Is There a Positive Side to the Winnipeg Statement? September 21, 2008

Is There a Positive Side to the Winnipeg Statement?

By Msgr. Vincent Foy

A recent unpublished article is entitled “A Positive Look at the Winnipeg Statement.”  The reference is to the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ commentary on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, given at Winnipeg on Friday, September 27, 1968.

The “Positive Look” is based on a claim by the late Cardinal Carter that the Winnipeg Statement was nothing more than a pastoral response to the encyclical.  Cardinal Carter said “… there was no question of dissent from our beloved Paul VI… we were about our pastoral business and were not trying to write a theological dissent” (“The Whole Truth About the Winnipeg Statement of 1968”, pamphlet, 1997).

The present notes demonstrate, I believe, the opposite was the purpose of the Winnipeg Statement.  This conclusion is warranted by a look at the prior context of the Statement, the Winnipeg meeting itself and the subsequent events.  The Winnipeg statement had no positive side.  It was a true tragedy.

Signs of Dissent Before the Winnipeg Meeting

1.  Silence

Pope Pius XII had condemned the contraceptive use of the Pill on September 12, 1958.  Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the teaching of the Church in 1964 and 1966, calling it a time of study and not of doubt.  Nevertheless, in widespread attacks on that teaching there was silence on the part of the CCCB and individual bishops.

There was silence when a book called “Contraception and Holiness”, published in 1964, called for a change in the Church’s teaching.  Three of the authors were professors at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.

There was silence when several speakers at the 1967 Toronto Conference on the Theology of Renewal attacked the Church’s teaching against contraception.

There was silence when Gregory Baum, professor at St. Michael’s College, told Catholics in talks, interviews and tapes that Catholics could use contraception because the Church was in a state of doubt.

There was silence when pressure groups such as the Western Conference of Priests, Catholic Physicians Guild of Manitoba, the Canadian Institute of Theology and fifty-eight “intellectuals” of St. Francis Xavier University called for “freedom of conscience”.

Many Catholics took silence for dissent and began using contraceptive pills and devices, most of them abortifacient.

2.  Submission to the Civil Government

On September 9, 1966, the CCCB addressed a document to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and Welfare: On Change in the Law of Contraception.  The Bishops said they would not oppose the sale of contraceptives.  They said “Indeed, we could easily envisage an actual co-operation and even leadership on the part of lay Catholics to change a law which under present conditions they might well judge to be harmful to public order and the common good.”

The CCCB did not affirm that the law against contraception was a divine natural law binding all.

3.  False Confessional Norms

Prior to Humanae Vitae a number of bishops gave erroneous confessional norms.  Among these were Bishop Carter of Sault Ste. Marie, Archbishop Pocock of Toronto and Archbishop Plourde of Ottawa.  Typical was the instruction to confessors of Bishops G. E. Carter of London who said that since there was doubt about the Pope’s decision, confessors should absolve those who contracepted in good faith.

Such norms were in dissent from the Church’s teaching.  Paul VI warned in 1964 and 1966 that there must be no deviation from the Church’s teaching.  He said it was a time of study and not of doubt.

4.  Periti or Consultors

The Periti or so-called experts chosen to advise the bishops at Winnipeg were dissenters from the Church’s teaching.  These were Father Edward Sheridan, S.J., Fr. Andre Naud and Fr. Charles St. Ange.  Not one head of the Canadian matrimonial tribunals was invited.  They had the most experience relative to the evils of contraception.

 5. The Reaction of Canadian Bishops to Humanae Vitae

Many bishops reacted negatively to Humanae Vitae, not with the joyful docility requested by the Holy Father.

