The Oct. 12 announcement hit like a brick to the head: Canada’s Catholic bishops voted at their plenary meeting to end their participation in KAIROS, Canada’s largest faith-based social justice organization. In contrast, when I was director of social affairs at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in 2001, the bishops had seen the creation of KAIROS in a very positive light, and became founding members and financial backers of the organization. As a CCCB employee, I was mandated to serve as vice-president of the new board.
KAIROS — Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, is a coalition of 11 churches (for example, the Anglican Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, etc.), and church agencies (usually those that work in international development.) Catholic presence on the KAIROS board was impressive: not only did the bishops have a voting member, but so did Development and Peace, and Catholic religious congregations have two representatives as well. KAIROS’ work has focused on Aboriginal rights, human rights and development in the Global South, ecological and economic justice in Canada — all a heritage of the dozen social justice coalitions that were created by the bishops and the Protestant churches since the 1970s.
Reaction on social media to the bishops’ decision has been quick, and negative.
One longtime human rights advocate wrote, “Bishop Adolphe Proulx would be turning in his grave.” (Proulx, former Catholic bishop of Hull-Gatineau, personally chaired the Latin American human rights coalition of the churches in the 1980s — I first met him in my Mexico City apartment when he travelled there as part of an ecumenical delegation to assess refugee concerns.)
What has changed with the bishops that initiated this ugly divorce after 40 years of ecumenical social justice commitment?
Publicly, the bishops’ conference is not saying much. But an Oct. 7 letter from CCCB President Bishop Doug Crosby, not yet released but sent to all KAIROS member organizations, stated that the bishops had “concerns” with “various aspects of KAIROS structures, policies, strategies and functioning.” Crosby’s letter also noted three main difficulties for the bishops: that KAIROS emphasizes advocacy and “immediate action,” that the KAIROS board operates by consensus and then decision of the majority, and the lack of a mechanism by which the CCCB could opt out of certain KAIROS projects.
In addition, the CCCB had difficulty with the Memorandum of Agreement among the members, which made the CCCB a participant “in what corporately and legally has become a project of just one particular church.” This is a veiled reference to the fact that one church had to step up and take KAIROS under their wing, so that charitable tax receipts could be issued to donors. The bishops may have forgotten that until 2001, the CCCB had done this for some ecumenical work, like the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, but were unwilling to take on this role when all the coalitions were merged into KAIROS. Fortunately, and in spite of the extra work involved, the United Church of Canada graciously took on this role. Given this history, I find it disingenuous to suggest that KAIROS is merely a project of the United Church.
What is the real issue? “KAIROS’ approaches and ours often differ significantly,” concluded the CCCB president. That could not have been welcome news to the other 10 church partners, nor to Catholic social justice practitioners.
A Catholic sister wrote: “I am shocked, embarrassed and angry to hear that the CCCB withdrew from KAIROS . . . so much for working together with other faith communities to bring justice and peace to all creation, especially to indigenous people. I am so glad religious congregations are supportive and involved with KAIROS . . .”
A young Winnipeg Catholic said, “Well, the CCCB had all but withdrawn from KAIROS work, anyway. I haven’t seen a bishops’ rep at a KAIROS gathering since I joined their circles in 2011.”
A former employee of the bishops suggested that the CCCB must now be understood as an organization quite like the Canadian Medical Association. The CMA doesn’t exist to make the best decisions about health care in Canada — rather, it is the defender of doctors’ professional interests. By the same token, the CCCB’s role has not always been to make decisions in favour of all faithful Catholics in this country. “The CCCB should change their name to The Professional Organization for Catholic Bishops, he said.”
Although unmentioned, money also had to be a consideration in withdrawing from KAIROS. In 2015 the CCCB contributed $115,000 to KAIROS. However, they halved this contribution in 2016. Since the agreement of participating churches calls for six months’ notice of a decision to withdraw, the CCCB will provide $28,750 to KAIROS in 2017. It should be noted that since 2005, the bishops do not finance ecumenical justice work from their own funds — the $115,000 comes to the CCCB every year from Development and Peace. The CCCB letter argues that “Our decision does not affect our Church’s and our Conference’s ongoing commitment to ecumenism, social justice, and interchurch collaboration . . . ,” but does not explain how these monies may now be used to strengthen their own efforts in justice initiatives.
The impact of the bishops’ withdrawal on KAIROS’ work will not be primarily financial. KAIROS has a $2 million annual budget, and a $5 million reserve fund, mostly provided by socially active religious congregations of Catholic sisters.
However, the bishops’ decision to abandon KAIROS is a defeat for social justice in Canada. The ability of Christian faith groups to speak together publicly on a range of issues, something that has been a crowning aspect of Canadian ecumenism for four decades, has now been dealt a massive blow. The decision of the CCCB to leave KAIROS is a manifestation of the lack of ecumenical grace in the church leadership of today.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.