OTTAWA - The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB) annual plenary Sept. 24-28 in Ste. Adele, Que., will mark many firsts this year, from distinguished guests to reflections on topics as diverse as the Second Vatican Council and the worldwide economic crisis.

The gathering, which is expected to draw 80 bishops from across Canada, comes on the eve of several historic events that will also be addressed: the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, the Synod of Bishops on New Evangelization Oct. 7-28 in Rome and the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha on Oct. 21.

“(The plenary) is always such an important moment in the life of the Canadian Church,” said CCCB general secretary Msgr. Patrick Powers. The CCCB executive and secretariat staff “always look forward to the many, many things that will be decided upon in the course of that meeting.”

Among the highlights of this year’s agenda is the visit of Ukrainian Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk who will offer a reflection Sept. 25 after having presided at the worldwide Ukrainian Catholic Church Synod of Bishops in Winnipeg Sept. 9-16. He has made pastoral visits to various cities in Canada over recent months to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Nyktyta Budka to Canada.

Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, the new Ordinary for the United States’ Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, will also attend. The Ordinariate was erected in January to provide a home for people from the Anglican tradition who wish to become Catholic while maintaining aspects of Anglican liturgy and patrimony under the Holy Father’s 2008 Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus. Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, the episcopal delegate for Anglicanorum coetibus in Canada will give a report on progress, Powers said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will also hold an off-the-record discussion with the bishops. Powers said it will be a “give and take” session on a range of concerns, from recent legislation that impacts refugees, to the parish refugee sponsorship programs. Many dioceses have a significant number of foreign priests, Powers said, “so (Kenney) is well-placed to help the bishops understand the various things that are happening.”

The canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha gets prominent billing. Saint-Jean-Longueil Bishop Lionel Gendron, the CCCB co-treasurer who heads a temporary secretariat to co-ordinate events in Canada and in Rome surrounding the canonization, will make a presentation on this significant event to the Church and to native Catholics.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, Laval University theologian Gilles Routhier, who is an expert on the Canadian contribution to Vatican II, will deliver a talk.

The Canadian bishops elected last year as delegates at the Synod on New Evangelization will inform the plenary of the content of their Synod interventions, Powers said.

The bishops will also hold a discussion on the upcoming Year of Faith instituted by Pope Benedict XVI.

The bishops will also hold a dinner for Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte who retired this year as archbishop of Montreal, and Collins, who received his cardinal's red hat last February.

The bishops also have a packed agenda of presentations and reports that happen every year, such as reports from organizations like the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian Aboriginal Council, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family and other groups. The episcopal commissions will report as will standing committees, such as communications and Development and Peace. The bishops will address fiscal matters and adopt a new budget.

Published in Canada

The traditional fall education campaign of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace is on hold until Oct. 15 while staff and volunteers scramble to come up with less political material that will gain the backing of all of Canada's bishops.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Richard Smith and general secretary Msgr. Pat Powers informed Development and Peace Sept. 5 that several bishops had objected to the fall campaign and did not want the material distributed in their diocese. It is the first time in the 45-year history of the Catholic development agency that the bishops have intervened to block an education campaign.

Neither the CCCB nor Development and Peace could tell The Catholic Register how many bishops have objected to campaign materials, which have been printed but not yet distributed. Through a spokesperson, Smith declined to be interviewed for this story as "the bishops have not had a chance to discuss the issue."

Bishops on the CCCB's Standing Committee on Development and Peace were not consulted on the move to halt the campaign and have not seen the materials.

"I haven't had it explained to me, so I can't really comment," said Toronto's Bishop John Boissonneau, chair of the committee. "I was aware that the president of the conference sent out a letter, but there's been no follow-up with me directly."

"I kind of feel out in the cold on this," said committee member Bishop Richard Grecco of Charlottetown.

The last time the bishops' committee met was May 31 for a consultation with the Development and Peace liaison committee for relations with the bishops. Meanwhile, work on the fall education campaign had been delayed until June while the organization dealt with major restructuring to accommodate a drastic cut in Canadian International Development Agency funding.

The fall campaign was to have veered off-course from Development and Peace's five-year plan of environmentally themed education campaigns. This campaign, which included postcards addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was conceived as a national consultation on the direction of Canada's foreign aid policy.

A copy of a Development and Peace postcard addressed to Harper was obtained by The Catholic Register. It asks Harper to "launch a national consultation on the future of Canadian development assistance." The card also urges a "Special Parliamentary Committee to examine the new direction of Canadian assistance."

