Canadian Catholic peace movement expands

  • July 25, 2007

{mosimage}The moment for Canada to beat its own swords into ploughshares, to transform its own spears into pruning hooks and to work so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation may have finally arrived with the defection of a former chair of Amnesty International into Canada’s nascent Catholic peace camp.

Jason Wikes is spending his summer establishing Catholics for Peace — Winnipeg. This new group, in association with Catholics for Peace — Toronto and Pax Christi in Montreal, will seek to become the Canadian branch of Pax Christi International , the 60,000-strong official peace movement of the Catholic Church. The Belgian headquarters of Pax Christi is expected to hand down affiliate status for the small Canadian network by the end of the summer.

Wikes wrapped up the June annual meeting of the Winnipeg Group 19 of Amnesty International as chair, and then resigned over Amnesty’s decision to endorse abortion as a right in certain circumstances.

“I didn’t really like the way the whole abortion issue, how they handled it. I really don’t want to be affiliated that directly with any group that supports abortion,” Wikes told The Catholic Register. “I did some research (into Pax Christi) and realized that this was really the Catholic answer to Amnesty.”

{sidebar id=2}Wikes objected to a top-down and secretive decision-making process that favoured insiders in Amnesty’s abortion decision.

“I don’t think the people at the grassroots level had much of a say in it,” Wikes said.

Wikes won’t rule out working in alliance with Amnesty on particular issues — “I mean, they do get results,” he said. But he doesn’t want to directly belong.

With his newly free volunteer hours, the young, single advertising executive plans to set up headquarters for Catholics for Peace in Micah House — the archdiocese of Winnipeg’s headquarters for social justice work. He also plans to approach high school and university students at St. Mary’s Academy and St. Paul’s College , where students were previously enthusiastic supporters of Amnesty.

Wikes has written to Winnipeg’s Archbishop James Weisgerber seeking his official endorsement, and has secured help from Sr. Johanna Jonker who runs Micah House and from Jesuit Father John Perry, a St. Paul’s College professor at the University of Manitoba’s Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice .

With soldiers on the frontlines in Afghanistan’s Kandahar district and 61 young Canadians now killed in the fighting, it doesn’t surprise Pax Christi USA ’s executive director that the peace movement is taking hold among Canada’s Catholics. Whenever the U.S. military has been engaged, or military policy has been in the headlines, Pax Christi membership has grown in the United States, said David Robinson.

“When there is a very controversial, if not outright unjust U.S. military intervention, then membership will begin to swell,” Robinson told The Catholic Register.

Pax Christi USA began in 1972, just as the United States was winding down its involvement in Vietnam. Prominent Catholics had been a constant presence in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and Pax Christi USA founders wanted to harness that energy to reach average Catholics in their parishes with a message of peace and non-violence, said Robinson.

The U.S. movement grew steadily through the 1970s and ’80s in opposition to the nuclear arms buildup and cruise missile testing. Membership spiked during the first Gulf War and then remained constant through the 1990s.

“Then there was this debacle in Iraq. So, we see another spike in membership,” Robinson said.

Pax Christi USA has 20,000 paid-up members and more than 45,000 names on its mailing list. That makes it a major player in the U.S. peace movement generally, particularly with its connections to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its ability to organize in parishes across the country.

“A strong Pax Christi movement in Canada can only help the wider efforts,” said Robinson. “It’s a global movement. Pax Christi USA is a larger element, but we’re just one of 54 (national Pax Christi movements). The greatest strength of our Catholic peace movement is its global nature.”

While Afghanistan is likely to be the early focus of Catholics for Peace — Winnipeg, Wikes is convinced there’s a longer term need for Pax Christi in Canada.

“Canada really has the political system or the political culture that we can actually promote peace a little bit more aggressively,” he said.

Wikes is also convinced that Winnipeg should be one of the most important nodes in a national Catholic network dedicated to peace.

“If we’re going to be the home of the human rights museum (Canadian Museum for Human Rights), I think we need to be a strong voice in Winnipeg for human rights and peace,” said Wikes.

York University political scientist James Laxer believes the religiously based peace movement is an essential part of opposition to war.

“We only have to think of the role the church played in opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to see how enormous can be the impact of religiously based peace activism,” Laxer wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Laxer is the author of Mission of Folly: Why Canada Should Bring Its Troops Home From Afghanistan (downloadable from ). The veteran anti-war academic and activist sees parallels between the growth of Catholics for Peace in Canada and the peace movement 40 years ago.

“The emergence of Catholics for Peace groups in Canadian cities is reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and 1970s. One can only hope that such groups will help shift the mood in Canada in favour of a genuine policy of peace and human development, and against the war in Afghanistan,” Laxer said.

Robinson insists that a genuine peace movement has to be more than an anti-war movement.

“The goals of an anti-war movement have to be much more narrow — ‛End this war now,’ ” he said.

Rather than trying to reverse a single decision to employ troops, a peace movement aims to transform society, according to Robinson.

“We’re working for the dignity of every human being. We’re working for people to live and have access to the means that would allow them to live a dignified life. We’re looking for equality, and we’re looking for self-determination. We’re looking for those values to be evident in U.S. foreign policy. The goals of the peace movement are much broader and deeper,” he said.

Wikes is quick to distance himself from any strident condemnations of either soldiers who serve in Afghanistan or people who support the goals of Canada’s deployment there.

“It’s not a black and white issue in terms of what we’re doing there,” Wikes said. “We’re there essentially to continue what the U.S. left off — and that’s to fight the Taliban. So now we’re not peacemakers, or peacekeepers. We’re actually engaging in being the aggressors on many fronts.”

Even if the Canadian troops have a job to do, and deserve respect for doing it well, Canadians in a democracy have a duty to question their government and its policies. And they have a right to dream of peace for themselves and the world, according to Wikes.

“We are here to promote and to instill and to advocate for a peaceful resolution and alternative — conflict resolution without use of force,” said Wikes.

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