A response to Fr. Michael Prieur’s defence of the Winnipeg Statement

Scan_20140315 (2)The following article was published in Catholic Insight, 2005 with the preface written by the editor of Catholic Insight, Father Alphonse de Valk.


On June 3, 2005, I happened to have a telephone conversation with someone in Calgary.  At one point he mentioned having sent a letter to his bishop (Bishop Fred Henry) asking for the bishops of Canada to retract the September 1968 Winnipeg Statement dealing with the application of the encyclical Humanae vitae.  In response the bishop had sent him a two-page letter written by Fr. Michael Prieur defending the Winnipeg Statement.  On my request he sent me a copy of the document which I then forwarded to Msgr. Foy for comment, who was very surprised to see it.  Fr. Prieur is Professor of Moral and Sacramental Theology at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ontario.

The Latin (and Vatican) custom is to spell titles with only one capital:  Humanae vitae rather then the American custom of capitalizing all words in a title (Humanae Vitae).  The latter is used whenever Msgr. Foy quotes from another source.  —-Editor

A response to Fr. Michael Prieur’s defence of the Winnipeg Statement

By Monsignor Vincent Foy

It is distressing to learn that Fr. Michael Prieur, professor of moral theology at St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario, is trying to defend the indefensible, i.e. the Winnipeg Statement of the Canadian Bishops on the encyclical Humanae vitae.

He attempts this in his “Comments on the Canadian Bishops’ Winnipeg Statement,” dated March 6, 2005. “He divides his comments into two sections, one on the “Winnipeg Statement” and the second on “Solid Teaching on Humanae Vitae (HV) and the Winnipeg Statement (WS).”

In this response I follow the sequence of his paragraphs.

Section A

1. Father Prieur says that the WS needs to be taken in context with two other statements of the Canadian Bishops: a second statement in April of 1969 and a third Statement on Conscience in 1973.

Here I give my comments on these subsequent statements in an article written for Challenge magazine in December 1989:

“In the wake of much criticism of the Winnipeg Statement a special ‘ad hoc’ Committee on the Family was set up by the CCCB. The purpose was ‘to follow up the 1968 Statement on Humanae Vitae.’ Its fruit was a report adopted by the General Assembly of the Canadian Bishops on April 18, 1969. It said in part:

‘Nothing could be gained and much could be lost by an attempt to rephrase what we have said at Winnipeg. We stand squarely behind our position but we feel it our duty to insist on a proper interpretation of that position.’

“In the midst of continuing criticism and confusion, the CCCB released a statement on The Formation of Conscience on December 12, 1973. It was a good statement on conscience in general. This seemed to be the opportune occasion to provide confessional guidelines for priests, promised at Winnipeg. These were not given. The statement listed some intrinsic evils: killing the innocent, adultery, theft. Nowhere is contraception mentioned, nor is Humanae vitae.

“Indirectly this was the basis for subsequent equivocation. In later guidelines one sees the statement on conscience quoted next to Par. 26 of the Winnipeg Statement. By this syncretic method contraception seems sometimes acceptable.” It is the context of HV that counts.

The truth is that the WS should rather be considered in the context of HV. Here its grave deficiencies become apparent. The Canadian Bishops were asked to confirm the encyclical and explain it. Instead they deliberately subverted it. Here we have the sad spectacle of bishops, sworn to fidelity to the Holy See, making a Statement undermining what was given to the universal Church with the authority of Christ (HV 6).

a) Father Prieur says that it must be noted that none of the Statements of the Canadian Bishops were ever subjected to any kind of correction by Rome. He presumes from this that they did not need correction. The fact is that a number of defective Episcopal Statements were not corrected by the Holy See directly. Indirectly they were criticized by the constant affirmation of HV by Pope Paul VI.

b) At the request of Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington, I wrote a critical analysis of the WS for the American Bishops. Cardinal Cicognani, Secretary of State, wrote to thank me and said that the Holy Father also thanked me. This letter was sent open to the Canadian Apostolic Delegate, to be forwarded to Archbishop Pocock, who had instructions to personally give it to me. This he did with no comment. Why would the Holy Father thank me for attacking the WS, if he approved of it?

c) It should be added that the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano refused to print the WS though it printed the Statements of other hierarchies. When a Canadian bishop complained personally to the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Lambert Greenan, O.P., the latter replied that it had not been printed because it was a disgrace. The other Statements were cleared by the Secretariat of State. The WS was not. It is relevant to recall that when an article on Catholic Education by Archbishop Pocock was printed in L’Osservatore Romano Pocock complained that to appear in L’Osservatore Romano was “the kiss of death to a liberal.” He was then heavily under the influence of Gregory Baum, a main dissenter from HV.