Late in July 1968, at the chalet of Archbishop Plourde, just north of Ottawa, a meeting took place of the Executive of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). Present were Bishop Alexander Carter of London, President of the CCCB, his brother Bishop G. Emmett Carter of London, Archbishop Joseph-Aurele Plourde of Ottawa, Archbishop Philip Pocock of Toronto, and Bishop Coderre of Saint-Jean Longueuil. While there, they were visited by Archbishop Emmanuele Clarizio, Apostolic Delegate to Canada, who presented them with copies of the new encyclical Humanae Vitae, signed by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968 and addressed “to all men of good will.”

Cardinal Carter, then Bishop of London, describes the reaction of the bishops: “We promptly dropped everything else we were doing and pored over the encyclical.  It was with a certain sense of dismay that we read vital passages n it.  He (the Pope) had clearly taken a position that was contrary to the majority position of his own Commission.  We felt that this was going to be a major problem.”

6.  Archbishop Plourde of Ottawa

In August of 1968, Archbishop Plourde of Ottawa issued a pastoral letter on Humanae Vitae.  He said that individuals have the right to reach a judgement different from that of the Holy Father.

7.  The Mandate of the Bishops

The Canadian bishops had a triple mandate at Winnipeg.

As individuals they had the personal mandate shared by all Catholics of giving internal and external assent to the doctrine of Humanae Vitae.

As bishops they had an obligation to follow the pastoral norms given specifically to them (n. 30 Humanae Vitae).

As a national hierarchy, the Canadian bishops had a mandate to remain faithful to and firm with the Pope.  On July 19, 1968, Cardinal Cicognani, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, sent a letter to all the world’s bishops appealing for unity.  Only recently has the full text of this letter been circulated. A key paragraph is this:

“It is necessary that both in the confessional and in the pulpit, in the press and by other means of communication, every necessary pastoral effort be made that no ambiguity exists among the faithful or in public opinion concerning the Church’s position in this serious matter.”

Cardinal Cicognani said that the Pope called for joyful docility by all in their reception of the teaching of their Holy Mother the Church.

The Winnipeg Meeting, September 1968

We have seen some of the evidence which pre-disposed a number of Canadian bishops to seek a loophole by which the encyclical Humanae Vitae would be nullified.  Now we look at the meeting by which they undermined the encyclical via the mask of a so-called pastoral interpretation and the escape-hatch of the subjective conscience.

1.  Rejection of a Minority Statement

Early in the meeting a motion was passed excluding a minority report or Statement.  The reason given was that the matter to be discussed was pastoral, not doctrinal.  In fact, the opposite was true; moral doctrine of the gravest matter was to be discussed.

2.  Rejection of Orthodoxy

The week before the Winnipeg meeting I met Fr. Sheridan, S.J., one of the consultors.  He told me that he had just read, in German, Karl Rahner’s theory on the right to dissent from Humanae Vitae and was going to translate it and bring it to Winnipeg.  It happened that the same day I had received the American Catholic Register, which gave Karl Rahner’s opinion in English.  I contacted Bishop Ryan of Hamilton to tell him the news.  He asked me to write a short refutation of Karl Rahner’s opinion and send a copy for each bishop to Fr. George, S.J., Secretary to the English-speaking bishops.  This I did.

Bishop Allen later told me that my two-page article was not distributed by order of Archbishop Pocock.  The latter wrote me from Winnipeg saying that he had read my comments and that I need have no fear for the orthodoxy of the Canadian bishops.

3.  A Welcome to Dissenters

Father Ore McManus of the Western Canada Conference of Priests came to Winnipeg armed with a letter from Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., which defended dissent.  Bernard Daly, Director of the CCCB’s English section of the Family Life Bureau, came with a petition from fifteen Offices of the CCCB calling for “freedom of conscience”.  Both were asked to remain and were brought into the consultation process and even had a share in the writing of the Statement.

