Sunday, December 13, 2009

Did "Liberating Potential" undo the dissent of the Winnipeg Statement?

In September 2008, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a document called "Liberating Potential". The document was issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Liberating Potential is an excellent document that speaks about the greatness of the gift of sexuality and the fact that contraception and abortion are incompatible with God's plan for life. The document is very robust and doesn't contain any trace of dissent.  It is everything you would hope to see from the pen of our bishops.

I applaud the bishops for having issued this document. It was badly needed.

Given that "Liberating Potential" is in agreement with the Church's teaching on contraception, it is legitimate to ask the question as to whether this nullifies the Winnipeg Statement. In other words, did the assent in "Liberating Potential" undo the dissent of the Winnipeg Statement?  I don't think so. In my opinion, it was a good first step, but it doesn't go far enough. Let me explain why.

When the average Joe like you or me commits a sin, God requires several steps in order for us to be forgiven:

1.  We must admit our wrongdoing.
2.  We must be sorry for having offended God and others.
3.  We must change our behavior and make a firm resolve to not commit that sin again.

I think that the bishops need to be held to the same standard when it comes to the Winnipeg Statement. So let's see if Liberating Potential lives up to this standard.

1.  Admitting their wrongdoing

Have the bishops admitted the error of the Winnipeg Statement and all the erroneous pastoral actions that flowed from it over 40 years?  No.
Has there has been any admission of guilt and of the huge damage done over the last four decades?  No. 

Now someone might claim that the bishops may have privately repented of the Winnipeg Statement. That's certainly a possibility. However, bishops should know that a public sin requires a public repentance, as was explained recently by Archbishop Raymond Burke (Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and member of the Congregation for Bishops) over the Ted Kennedy funeral scandal:

"When a person has publicly espoused and cooperated in gravely sinful acts, leading many into confusion and error about fundamental questions of respect for human life and the integrity of marriage and the family, his repentance of such actions must also be public." (Source)

The purpose of public repentance is not to bring humiliation on the person who committed the sin.  Rather, it seeks to make sure that anybody who may have been misled by the sinner will be made aware of the change in position and will no longer be led astray by whatever erroneous positions were being advocated. Sadly, none of this has happened with regards to Canadian bishops and the Winnipeg Statement.

Someone could also claim that the current bishops are not the same people who wrote and signed the Winnipeg statement and therefore don't need to admit any wrongdoing. Such an argument fails to recognize the corporal nature of the Church and the gravity of an institutionalized sin.  For example, when a priest has been convicted of sexual abuse, we often see the current bishop make a public apology to the victims, even though he wasn't involved in any way in the crime.  Likewise, as part of the celebrations of the Jubilee Year, John Paul II made public apologies for past sins of the Church, some of which had been committed centuries ago.  Heck, even secular politicians have made apologies for grave errors committed in the past, such as war crimes.  These apologies are necessary and reflect the reality that we are all part of the Body of Christ, which is eternal, and that if one member of the Body suffers, all suffer together with it (1 Cor 12:26).

So the CCCB did not perform the essential act of admitting any wrongdoing. Quite the contrary. During this past year, we discovered the Development and Peace (D&P) scandal, which is intimately related to the life issues from which the CCCB dissented in the Winnipeg Statement.  Did we see any admission of wrongdoing over D&P?  No.  Instead they dog-piled one denial after another.  So I don't see much of a break with the past.

Given these facts, the CCCB has unfortunately not fulfilled requirement #1.

2.  Expressing sorrow for sin

If the sinner does not admit any wrongdoing in step #1, it's really hard to express sorrow over the sin he didn't admit.  Liberating Potential does appear to express some concern over the widespread use of contraception in our modern world, as witnessed by the following excerpt:

"Indeed, how can we fail to recognize its [Humanae Vitae's] prophetic character when we consider the troubling evolution of two fundamental human institutions, marriage and the family? Both continue to be affected by the contraceptive mentality feared and rejected in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI. And what can be said of the future demographic deficit confronting Western societies?"

Notice, however, that they speak of the affliction of the contraceptive mentality as if it were something foreign and external to them. It's somewhat hypocritical of them to write "how can we fail to recognize" when in fact they've been dissented from it for 40 years.  The sad reality is that through the Winnipeg Statement, the bishops were great enablers of this contraceptive mentality by reassuring Catholics that they could use contraception in good conscience. So why are they speaking as if this were something external to them?  This just reinforces my earlier point that they are still in denial of having endorsed the contraceptive mentality.  As long as they remain in denial, there won't be any pastoral changes to reverse the contraceptive mentality.

As a result, it appears clear to me that the CCCB has not fulfilled requirement #2.

3.  Changing behaviour and resolving not to sin again

Liberating Potential makes some very orthodox and sound statements about life, sexuality and contraception. It's a very strong document in that sense. So one could interpret those strong statements as a sign that the CCCB is changing its attitude with regards to these issues. This is clearly a judgment call on my part and is subject to interpretation error, but I think there's a glimmer of openness on the part of the bishops in this respect. That's definitely good news.

Keep in mind, however, that the Winnipeg Statement was not merely a bunch of words on a piece of paper. Before the words were ever written, there was a dissenting attitude among bishops. And after the words were put on paper, that dissenting attitude was reflected in how the Church taught the faithful on the issue of contraception and other life issues.  Through spiritual direction, marriage preparation courses and the teaching in our Catholic schools, contraception became increasingly mainstream while pro-life issues were put on the back burner.  So in order to fully reflect requirement #3, the bishops need to do more than just put good words on paper. They need to reform marriage preparation courses, seminaries, spiritual direction and the Catholic school system in order to redress the problems that they created.

In this respect, it's interesting that Liberating Potential talks quite a bit about John Paul II's Theology of the Body. They speak very highly of it. I was very happy to read that because I think the Theology of the Body is an incredible gift to the Church. So why hasn't the Theology of the Body been implemented in marriage preparation courses throughout the country? Why is it not taught in our high schools?  There is an urgent and dire need for married couples and teenagers to understand the true meaning of sexuality and how it fits into the married vocation. The Theology of the Body also needs to be taught in the seminaries so that future priests may understand how their vocation and call to celibacy is not a rejection of God's gift of sexuality but rather the complete fulfillment of the sign it is meant to signify. I think that too many priests and lay people were taught that sex is somehow a bad thing. A well-formed Catholic should understand that sexuality has immense beauty and sacredness. In today's world where sexual messages are constantly being thrust upon us at every moment, it is vital that Catholics be able to understand sexuality and successfully integrate it into their life.

So I'm encouraged that the bishops have become fans of the Theology of the Body, but I long for the day when they will take action so that all Catholics may benefit from this rich teaching of John Paul II.

So on point #3, I see some signs of hope, but the Development and Peace scandal poured a lot of cold water on the notion that bishops were changing their behaviour.  It's really easy to write a pastoral letter that repeats Church teaching.  The true test of good faith comes when it's time to practice what you preach.  The D&P scandal was definitely not a good sign.

I can't over emphasize the point that the Winnipeg statement is not merely a piece of paper lost in the drawer. Much like the Constitution of a country, the Winnipeg Statement was the foundation upon which a distorted version of Catholicism was propagated in Canada.  The solution will require much more than just a repudiation on paper. It will require a deep and thorough rebuilding of programs, school curriculum, seminaries and pastoral practices.  Only then will we have a chance of turning this thing around.