"The trend in how Canada's foreign aid programs are administered has changed quite dramatically," Development and Peace executive director Michael Casey told The Catholic Register. "The role for civil society organizations like us is becoming less apparent. More of the money is going to multilateral institutions, private sector development.... We wanted to see if a constructive critique of this policy from our perspective could get a hearing."

The campaign did not mention the $35-million cut over five years in CIDA funding to Development and Peace, said Casey, and is not an attempt to revisit the funding decision, he said.

"Concerns were expressed regarding the nature and methodology of the campaign with respect that it could create some divisiveness within the Church community and that perhaps there should be some more consultations within D&P and also with the broader Church," said Ronald Breau, Development and Peace national council president.

Archbishop Smith

Archbishop Smith

- Register file photo

Breau wrote to the Development and Peace membership Sept. 17 to explain the delay.

"We are fully aware that our decision will disappoint many of our active and engaged members," Breau wrote.

While the campaign will be modified, the fall action campaign will remain focussed on Canada's development aid policies. But the national council is heeding Smith's warning that the original campaign would "lead to division among our base, among bishops and among our supporters," Breau wrote.

"The bishops are concerned that ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada on some important, timely and sensitive issues might be compromised by our approach at this time." 

Parish Development and Peace leader Greg Kennedy is left wondering what his group will do while it waits for the campaign to launch.

"Traditionally Development and Peace at the parish level operates basically two times a year — one in the fall with the education campaign and then the Share Lent or ShareLife in (the Toronto archdiocese)," said the Jesuit, who is studying for the priesthood and helping out at Our Lady of Lourdes in downtown Toronto. "Without those bookends, really there's not much to do until Lent."

The appearance that the bishops are divided or opposed to Development and Peace has become a challenge for parish groups, said Kennedy. And the idea that the bishops' conference did not inform its own standing committee will be even more confusing.

"The bishops set up these avenues through which both they and Development and Peace would work and all of a sudden that gets over-ridden. That's disturbing," he said. "What's the point of having them if they're not going to be used."

But lobbying the government on policy does not amount to education, said Grecco.

"We can have that dialogue (on Canadian development policy). I just don't think it should be a campaign. That's not what D&P should be about."

Published in Canada

TORONTO - When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney walks into a room full of bishops in St. Adéle, Que., Catholic refugee agencies are hoping the minister gets an earful.

Five Catholic immigration and refugee organizations in Toronto have written to the bishops asking that they challenge the minister on changes to Canada’s refugee and immigration laws. Kenney will address the bishops between Sept. 24 and 28 in a private, off-the-record session at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual plenary meeting.

Romero House, Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, FCJ Refugee Centre, The Mustard Seed and Becoming Neighbours want the bishops to ask Kenney:
o Why Canada is treating refugees from some countries differently than refugees from other countries?
o Whether it’s fair to rush certain cases through the system before refugees hire a lawyer and prepare a thorough case?
o Why the government is limiting basic health care for refugees?
o Why do so many of Canada’s 200,000 foreign workers have no stable pathway to permanent resident status?
o Why are refugees smuggled into Canada as a group blocked for five years from re-uniting with their families even if they are found to be legitimate refugees?

The CCCB won’t say whether these questions will be asked, but it has the potential to re-open an old feud between the bishops and Kenney. In November 2010 the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission wrote to Kenney to complain of sections of “The Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Maritime Transportation Security Act.”

“Many of the clauses of this legislation may contravene international law and Canadian law, and penalize refugees more than the smugglers,” said the CCCB letter, adding that his anti-smuggling bill “risks creating serious obstacles to sponsorship and family reunification.”

Kenney did not welcome the bishops’ criticism, telling Canadian Catholic News Ottawa correspondent Deborah Gyapong the letter reflected a “long tradition of ideological bureaucrats who work for the bishops’ conference producing political letters signed by pastors who may not have specialized knowledge in certain areas of policy.”

Romero House director Sarah Villiger hopes this approach to Kenney through the bishops will draw a warmer response.

“We knew that (Kenney) would be there, personally invited. I think that in itself is a bit of a different tone, as opposed to just writing him a letter,” she said.

In part, the refugee agencies wanted to remind the bishops of their own stand on refugee and immigration issues. The letter quotes the bishops own 2006 pastoral letter “We Are Aliens and Transients Before the Lord, Our God.”

“Openness should be shown to persons of all cultures and origins, no matter their immigration status. Christians are to be among those who refuse to let injustice toward migrants continue, let alone increase,” the bishops wrote.

