Archbishop Valéry Vienneau, Auxiliary Bishop Denis Grondin, Archbishop Murray Chatlain and Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Miehm.

Bishops address issues of Canadian Church

  • September 28, 2014

In advance of the Synod on the Family, four Canadian bishops spoke at the recent bishops’ plenary meeting in Beaupré, Que., about marriage and family challenges in their respective dioceses. Using the Synod’s working document Instrumentum Laboris as their guide, they provided an insightful look at how the issue takes many shapes in the Canadian Church. Below are snapshots of their comments.

Archbishop Valéry Vienneau - Archdiocese of Moncton 

Archbishop Vienneau said most people in his diocese want the Synod to provide “an openness, a change of attitude and a genuine note of hope.” 

“Those aspirations are inspired and supported by the way of doing things by our new Pope Francis. People expect changes in way things are presented and will be disappointed if things don’t change,” he said. 

“The document recognizes clearly the reality of the non-reception of a large number of faithful of Catholic teachings on marriage and the family. This is unheard of in an official document of the Church: a recognition of a genuine gap between teachings of the Church and the reception of the faithful.” 

Though the faithful know biblical teachings, they do not know Vatican documents or about natural law, he said. 

Among the questions in his diocese: the role of the “genders,” the possibility of same-sex marriage and the fact of people living together outside of marriage, he said. 

“The faithful are more and more allergic to a Church that would intrude in their private lives or exclude those living in irregular situations. 

“We don’t want to simply condemn the culture and present what we already have been presenting. We have to find new ways to present our teaching.” 

Auxiliary Bishop Denis Grondin - Archdiocese of Quebec 

Bishop Grondin described Instrumentum Laboris as a “laborious instrument,” and noted the words “resurrection,” “salvation” and “redemption” never appear. 

He said that unlike the past when whole generations “wanted to follow the Lord,” French families no longer have this vision. Many are experiencing a sense of failure and are not sure they want to continue “risking to love,” he said. 

“How can the French family be reached by the hope faith in Christ offers?” 

Although francophones have tried to save their culture through preserving the French language, the culture that forms them is no longer Catholic but post-modern and North American, characterized by consumerism and secularism, he said. 

Instead of the French language or Catholicism, social media and texting are more likely to bring people together. Aside from that, each person falls back on his or her own family. 

“There’s a desire to maintain one’s pride in spite of personal failures or the precariousness of the family,” he said. “There’s a crisis of hope and confidence in the French world, and our high suicide rates remind us of this.” 

He pointed to changes in vocabulary even among good Catholics who refer to their “partner” instead of their wife or husband. Though there seems to be a nostalgia for old-fashioned family life, it is no longer linked to a common traditional model, he said. 

Natural law is seen as a religious doctrine and “in that respect it is discredited,” he said. “Tolerance is absolutized; freedom of the subject has been absolutized. 

“Polls overtake reason, what is philosophical is quickly branded as ideological, and not scientific,” he said. 

There is not only a crisis of faith, but a “crisis of trust,” he said. 

Archbishop Murray Chatlain - Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas 

Representing a vast diocese with a diverse aboriginal population, Archbishop Chatlain said he could speak only about the Dene and Cree of the Western prairies and the North. 

“For aboriginal people, family is everything,” he said. “It’s not just one piece of you; it’s everything about you, way beyond the nuclear family.” 

He said there has been a breakdown in aboriginal culture and family units, noting it is common to meet 27-year-old grandmothers. Fewer and fewer young couples are coming to ask for marriage and most resist formal marriage preparation, he said. 

Most couples live together and if they do marry, there can be a negative perception that “now I own you,” afterwards. 

In some aboriginal communities, “addictions are calling the shots on just about everything, wreaking havoc with other social structures,” destroying families, causing violence, poverty, lack of attention to good parenting and other problems, he said. 

Aboriginal men are struggling in their roles as men. Many are illiterate, or are unable to read well, and “more and more young men are at home babysitting while their common law woman is making the money.” 

Aboriginal communities are affected by a “dramatically lopsided” ratio of 20 teenagers to every elder, he said. This strengthens the role of grandparents, who provide a sense of “stability and continuity.” The elderly are not sent off to old folks’ homes in a hurry, he said, but a grandchild might be sent to live with them. Adoption is common. A childless couple might be given a child to raise by their brother or sister. 

Catholic teachings can offer a sense of the man’s role and “what it means to be a good father, and husband,” he said. 

“Our Catholic understanding of the holiness of marriage is something our people really need to hear,” he said. 

Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Miehm - Diocese of Hamilton 

Immigration has swelled the diocese’s Catholic population, most recently from countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America, he said. These immigrants tend to be “more traditional in morality and more family focused than Canadians of longer pedigree.” 

But although the number of Catholics has nearly doubled, the number of marriages has “dropped by half,” he said. “This is a big, big drop.” The message is not being accepted about the sacredness and sacramentality of marriage, he said. 

He said the Church has failed to communicate the rich, profound teachings on marriage and family. Even where the teachings are understood, however, there are “different levels of acceptance.” 

People seem to largely reject or challenge teachings around artificial birth control, divorce and remarriage and on homosexuality, he said. Among younger people there is no knowledge of the expectation they should be married in church, he said. “You can only prepare people for marriage once they show up at our rectory door,” he said. “More and more they are showing up less and less.” 

The “social tsunami” of gay marriage reveals that “one gay or lesbian friend or family member trumps everything the Church has to say on this issue,” he said. 

What the bishops may perceive as balance is not perceived that way by many Catholics, he said. “They see it as a rigid, narrow-minded focus.” There is much work to be done in communicating the Church’s focus, but “for a lot of those young people the ship has sailed on this particular issue.” 

The divorce and remarriage question remains a “challenge we continue to struggle with . . . how to balance our Lord’s teaching on marriage with the sad reality of those whose marriages have failed.” 

After 15 years working in Hamilton’s marriage tribunal, he said much work needs to be done to dispel the myths of the annulment process that continue even in the Internet age. People think it takes too long for a “decree of nullity,” that it costs too much and the Church does not have the moral authority to make these judgments. 

Divorced and remarried Catholics either present themselves for Communion (in defiance of Church teaching), or drift away to another denomination, or leave the Church altogether, he said.

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