Is the Winnipeg Statement faithful to HV?

2. Father Prieur tells us that although some groups are urging the bishops to change or withdraw the WS, this is not necessary because the WS is faithful both to the teachings of HV and teachings on conscience as understood by moral theology.

First, I thank God that we have groups and individuals working and praying for the recall of the WS and the teaching without compromise of HV. Among these are the Rosarium group under Tony and Diane Liuzzo and John and Laura Pacheco; Catholic Insight under Fr. Alphonse de Valk, c.s.b.; the Witness group under Jim Duffy; Bishop Danylak; Fr. Leonard Kennedy, c.s.b.; Fr.Paul Marx, O.S.B., founder of Human Life International; Fr. Joseph Thompson; John F. Kippley, founder of the Couple to Couple League; Dr. John Shea; David Dooley; John Stone; J.K. MacKenzie, Q.C.; Norman Lower; Deacon Daniel Dauvin; Joseph Pope; Edward and Lorene Collins; and countless other priests and laity. We do not forget those heroic parents, like Doug and Marie Lavoie, of Cochrane, Alberta, who, after making many sacrifices to raise a large family, were shocked and scandalized by the WS.

It is not true that the WS is faithful to HV. It carefully avoided full agreement with HV. This is evident in paragraph 2, where the bishops say: “We are in accord with the teaching of the Holy Father concerning the dignity of married life, and the necessity of a truly Christian relationship between conjugal love and responsible parenthood.”

They rejected the wording of their theological commission: “We are one with the Holy Father in his teaching and pastoral concerns about conjugal love and responsible parenthood.” Please note the essential difference, that is, the word ‘teaching’ was omitted in reference to conjugal love and responsible parenthood.

The Statement speaks as though the Church were still searching for the answers which the Pope and Church had already given (cf. para. 3,4,6,7,13,18,34). We see a reflection of Fr. Charles Curran’s Dissent in and for the Church in par. 34: “We stand in union with the Bishop of Rome—if this sometimes means that we falter in the way, or differ as to the way, no one should conclude that our common faith is lost or our loving purpose blunted.”

They did falter and they did differ. Instead of rejoicing in our heritage of truth about life and love, the last paragraph of the WS quotes Cardinal Newman’s Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom. The Statement was to bring that encircling gloom.

That the WS was not in harmony with HV was admitted by Bishop Alexander Carter, President of the CCCB in 1968. He said:

“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” (“Canadian bishops on Of Human Life,” by Rev. Edward Sheridan, S.J., America, October 19, 1968, p.349). Father Sheridan gave a correct assessment when he wrote:

The Statement contained no general profession of assent to the whole teaching of HV, and nothing that could be interpreted as adding the local authority of the Canadian Bishops to that of the encyclical in general” (ibid.).

How can Father Prieur say that the WS is faithful to the teachings of HV when its writers admit that it is not?

Father Prieur says the WS is faithful to the teachings on conscience as understood by moral theology. This is treated below.

Objective and Subjective

3. Father Prieur states that the bishops chose to uphold the objective teachings of HV and then bring to bear what moral theology has taught for many years about what someone may have to do subjectively when several duties seem impossible to achieve in their circumstances.

First, nowhere in the WS do the bishops uphold the objective teachings of HV. The talk of conflict of duties is a smokescreen for what should more accurately be described as difficult duties. There are no principles of moral theology which would permit one to licitly counsel the performance of an intrinsically evil act. Pope John Paul II puts it this way:

Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (L’Osservatore Romano, October 10, 1983).

Vatican II gives us true and clear teaching on conscience. The Vatican II document Gaudium et spes tells us that:

Married couples should realize that in their behaviour they may not follow their own fancy but must be ruled by conscience–and conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church which is the authentic interpreter of divine law” (#50).

Put simply, conscience is to be informed and conformed; otherwise it is deformed. Cardinal Newman’s remarks on conscience are valid today. He wrote: “Conscience is a stern monitor but in this century it has been replaced by a counterfeit: self-will” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Guilt and the intrinsically evil act

4. In this paragraph Father Prieur cites a reply from the Congregation of the Clergy to a group of dissident priests in Washington, D.C. It correctly affirms that circumstances can make an intrinsically evil act diminished in guilt or even without guilt. He says that the WS is a pastoral way of saying this.

This is not a correct pastoral application of the principles governing subjective guilt. The subjective conscience may be an erroneous conscience, warped or deformed or corrupted by habit. Out of it may come fornication, adultery, contraception, sodomy, abortion, euthanasia, and other evils. May these then be sometimes counselled? Right pastoral response must be based on truth, not error. It is the objective order which the Church upholds and must uphold, whether in teaching, preaching, or in the confessional.

