Muted and maligned voices: Public Justice and the Canadian Church

  • April 1, 2010

{mosimage}On March 19 The Catholic Register sponsored a lecture in the 2009-2010 Somerville Lecture series at St. Jerome’s University. The lecture, titled “Muted and maligned voices: Public Justice and the Canadian Church,” was delivered by Joe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public Justice. Below is an abridged version of his address.

On Oct. 17, 1996, the United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Canadians turned on their evening newscast to hear CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge begin with these words:

“Good evening. A blistering attack on governments across the country today, from Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops. The issue is poverty. The bishops accuse governments of using the most vulnerable people in society as human fodder in the battle against deficits. And the bishops weren’t the only ones speaking out…”

The bishops were holding their annual plenary gathering in Halifax. Before they began the meeting, however, the bishops of the Social Affairs Commission gathered with a roomful of local activists, including Pam Coates, a United Church member and president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization.

To the assembled media, the bishops released their pastoral letter at Hope Cottage, a church-run soup kitchen in the downtown core. People living in poverty spoke, so it wasn’t only the bishops who got the microphone. And after the press conference, the media accompanied the men in black to serve lunch and eat together at the soup kitchen.

The content of the bishops’ message, as well as the symbolic manner in which it was delivered, were meant to encourage serious consideration of the issue.

Today there seems to be a pretty big change in terms of the public voice of the churches. The Catholic Church has not been totally silent, but if you go to the “Documents” section of the web site of the Social Affairs Commission of the bishops, only one text has appeared since March 2008. Today, the capacity and determination of the churches to work for social and ecological justice does seem weak. Service to the world now seems less of a concern than doctrine and maintenance of a shrinking membership base among the largest, historical denominations. Economically, the mainline churches are suffering, with unfortunate cuts to church staff and budgets becoming widespread.

Is this change happening in all the Christian churches? Is there still a role for conscientious Christian leadership in public justice in Canadian society today? And if so, how might it best be done?

I’m especially honoured to be asked to participate in this lecture named after Henry Somerville, an editor of The Catholic Register, a journalist, social activist and highly influential figure in Canadian Catholic Church circles in the mid-20 century. Henry Somerville believed if Catholics would only study their church’s social encyclicals, they might come to see that, “It may not be possible to banish all sin and suffering from the world, but it would be practicable to get rid of social, as distinct from individual, injustice.”

Should the churches and should Christians be engaged in the public sphere?

Citizens for Public Justice believes that “if religion is understood to be one’s ultimate commitment or life orientation, then it cannot be confined to private life, particular rituals or institutions.” After all, why argue for keeping Christianity or Islam out of public life when other “religious value systems,” like capitalism, liberalism or humanism, are not restricted? To ask a person of faith to leave their beliefs behind as soon as a political discussion begins is like asking a lung to refuse to breathe in air. The real issue is how people of faith can and should contribute to “a hopeful citizenship.”

Not only do Christians have to get involved in public justice, but the proper way to advance on this path to holiness is by addressing the causes of suffering of the poor, the disadvantaged and the Earth community.

What is the status of faith-based work for social justice today?

A month ago I contacted the social ministry offices of Canada’s nine largest Christian churches and asked if they’d answer a few questions about their social ministries. Eight of the nine were more than pleased to do so: only the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to respond. I received helpful replies from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Religious Conference and the Canadian Council of Churches.

Among the nine church groupings in the survey, over two-thirds have fewer staff resources today as compared to five years ago. Several organizations now use more short-term internships, especially students. Increasingly, volunteers are mandated to serve on various committees where staff once served. One respondent expressed disappointment that there were “few, if any” justice educational resources for church use in congregations, and expressed disappointment that there is “no capacity to draft briefs or make presentations to government committees.”

When asked what had happened to budgets for this work of social ministry over the past five years, five groups reported that they had suffered decreases (some of even up to half), and two had no increase.

When asked about future expectations, six of the eight churches that responded to this question expected decreased budgets in the short term, with the larger groups expecting nine- to 10-per-cent reductions, levels that could mean losing staff. One church office gave staff a week off without pay as a cost-saving measure.

Finally, I asked the most difficult question. “Do you feel that your church office has increased, decreased or enhanced effectiveness in social justice ministries over the past five years?”

Seven respondents answered. Three churches mentioned greatly decreased effectiveness, while two said things remained about the same. One respondent felt his church had “in practice, essentially abandoned its work on social justice” spending most of its time on internal issues and sexuality. This person added, “I suspect those who are passionate are working outside the formal church structures.”

