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:

“In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”

The bishops appealed to the primacy of conscience, without acknowledging that the proper formation of conscience must include the clear teaching of the magisterium. The Canadian bishops became moderately famous after their statement, as it was widely cited by those who opposed the teaching of Humanae Vitae. (Vancouver Archbishop James Carney was an exception, defending the encyclical – Editor.)

The bishops knew that, in the heat of an intense public battle, they had declined to teach as they should. So five years later they issued a statement on the “Formation of Conscience” that reversed the indications given in 1968.

“For a believer, this teaching of the magisterium … cannot be just one element among others in the formation of his conscience. It is the definitive cornerstone upon which the whole edifice of conscientious judgment must be built,” the bishops wrote in 1973. “A believer has the absolute obligation of conforming his conduct first and foremost to what the Church teaches.”

The Canadian bishops were closing the gate long after the horse had bolted. Their reversal indicated the sheer amount of work required to even partially remedy the damage done by the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae. The election of St. John Paul 10 years after Paul VI’s encyclical began that work in earnest. And in 2008, 40 years after Humanae Vitae, the Canadian bishops published a pastoral letter, Liberating Potential, that celebrated the teaching of Paul VI and renewed its presentation for our time. 

Revisiting 1968 is not only of historic interest. The debates of 1968 have returned in regard to conjugal morality. Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation of Pope Francis on marriage and family life, has been interpreted in various and contradictory ways. Some of those interpretations are almost verbatim repetitions of the errors that the Canadian bishops made at Winnipeg. 

The bishops of Malta have taught that Amoris Laetitia supports an idea of conscience which means that the teaching of, for example, St. John Paul II on marriage and family can be set aside if the individual feels at “peace with God” about his decision. Whether they are correct in interpreting Amoris Laetitia that way is doubtful, though great confusion still prevails on that point. 

Whether the Maltese bishops will be reversing themselves in a few years time remains to be seen. But the journey of the Canadian bishops, from 1968 to 1973, and more broadly from 1968 to 2008, constitutes a summary of the life of the Church in our time.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)