Anne Roche Muggeridge correctly assessed the WS when she wrote: “The Canadian Bishops, like the Protestant reformers, reversed the order of importance in moral judgment, that is, they put the private subjective elements of morality before the universal and objective” (Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City: The Catholic Church in Ruins; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986; pp. 97-98).

The WS and Father Prieur reject the defined doctrine expressed in HV that grace is always sufficient. Bishop Emmett Carter put it this way:

Our statement was definitely meant to indicate to the people of Canada that if they found, as we anticipated, and God knows history has proven us to be correct, that they couldn’t follow the directives of the encyclical, then they were not to consider themselves as cut off from the church.”

Pope John Paul II expresses his rejection of this heresy in these words:

To hold out for exceptions in the matter of the prohibition of contraceptives as if God’s grace were not sufficient is a form of atheism” (September 17, 1983).

The end result of the Winnipeg tragedy is that it created erroneous consciences. Before he left Winnipeg, Archbishop Pocock wrote to me saying that the Canadian Bishops had spoken with a nearly unanimous voice and that he expected me to accept that statement and to absolve those contracepting in good faith. Is this not counselling an erroneous conscience?

Not long ago a man told me that, before he married, his pastor told him that if he had difficulties in having a family he could invoke the Canadian Bishops and his wife could use the Pill. She had some unpleasant side effects from the Pill and so he was sterilized. The marriage broke up not long after. He stopped going to Mass, but recently, at his mother’s funeral Mass, he went to Holy Communion. He said: “My conscience is clear.” The WS created erroneous consciences in countless priests and people.

“Conflict of duties”

5. Here we are given a list of difficulties which married couples faced in 1968. Father Prieur, concludes that “the category of ‘conflict of duties’ was most apt for this situation.”

As already affirmed, difficulties do not bring a conflict of duties. The duty is clear: to obey God’s law. Using a metaphor employed by Pope John Paul II, no reasons piled high as heaven can justify the contraceptive act. The means of grace are always there. In detail these are described in HV #25 and 26 and in even greater detail in Reflections on Humanae Vitae, in the section entitled “Prayer, penance, and the Eucharist are the principal sources of spirituality for married couples” (General audience, October 3, 1984).

Section B: Solid teaching on HV and WS

There is, of course, a critical need for solid teaching on HV. There is no acceptable teaching on the WS except that which points out its grave errors.

1 & 2. In these paragraphs, Father Prieur endorses his book Married in the Lord. He says: “After almost thirty years I am happy to report that the content is still most cogent regarding the whole struggle which Catholics experience about contraception.”

I believe I can do no better than reprint here a critique of Married in the Lord which I wrote for Challenge Magazine (December, 1989):

Married in the Lord (Liturgical Commission, Diocese of London, 1976, 1978) is a ‘Handbook for those Assisting Christian Couples Prepare for Marriage.’ The author, Fr. Michael Prieur, is professor of moral theology at St. Peter’s Seminary, London. Ontario. Although now out of print, this manual helped shape the views of many still-young couples. The pagination is that of the second revised edition.

“Fr. Prieur warns against the conclusion: ‘The Pope has spoken and that’s that’ (p.63). He says: ‘This kind of rigidity tends to eliminate any fruitful discussion of some of the real difficulties in the teaching.’”

In fact, the matter is closed precisely because the Pope has spoken and invoked the authority of Christ in doing so (HV 6).

Prieur: “We are told that the teaching of HV could be revised if fresh data or new insights warranted it (p.57).”

Foy: The Church, through four Popes, has said the teaching cannot be changed since it is divine law.

Prieur: Regarding statements of national hierarchies we read: ‘These official declarations are official teachings of the Magisterium of the Church’ (p.61).

Foy: This is untrue. Bishops exercise their office of teaching only insofar as they are in communion with the head of the episcopal college, the Holy Father (cf. Canon 375).

Father Prieur quotes with approval Par.26 of the WS (p.102, though it is called Par.16). He also quotes the misleading Par.17 (p.102, though it is called Par.16) “concerning those who find it ‘either extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own all elements of this doctrine….’”

Prieur: “Since they are not denying any point of divine and Catholic faith nor rejecting the teaching authority of the Church, these Catholics should not be considered or consider themselves shut off from the body of the faithful.”

Foy: This paragraph equivalently denies the sufficiency of grace and incorrectly says that these people do not reject the teaching authority of the Church. Father Prieur sets loose rules for the reception of Holy Communion by contracepting parties, without Confession (p.112).

It is divine law that requires sorrow, confession, and purpose of amendment. Compare the advice of this text with that of Pope Paul VI: “They (the spouses) should use the Sacraments in sorrow for their lapses and renew their wavering resolutions to obey” (L’Osservatore Romano, Dec.21, 1971).

