16, 1909, ordained a priest in 1936, obtained a degree in Canon Law in Rome in 1939 and served his Archdiocese ably in many capacities. In 1956, he was named Coadjutor to Bishop Dignan of Sault Ste. Marie diocese and succeeded him in the following year. He was Bishop of Sault Ste. Marie until his retirement in 1985. In 1989 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. After a short illness, he died on February 17, 2002 and following a funeral Mass presided over by Bishop Plouffe, he was buried in the priests’ plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery in North Bay.
These are the bare statistics of a life, which has, in one way or another, affected the life of every Canadian Catholic. Bishop Carter was a man of many remarkable talents. In the Grande Seminaire of Montreal in the 1930’s he and his brother Emmett (the present Cardinal G. Emmett Carter) were known as the “whiz kids” because of their exceptional intellectual gifts. He was blessed with other talents and leadership qualities, as were many of the Carter family. As many could testify, he was a most gracious host.
Bishop Carter attended all of the sessions of the second Vatican Council, 1962-1965. He spoke only once, on Friday, Oct. 9, 1964, when the draft of the schema on the laity was being discussed. One reporter wrote: “Friday morning the Fathers excitedly discussed a virulent speech of Bishop Alexander Carter” (Henri Fesquet in The Drama of Vatican II, p.400). Bishop Carter said that the document on the laity was “conceived in sin, the sin of clericalism.” The moderator, Cardinal Suenens, close friend of Cardinal Leger of Montreal, was of a similar opinion. Certainly Bishop Carter could not be accused of clericalism in his own Diocese. He favoured a much greater role of the laity in the Church. He promoted women’s ministries, favoured the ordination of deaconesses and called for an optional married priesthood.
Imbued with a deep sense of social justice, Bishop Carter championed many good causes. He supported Catholic education at all levels, help for the Church in Latin America and justice for the poor.
Unfortunately, Bishop Carter is known especially for his role at the plenary meeting of the Canadian Bishops at Winnipeg in Sept.,1968. He was then President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (C.C.C.B.) and Chairman of the meeting. The principal purpose of this gathering was to issue a commentary on the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, which reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of contraception as an intrinsic evil, allowing no exceptions. Bishop Carter was vocal in his disappointment with the encyclical and joined others in a determined effort to subvert its pastoral application. The result was the infamous Winnipeg Statement of Friday, Sept. 27, 1968 which stated in paragraph 26 that there were circumstances in which spouses could safely be assured that “whoever chooses that course which seems right to him [sic] does so in good conscience.” So married couples were told they could assume God’s perogative of deciding what was good and what was evil.
Bishop Carter defended his position on the grounds of pastoral necessity and declared, “It was something of an identity crisis. For the first time we faced the necessity of making a statement which many felt could not be a simple Amen, a total and formal endorsement of the doctrine of the encyclical” (America, Oct. 19, 1968, p.349). We have experienced the tragic results. Thousands of Canadian Catholic couples cited the Winnipeg Statement as their justification for the practice of contraception. Canada, partly because of that Statement, slipped quickly into the Culture of Death through contraception, sterilization, (often in Catholic Hospitals), abortion, and increased divorces and separations. By the mid-seventies, Canada was on a suicidal course and remains on that course today.
Such is the legacy of Bishop Alexander Carter, a gifted and in many respects a great and good man. He did not clearly see that a bishop’s ring is a symbol not only of his marriage to the Church, but to Her magisterium taught with the authority of Christ, as was the great charter of life and love called Humanae Vitae. We ought to pray for him and all our bishops.