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Archbishop Bolen responds to criticism of CCCB decision to withdraw from KAIROS

By Archbishop Donald Bolen


In two recent issues of the Prairie Messenger, my friend Joe Gunn took issue in a very strong way with the CCCB’s recent decision to withdraw from KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice coalition of churches and church agencies of which the CCCB had been a founding member. As one engaged in the establishment of KAIROS 15 years ago, Joe has particular reason to be frustrated and disappointed.

Like him, I have also been committed to the pursuit of ecumenical collaboration wherever possible, including in the pursuit of justice. Like him, I wish the relationship between the bishop’s conference and KAIROS was such that it could continue and be strong into the future.

That said, the CCCB’s struggles with KAIROS’ structures, policies, strategies and functioning are long-standing. A letter sent by CCCB President Douglas Crosby to the members of KAIROS, announcing the conference’s withdrawal, articulated some of these concerns: “1) the paramount emphasis (KAIROS) gives to projects, advocacy and immediate action, without what we consider sufficient attention to searching for a common understanding of the underlying biblical and theological principles involved; 2) an approach to ‘consensus’ which often effectively translates into a decision made by the majority, in contrast to our understanding of ecumenism in which the concerns of each participating church are fully taken into account; 3) the lack of a mechanism by which a participating member can opt in or out of specific KAIROS projects.”

Bishop Crosby’s letter notes that these concerns have been raised numerous times over the past years, but that regrettably, efforts by all concerned have failed to find a means to address them adequately. Bishop Crosby’s letter doesn’t say that KAIROS is functioning in a wrong way; it is “a valid way of operating” but is “incongruent with the type of oversight and consultation required by Catholic bishops engaged in a given ecumenical venture.”

Christian churches have very different decision-making structures. There are faith foundations to how and why a church acts as it does. To compromise those for expediency’s sake would be of long-term benefit to no one.

Ecumenical efforts the world over in recent decades have taught us again and again that it is tremendously difficult to create structures by which churches can act together in such a way that each one’s polity, decision-making structures, and social teaching are well reflected, such that the integrity of their faith shines forth in their actions. The creation and maintenance of such healthy ecumenical structures is a cause worthy of our greatest efforts.

Our witness to the world asks it of us. The Lord who prays that we be one and who summons us to justice asks it of us.

But it is not easy to achieve. To say that KAIROS’ methodology is not compatible with the decision-making practices or role of a national conference of bishops is not a copout. Joe noted that “the bishops’ decision to abandon KAIROS is a defeat for social justice in Canada,” adding that “the ability of Christian faith groups to speak together publicly on a range of issues has now been dealt a massive blow.”

I would put it this way: the inability at this time for KAIROS and the CCCB to resolve their differences is a defeat for ecumenical social justice work in Canada, is deeply disappointing, and hopefully is a stimulus for further efforts and conversation.

Bishop Crosby’s letter noted appreciation for the opportunity to collaborate with KAIROS in numerous life-giving and grace-filled initiatives over the years, adding the CCCB’s particular gratitude for the special attention given by KAIROS to indigenous rights and to the environment. The letter added that this decision “does not affect our church’s and our conference’s ongoing commitment to ecumenism, social justice, and inter-church collaboration”; and there are abundant examples of the conference’s continuing commitments in that regard.

Finally, Bishop Crosby’s letter reiterated the value of ecumenical co-operation in the work of social justice, and expressed gratitude that Catholics will continue to be officially represented on KAIROS (through Development and Peace and through Catholic religious communities).

Joe’s letter referred to CCCB’s withdrawal from KAIROS as initiating an “ugly divorce.” I would like to think that when the dust settles, even those deeply committed to KAIROS, including Joe, could come to see that it is unhelpful to say that all the problems were on one side.

More importantly, the CCCB’s withdrawal from KAIROS doesn’t need to be interpreted as a divorce, and doesn’t need to be one. The CCCB’s letter leaves room for joint engagement on future initiatives: “We would hope that in the future there would be not only a continuing exchange of information between KAIROS and our conference, but also consideration about occasional co-operation on a project-to-project basis.”

Those needn’t be idle words. It is for KAIROS to discern whether it desires such collaboration, and for the CCCB to be open to that possibility.

The Catholic Church’s Ecumenical Directory guiding its ecumenical activities states that the effort of Christians in responding to the world’s needs “will be more effective when they make it together, and when they are seen to be united in making it. Hence they will want to do everything together that is allowed by their faith” (para. 162).

A few days ago in Rome, Pope Francis pointed us back to the Lund Principle of 1952, namely that Christians should do all things together except where deep differences require that we act separately. What he could certainly have added, and has said elsewhere, is that this requires hard work, a patient and persevering commitment to dialogue when there are differences, and an abiding attentiveness both to the world’s needs and to the Lord’s desire that his disciples be one.

May those guide the works of KAIROS and of the bishops’ conference into the future.