“We thought it was important that they get the input of people who work on the ground with refugees,” said Villiger.

The organizations also took the opportunity to remind the bishops of the many refugees and immigrants who actually occupy pews on Sunday morning.

“The Canadian Catholic Church has historically been an immigrant Church, and today many of the Catholic faithful are immigrants and refugees who form a vital part of and make a significant contribution to the Church in Canada,” they wrote.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

This article was amended on Sept. 24, 2012 to clarify comments made by Jim Hughes.

OTTAWA - A statement by Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller that supports Catholics who campaign for “gestational legislation” to limit abortion has helped calm growing tensions within the pro-life movement.

Miller wrote it is “morally licit” for Catholics to support legislation that sets limits on abortion rather than immediately banning it outright. The archbishop’s statement, quickly endorsed by Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins and posted on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB) web site, urges co-operation in the pro-life movement but stresses: “Co-operation does not always mean unanimity regarding a given strategy; open and civil debate about the wisdom of any specific strategy is healthy.”

Over the past year, support in pro-life circles across Canada has grown for a law that would prohibit abortion at later stages of pregnancy or gestation. Campaign Life Coalition, the national political arm of the movement, however, has remained staunchly opposed as have several other groups that believe incremental legislation of this type will not result in an eventual ban on abortion.

Each side has accused the other of not being Christian or Catholic enough — either for not protecting those babies that might be saved through some restrictions on abortion, or for not sending a strong enough message about the value of all human life from conception.

But Miller said that both positions, for or against gestational legislation, are morally licit.

Miller wrote it is acceptable to support gestational legislation (i.e. legislation that would allow abortion in the early weeks of the unborn child’s development) as an incremental step that would reduce the harms of “an unjust legal regime that permits abortion.” But such law should be regarded “as a step along the way to the eventual full legal protection of the right to life of all unborn human beings.”

“At the same time, it is also morally licit to withhold support for gestational legislation — and other incrementalist legislative strategies intended to limit access to abortion — if, after prudent reflection, one is convinced that it is an unwise legislative strategy,” he said.

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), co-sponsored by the CCCB and the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus, welcomed Miller’s intervention.

“The division within the pro-life movement is very preoccupying, especially when leaders and members of pro-life groups point at each other and criticize each other’s approach to protecting the unborn,” said COLF director Michele Boulva. “All this hinders our chances of obtaining a law that would protect the most vulnerable of Canadians — its unborn citizens.”

She applauded the bishops’ taking leadership in the pro-life arena.

“As Catholics it is essential that we turn to our bishops when confusion arises regarding the Church’s teaching. Christ has empowered them to teach in His name.”

Based on Blessed John Paul II’s teachings in Evangelium Vitae, “legislation which intends to limit the harm done by a pro-abortion law is not itself co-operation with unjust law but rather ‘a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects,’ ” the archbishop wrote.  

The absence of any law restricting abortion in Canada is a “de facto legal regime that permits abortion with almost no restrictions,” the archbishop said.

“Legislation intended to restrict access to abortion would not create a new legal situation in Canada which would authorize abortions, but instead would intend to limit the number of abortions already authorized under law,” he said.  

He also reiterated Catholic teaching against abortion at any stage, noting that “no law can claim to legitimize abortion.”

Two major pro-life groups on either side of the issue welcomed Miller’s statement.

Campaign Life president Jim Hughes said the archbishop makes it clear we have a de facto law by having no restrictions on abortion.

“I thought Archbishop Miller laid the case pretty well,” he said. "Although I and many others would not necessarily agree with his opinion on a de facto law.”

The most important part of his statement “points out that gestational legislation may or may not be the way to go,” said Hughes, who remains wary of the gestational legislation approach.

Priests for Life Canada is among the many pro-life groups that would support gestational legislation. Priests for Life board chairman Fr. John Lemire, a parish priest based in New Liskeard, Ont., said he is pleased the archbishop’s statement has “supported the idea that a Catholic, a Catholic politician, can in good conscience support gestational legislation.”

The archbishop’s letter may have helped shore up some of the unity within the pro-life movement that has been fragile since its inception, Hughes said. The movement is made up of political, educational and pastoral groups that counsel and support mothers with unexpected pregnancies.

“Campaign Life Coalition has been accused of being ‘all or nothing’ and that’s not true,” Lemire said, noting that since its first questionnaire in 1978, it has “always had an incremental question as part of its strategy.”

The key, said Hughes, is in the wording of any legislation.

“I’m not in favour of ‘we need any law,’ ” Hughes said.

