Regina’s Archbishop Charlie Halpin had a vision. He wanted to enhance the church’s social apostolate by opening Saskatchewan’s first diocesan social action office in in 1975.
As a 21-year-old, I happily crossed half the continent to take the job offered by the archbishop, and then Father Jim Weisgerber, director of Regina’s Catholic Centre. I believed that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world were constitutive dimensions of the preaching of the Gospel, and of the church’s mission . . .” (Justice in the World, #6, 1971).
Regina’s Social Action Commission of lay and clerical advisers organized ecumenical events during Lent, like “Ten Days for World Development.” We collaborated with the wonderful work of Lutherans who had earned the trust of indigenous women working on race relations with local police. And we helped establish the province-wide Inter-Church Energy Committee, joining many other Christian communities facing the ethical challenges of uranium development. Much later, I was engaged by the bishops’ conference to direct their Social Affairs office, and worked for 11 years at the national level with devoted and truly visionary ecumenical partners.
Last month the bishops of Canada released a document that seemed to reiterate their belief in the role of ecumenical social action. In the first paragraph of “The Co-Responsibility of the Lay Faithful in the Church and the World,” they state that, “our response to God’s call is always lived out in harmony with the other parts of the Body of Christ.”
But that same month, the bishops voted to withdraw from KAIROS, Canada’s largest ecumenical social justice organization, the same group that emerged from the ecumenical coalitions that the bishops had always helped form, govern and finance.
Now, many are struggling to comprehend the contradictions between our church’s history, our bishops’ words, and their deeds.
The Canadian bishops did not take this decision due to any indication that the Bishop of Rome encourages ecumenical disengagement. Rather, Pope Francis has shown ecumenical enthusiasm and speaks often on themes of social justice. And ecumenical theological depth has grown markedly since Vatican II, which would seemingly allow and advance more determined engagement with other churches. (For example, see the declarations of rapprochement from Catholic authorities — including the CCCB — and Protestants as we approach next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation.)
It seems the decision to quit KAIROS was more political and managerial than theological.
These differences were noted in CCCB President Doug Crosby’s letter to KAIROS partner churches and organizations, when he acknowledged that “KAIROS’ approaches and ours often differ significantly.”
Of course, it is complex to gather a dozen faith-based groups and focus effective efforts in mutually acceptable ways. KAIROS’ ability to offer its programs and educational resources in French-speaking Canada (where 40 per cent of Canadian Catholics reside) has always been weak. And the organization’s positioning on issues has often been avant-garde, challenging faith communities to step out beyond traditional comfort zones.
Bishop Crosby’s letter highlighted difficulties for the CCCB in managing issues and initiatives brought forward by KAIROS.
CCCB structures often include tedious approval mechanisms and translation routines, making it very difficult for the bishops to act on time-sensitive matters. The financial constraints of recent years have not enhanced the efficiency and transparency of CCCB operations — visit the outdated CCCB website to confirm this, even after major spending was involved in updating the CCCB’s electronic operations. With several dioceses straining to contribute their CCCB financial quotas, fewer staff resources are available. The CCCB is often absent early on when ecumenical projects are planned. So their ability to influence projects (and eventually get approval from the bishops) is reduced. (In previous years, the CCCB often appointed trusted lay representatives to attend sessions that staff could not.)
But KAIROS is not the only focal point of CCCB managerial “frustration.” One year ago, the CCCB president sent a five-page letter to the Canadian Council of Churches, expressing concern for the way the governing board operates. And according to the bishops, the CCC’s Commission for Justice and Peace “endeavours to carry out too many projects.”
Last month the Canadian bishops echoed the call of Pope Francis to go out “into the peripheries.” They wrote: “The risk of not doing so is that we end up with an inward-looking church, perhaps running efficiently but not keenly attuned to the needs of others. . . .” Francis warns strongly against this: “’I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.’ ’’
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.