Another revealing commentary was that, “With the sequential decimations of church office staff in all the important member churches of the (Canadian Council of Churches), there is nothing like the capacity there used to be to undertake substantial joint work compared to five years ago. We continue to rely on sister organizations for substantial policy work: Project Ploughshares, Citizens for Public Justice, KAIROS.” But, “Unfortunately, those partners are also vulnerable.”

The case of KAIROS

The situation of KAIROS has been in the news recently. What has not been well-covered is that official Catholic support for ecumenical social justice work through KAIROS has been curiously muted.

Although both the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P) and the Catholic bishops serve on KAIROS’ board, their financial commitment to the organization has diminished over the years. The Catholic bishops now give KAIROS $100,000, and all of that comes from D&P. Six years ago, they gave over $250,000. It is the faithful and generous contributions from religious sisters that maintain the Catholic contribution to this ecumenical social justice ministry today.

Not only financial support, but also political support has been waning. In early December, a memo sent to all the bishops reported, “the CCCB executive committee unanimously agreed that the Conference of Bishops will not embark on a campaign to pressure the Government of Canada to reconsider its funding decision” concerning the cuts to KAIROS.

The executive gave two reasons for inaction: “The international program of KAIROS has always been secondary for the CCCB,” and “The CCCB is not convinced that such a campaign will result in success.”

Contrast this response with that of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who stated on Dec. 9 that, “The world needs more of KAIROS Canada. It would be an unparalleled setback for the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised if the voice and work of KAIROS in the global South is muted.”

The board of Citizens for Public Justice echoed this concern in their letter to the Prime Minister, stating “CPJ is concerned that this decision may be another in the trend to discontinue funding of groups who raise questions about current policies, thereby silencing some of the diverse voices that are essential for a healthy public debate about international issues of justice and stewardship.”

What is needed?

While the recent voices of the Christian churches in Canada have been muted and maligned when they have engaged in the public sphere, public dialogue and political advocacy are still constitutive elements of what it means to be a person of faith. They are avenues towards personal holiness and institutional renewal. But it seems clear that this must now be done differently than in the past.

First, there is still a role to play in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the churches — I see no reason to cede hard-won ground now occupied by the organizations like KAIROS that represent almost 40 years of struggling to live the Gospel faithfully in action. When I worked inside a national church office, I often yearned for the attention of those groups that made creative nuisances of themselves by challenging church structures. We cannot spend all our strength in attempting to maintain church structures for social ministry if these efforts make such demands upon our energy that we are not free to address the real social and ecological challenges that history places before us.

Second, lay people will have to lead the way in defending ecumenical social justice ministry in the Canadian churches, and even start new movements. We should get over any assumption that the churches’ social witness has to be further clericalized in order to be valid. Churches now have people as well educated and as saintly sitting in the pews as standing in the pulpits. Laypeople of both sexes should be able to reclaim their social mission as well as their contribution to the emerging non-white church’s more inclusive voice.

Third, the way we’ve designed the process of preparing and delivering church statements must change. Have you ever been asked your opinion on an issue, or invited to help develop an opinion in dialogue, study and debate with your church leadership? If we don’t involve more people in these processes, we can’t expect them to fully accept any eventual stances as their own.

Fourth, we need to walk the talk before we squawk. The example of the 1996 pastoral letter on poverty suggests how a process was developed to draft a message with others, and deliver this text with the only people who could be the architects of their own liberation: people with a lived experience of poverty. Otherwise, the message would have lacked authenticity and credibility.

Fifth, it is important to ensure that the spoken word of the churches is delivered to defend the poor and vulnerable. It is crucial and not always easy to ensure that these words do not arise in order to promote the churches’ own interests and reputations, instead.

Sixth, any pronouncement has to be delivered with appropriate humility. Polls tell us that Christianity is the affiliation of 77% of Canadians, but only 17% attended a place of worship in the previous week. As some say, “Canada is a nation of believers, but not belongers.” A Christendom view of the world is no longer prevalent. A whole new role, perhaps a smaller role, for organized Christian religions is emerging.

Perhaps the situation offers possibilities for groups like Citizens for Public Justice and other lay associations to be more collaborative and helpful to churches that are desirous of recovering their voice on public justice issues. And perhaps we need to remind ourselves that large, unwieldy institutions don’t always have the genetic make-up to be prophetic. The cutting edge seems to flourish more easily on the margins, in smaller groupings that are more nimble, responsive, and enjoy fewer organizational constraints. Perhaps the Christian voice in public affairs today should best be presented in new tones — but not accept being either muted or maligned.

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