He is opposed to the gestational approach because the experience of countries with gestational laws in place have “so many exceptions” the laws are “virtually useless.” There are many other forms of incremental legislation that would restrict abortion — such as defunding it, or informed consent laws, that Campaign Life would support, he said.

“As the political branch of the pro-life movement we have been battling over 30 years,” he said. Campaign Life has also worked closely with counterparts in other countries who have said “gestational limits are not the way to go.”

Hughes’ objection to gestational legislation extends beyond doctrinal concerns to practical matters, he said. Campaign Life has focused on identifying and supporting individual pro-life candidates in both the Conservative and Liberal parties at the grassroots level. He noted that there are presently 60 pro-life MPs in Parliament. A gestational bill would not have the votes to pass, he said. In addition, Prime Minister Steven Harper remains unwilling to reopen the abortion debate.

Hughes said momentum on the issue has been shifting towards the pro-life movement, but a focus on gestational legislation risks sidetracking it.

The role of the Priests for Life, Lemire said, is to work with all the groups, to “try to be a bridge builder and bring about some dialogue and conversations” not only among groups but with bishops and people in dioceses.

That does not mean Priests for Life agrees with every tactic, he said. But he stressed people who might not be comfortable in an activist role could be great counselling a young expectant mother, or doing any number of tasks that need to be done to create a culture of life.

Published in Canada

OTTAWA - The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a Sept. 18 statement affirming support for the sacredness of all human life from conception to natural end as Motion 312 comes to its second and final hour of debate in the House of Commons.

Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's private member's motion would review the Criminal Code's definition of a human being in the homicide section that declares: "a child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother."

The statement was signed by CCCB President Archbishop Richard Smith. It is posted on the CCCB web site (www.cccb.ca) and provides a link to Motion 312's text.

"The Catholic Church holds that a human being comes into existence at conception," Smith says in the statement. "The lives of human beings are, therefore, sacred at every stage in our existence — from beginning to natural end.

"As the House of Commons prepares to debate Motion 312, the bishops of Canada invite all members of the Parliament of Canada to take into full account the sacredness of the unborn child and each human life. We also encourage Canadian Catholics, and all people of good will, to pray that our legislators be blessed with wisdom and courage to do what is best to protect and further the common good, which is based on respect for the human dignity of all."

Published in Canada

OTTAWA- A letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Pakistan's High Commissioner is among many interventions being cited for the release from prison of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

International Christian Voice (ICV) chairman Peter Bhatti credits the bishops' letter, among other signs of international support, for the release of Rimsha Masih on bail Sept. 7. The 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome was imprisoned Aug. 16 after being accused of burning a Quran. Since her arrest, a Muslim cleric was detained Sept. 2 on suspicion of fabricating evidence against Masih.

"She just came out from bail," said Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated former Minorities Minister and first Christian in the Pakistan government's cabinet. "Her case is not finished yet, and we're not sure how long it will go."

In the meantime, she and her family continue to need protection from extremists who have threatened to burn the family alive and also threatened her 1,500-member Christian community, most of whom have gone into hiding, he said.
"I would like to thank the Canadian Catholic bishops' conference for intervening in this issue," Bhatti said.

The CCCB's human rights committee chairman sent a letter Aug. 31 to the High Commissioner of Pakistan expressing concern for Masih.

"This serious situation has prompted the President of Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, to call for an investigation," wrote Bishop Francois Lapierre to High Commissioner Mian Gul Akbar Zeb. "We welcome this gesture, given the circumstances not only of the girl herself but also of Pakistan's religious minorities, including Christians, who are regularly the target of fundamentalist groups, in particular regarding anti-blasphemy laws.

"This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by all States in 1992 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons from National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," Lapierre wrote on behalf of the human rights committee. "In view of this declaration and the initiative of the president of Pakistan, we ask your government to take the necessary measures to find a solution that ensures this girl's freedom, peace and security."

A copy of the letter was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who has also publicly expressed concern for the girl's plight as well as those of others targeted through the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti said he was thankful for the interventions not only of the bishops and Baird, but also Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and many other Members of Parliament who have continued to put pressure on Pakistan to repeal its draconian blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws and now his brother Paul Bhatti, an eye surgeon, has been serving as National Harmony Minister in Pakistan's government as well as chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which put up the bail for Masih.

ICV is holding a fundraiser in Toronto Sept. 14 to raise money for Masih, her family and members of their community. For information e-mail info@internationalchristianvoice.com.

Published in International