Married in the Lord bears an Imprimatur. In 1976 it was recommended by the Ontario Bishops. After John Cattana of Toronto made several valid criticisms of it in The Catholic Register (June 5, 1976), the Toronto Senate of Priests rebuked The Register for “sniping” at Father Prieur’s book after it had been approved by the bishops of Ontario.

The September 1976 issue of the Messenger of the Sacred Heart carried an excellent article entitled “A Book Reviewed.” In all charity it pointed out the major deficiencies in Father Prieur’s manual.

Of Fr. Prieur’s book an Archbishop said in a letter to me (June 10, 1976): “It has been weakened mainly because it relies on the CCC statement on HV of 1968…. I fail to understand how the Imprimatur could have been given to it in so important a matter, without sound doctrine.”

The Archbishop referred to in the paragraph above is Archbishop Routhier of Grouard-McLennan, with whom I had a long correspondence on the WS and the Canadian Catechism. He was one of those who voiced his disapproval of the WS at Winnipeg in 1968.

Bishop Emmett Carter

In the fall of 1976, I wrote to Bishop Carter of London (later Cardinal Emmett Carter of Toronto) expressing concern over the grave errors in Married in the Lord. In his reply he did not answer my objections, but said he had full confidence in Father Prieur and that he had helped him “over the rough spots” in the writing of the manual.

It is important to note that on February 7, 1967, Bishop Carter told his London priests that they “should be confused about the use of the Pill.” He ordered them to absolve those who contracepted “in good faith.” He had forgotten or ignored that Pope Pius XII had condemned the contraceptive use of the Pill on September 12, 1958, and that Pope Paul VI had reaffirmed the teaching of the Church in 1964 and 1966, calling it a time of study and not of doubt. When HV was published in 1968 Bishop Carter and some other bishops considered the encyclical not a solution, but “a problem.”

In fairness it must be added that in a private letter dated June 15,1995, Cardinal Carter wrote: “I am not prepared to defend paragraph 26 (of the WS) totally. The phraseology was misleading and could give the impression that the bishops were saying that one could dissent at will from the Pope’s teaching.”

What to do in the future?

3. Here Father Prieur presents his recommendations for the future. He would launch a more intensive presentation on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. That is good. The Holy Father gave us the superb “Reflections on Humanae vitae” in his audiences from July 11, 1984 to November 28, 1984.

It would be good also to launch a more intense study of Familiaris Consortio, the Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Family, of 1980. Also helpful would be a study of Letter to Families from Pope John II, February 2, 1994. All of these endorse and explain the intrinsic evil of contraception and the spiritual means needed to avoid it.

4. In this final paragraph Father Prieur says many Catholics suffer from both vincible and invincible ignorance regarding contraception.

Foy: In fact many Catholics in Canada and elsewhere suffer from erroneous consciences because of false teaching such as that of the WS and that of Father Prieur. Natural Family Planning (NFP) is not a panacea. Here a caution is necessary. NFP is usually taught without moral evaluation. Serious reasons are required for its practice (HV 16). Pope John Paul II teaches that married couples who have recourse to the natural regulation of fertility might do so without valid reasons (General Audience, August 8, 1984). A marriage might even be invalid when the right to have children is excluded by NFP.


Some years ago I met Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, at the Call to Holiness Convention in Detroit. He knew there was a serious problem in Canada over the WS and I asked his advice. He thought it would be helpful if even a small number of Canadian bishops were to ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for an evaluation of the WS. Twice I tried to bring this about, writing to bishops I thought were pro-life. Not one Latin rite bishop would agree to this procedure.

What can be done? As mentioned, some groups and many individuals are working and praying for the recall of the WS. Much more needs to be done and so we must persevere and pray and do penance. May the Holy Spirit guide all those engaged in this noble effort and give them the grace of perseverance.

At present the Church in Canada is stricken and deeply wounded by the contraceptive mentality. It is practising the “Art of Self-Extinction”, with a suicidal birth rate. The majority of Catholic couples of child-bearing age are contracepting and, if still going to Mass, receiving Holy Communion in objective sin.

In the area of life issues, most so-called Catholic hospitals are ethical wastelands.

Children in Grade 8 of Catholic schools are taught all the means of contraception in the child-abusing course Fully Alive, another fruit of the WS. The prenuptial questionnaire, intended to prevent couples from entering illicit or invalid marriages, no longer in most dioceses asks the question, as it did formerly, “Do you intend to abide by the teaching of the Church in the matter of birth-control?

In general, across the country there is a deafening silence on the part of our spiritual leaders about the great charter of love and life called HV. Thirty-seven years after HV, a seminary professor continues to propagate the love-killing, death-dealing WS.

It is enough to make the angels weep.


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