Even the venerable Msgr. Thomas Raby of The Catholic Register did not see his 70th priestly anniversary. In the week that we mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it is astonishing to think that Msgr. Foy was ordained before the Second World War — indeed his bishop’s original plans to send him to Rome for study soon after ordination were foiled by the outbreak of war. The Archbishop of Toronto will be preaching at Msgr. Foy’s anniversary Mass, and it will be the first time Cardinal Thomas Collins has ever preached in honour of a priest ordained before he was born.
Msgr. Foy gave long years of service to the Church both as a canon lawyer and a parish priest. He spent decades on marriage tribunals and family life became the special emphasis of his apostolate of writing and speaking. In particular, the question of contraception formed the core of his public witness.
In The Register’s story on the anniversary, Ruane Remy writes that “reflecting on three-quarters of a century in the priesthood, Foy says the biggest problem for the Church in Canada is the contraceptive mentality: ‘We have a suicidal birth rate.’ ”
It is not possible to write about Msgr. Foy without writing about contraception. His many critics said he was obsessed with the issue. Likely some of his friends thought that too.
Msgr. Foy was obsessed with contraception in the way that a fireman is obsessed with rescuing people from a burning house. The sexual revolution was well underway by the time of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical restating the long Christian tradition that artificial contraception was immoral. In the near-universal dissent from the encyclical, facilitated by the Canadian bishops in their infamous Winnipeg Statement, Msgr. Foy saw that the flames were about to consume the household of faith.
So he sounded the alarm, loudly and repeatedly, inveighing against the Winnipeg Statement and all its pomps and works. By the 1990s, one heard jokes that there was no subject — from divine revelation to recipe books — that Msgr. Foy could not relate to the Winnipeg Statement. His dogged fidelity prevailed, and in 2008, the Canadian bishops consigned the Winnipeg Statement to history with a new document celebrating Humanae Vitae’s 40th anniversary, Liberating Potential, which called upon Catholics to “discover or rediscover” the wisdom of Paul VI and the Church’s tradition.
“Time and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception,” writes Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve After the Pill, perhaps the most searching analysis of the failed promises of the sexual revolution.
“Moreover, there is good reason for their agreement,” she writes. “By rendering fertile women infertile with nearly 100- per-cent accuracy, the Pill and related devices have transformed the lives and families of the great majority of people born after their invention. Modern contraception is not only a fact of our time; it may even be the central fact, in the sense that it is hard to think of any other whose demographic, social, behavioural and personal fallout has been as profound.”
What Msgr. Foy saw early on was what others, both in the Church and the world, would come to see much later. In uncoupling what God has put together — sexual union and procreation — many other things would eventually come apart: sex and marriage, sex and love, love and marriage, and even marriages and families themselves. Indeed, in embracing the great uncoupling, many Christians separated themselves from the faith altogether and found their ecclesial communities rendered sterile. Msgr. Foy saw what was at stake before many others. After St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church has re-learned that sexual difference and the call to love illumines both the Trinitarian union and the nuptial dimension of the Church. For all that, he deserves the Church’s thanks. That in his anniversary year the pope of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI, is beatified is likely the greatest gift he will receive.
Msgr. Foy is a very old man now, nearly 100. But he has spent most of his life as the boy who pointed out that the emperor of the sexual revolution had no clothes. Our imperial culture has indeed been naked for generations now, thinking that ever greater nakedness — pornography, permissiveness, promiscuity — would lead to happiness. Instead it has produced legions of people who are left alone with their shame.
The traditional anniversary greeting is ad multos annos — many more years! That seems bold after 75 years, so let it be said that his many years have been very good indeed.
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)