4.  Refusal to Endorse Humanae Vitae

Three bodies were at work during the Winnipeg meeting: the Theological Commission of Bishops, the Consultors or “Periti” and the main body of bishops.  The theological Commission voted 8 to 5 to include in the Statement unity with the encyclical on the question of the regulation of birth.  The consultors were greatly agitated over this wording and with the help of Remi di Roo were able to obtain approval by the vote of a wording which would avoid specific approval of the key teaching of Humanae Vitae.  So the vague wording of paragraph 2 of the Winnipeg Statement is the root of which the erroneous teaching in paragraph 26 is the fruit.

5.  Rejection of the law against contraception as a moral absolute

Paragraph 3 of the Winnipeg Statement says there is nothing in the encyclical at variance with the Canadian bishops’ submissions to the civil authorization on contraception, divorce and abortion. This is not true.  In this submission of September 9, 1966, the Bishops saw nothing wrong with a proposed law permitting the sale of contraceptives.  In fact, they even envisaged leadership and cooperation of Catholics in changing a law which “under present conditions they might well judge to be harmful to public order and the common good.”

So the Canadian bishops betrayed the Church’s teaching which sees contraception as a moral absolute, binding all.

Their Statement on divorce was similarly flawed.

6.  Rejection of the Finality of Humanae Vitae

The Statement reads as though the Church was still searching for answers the Pope and the Church had already given (Winnipeg Statement, para., 3,4,6,7,13,18,34). In paragraph 34 we see reflected Father Charles Curran’s “Dissent in and for the Church.”  The Bishops say:  “If … we must as pilgrims do, 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.”

7.  Paragraph 26

This paragraph of the Winnipeg Statement contains the infamous words that under some circumstances parties may “be safely assured that, whoever chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”

The words “that course which seems right to him”, open up a world of subjectivism.  What if this means using an abortifacient pill or sterilization?  What if the course which seems right to him does not seem right to her?  Supposing his counselor or confessor differs from her counselor or confessor?

Paragraph 26 embraces the error of proportionalism.  It allows spouses to balance the right to life with other goods such as the education of children and the health of the mother.  The encyclical Humanae Vitae forbids such a balancing of goods (n. 14).  Pope John Paul II calls such a balancing of goods a very serious error (Address of March 1, 1984).

Paragraph 26 calls the teaching of the Church against contraception “Directives”.  The teaching is not “Directives” but divine natural law.

A good analysis of the paragraph is given by John F. Kippley, founder of the Couple to Couple League:  “A more misleading statement would be hard to imagine.  There are no principles of moral theology that allow a person to engage in actions taught by the Church to be objectively immoral, whether such actions be adultery, contraception, fornication or sodomy.  And, of course, what applies to one behaviour applies to all the rest” (John F. Kippley, Sex and the Marriage Covenant, Cincinnati Ohio: The Couple to Couple League, 1991, p. 145).

8.  Conclusion of the Statement

Instead of rejoicing in our heritage of the Truth, and receiving the encyclical with “joyful docility” as requested by the Holy Father, the Canadian bishops end their commentary by quoting Cardinal Newman’s “Lead kindly Light Amongst the Encircling Gloom.”  The Statement was to bring that encircling gloom.

The Post Winnipeg Events and Consequences

1.  The refusal of Full Assent to the Encyclical

Of prime importance is the admission of Bishop Alexander Carter. He said “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 magazine, Oct. 19, 1968, p. 349).  Please note the words “For the first time”, “simple Amen” and the reference to the doctrine of the encyclical.  The bishops claimed the right to pass judgement on the teaching of the Pope and Church.

2.  A Second Letter from Archbishop Pocock

After the Winnipeg meeting, but before he left Winnipeg, Archbishop Pocock of Toronto wrote me a second letter. He said that the Canadian bishops had spoken with near unanimity, that he expected me to accept their decision and to absolve those who contracepted in good faith.

3.  What the Winnipeg Statement Communicated

As important as what the Winnipeg Statement said is what is communicated.  It communicated dissent, ambivalence and compromise.  Numerous examples of this could be given.  A fair assessment was given in an editorial by Dale Francis in the Twin Circle newspaper for October 20, 1968:  “The practical consequence has been that it has been interpreted as virtually negating the Pope’s proscription of contraception.”

Countless couples have claimed that the Winnipeg Statement gave them permission to contracept.

4.  Thanks for a Commentary Criticizing the Winnipeg Statement

At the request of Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington, in whose Archdiocese the American bishops were to gather to discuss the encyclical Humanae Vitae, I wrote a commentary on the Winnipeg Statement. It was highly critical of the Canadian Statement.  I also sent a copy to the Holy See. I received a letter of thanks from Cardinal Cicognani, Secretary of State.  He conveyed thanks and a blessing form the Holy Father, as well as his own thanks.

The letter was sent open to Archbishop Clarizio, the Apostolic Delegate with instructions that it be sent open to my Archbishop who was to present it open to me.  The Archbishop gave me the letter with the words “I have been asked to give this to you.”  I read the letter in his presence and thanked him.  He made no comment.

5.  The Refusal by L’Osservatore Romano to print the Winnipeg Statement

Although the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano printed several Statements of National Hierarchies on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, it refused to print the Canadian Statement.  When asked by the president of the CCCB why it was not printed, the editor of the English-speaking edition replied that is was not printed because it was a disgrace.

6. Education was Infected

Two of the seven priests dismissed from St. John Vianney Seminary in Buffalo for dissent form Humanae Vitae were welcomed into St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto.  Dissent spread through seminaries e.g. St. Peter’s in London, Ontario.  Texts like “Married in the Lord” by Father Michael Prieur, “Christ Among Us” by Wilhelm, marriage preparation courses, family life programs, and CCCB kits all carried the life-destroying Winnipeg message.

7.  Approval by Bishop Carter of London of the text “Married in the Lord”

In 1966, I wrote to Bishop Gerald Emmett Carter of London about errors in the text “Married in the Lord” by Father Michael Prieur, professor of moral theology at St. Peter’s Seminary.  Fr. Prieur taught that the teaching of Humanae Vitae could be changed; though three Popes said it could not.  He said it was not always necessary to confess the practice of contraception.  He even taught that couples having intercourse before marriage should practice periods of abstinence.

Bishop Carter defended Fr. Prieur.  He wrote to me that he had full confidence in Father Prieur, that he had not only given the text his “Imprimatur” but had helped Father Prieur “over the rough spots”.

8.     Sterilization in Catholic Hospitals

In 1970 the Medico-Moral Guide approved by the Canadian Bishops for use in Catholic hospitals contained a prohibition of sterilization as a means of birth control (Article 18).  But there is an addendum.  It reads “Reference should be made to the Canadian Bishops documents on the pastoral application of this general direction.”  This addendum gave the green light to moral relativism in our hospitals under the cloak of “freedom of conscience” as taught by the Winnipeg Statement.  When I protested the sterilization in St. Michael’s Hospital of a parishioner, I was told by the Superior “The Archbishop says that what we are dong here is in accordance with the thinking of the Canadian Bishops.”


The article “A Positive Look at the Winnipeg Statement” is based on the claim by Cardinal Carter that the Statement was a mere pastoral response.  It has been shown that it was a pastoral response not in conformity with the teaching of Humane Vitae.  A right pastoral response is always in conformity with the truth.

On May 30, 1983, Pope John Paul addressed the participants in the first Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family.  Among other things he discussed the need for pastoral action to be faithful to Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio:

“It is absolutely necessary that the pastoral action of Christian communities be totally faithful to the teaching of the Encyclical Humane Vitae and to the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.  It would be a great error to set up pastoral requirements in opposition to doctrinal teachings since the very first service that the Church must perform for people is to tell them the truth of which she is neither the author nor the mother”  (L’Osservatore Romano, June 6, 1983).

We ought all work and pray for the recall of the tragic Winnipeg Statement.

Msgr. Vincent Foy

September 21, 2008

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