The Catholic church searches its soul

Susan Riley January 10 1983

The Catholic church searches its soul

Susan Riley January 10 1983

The Catholic church searches its soul


Susan Riley

During the Christmas season, thousands of once-a-year Roman Catholics again made their annual pilgrimage to midnight mass. And if they found comfort in the familiar feel and smell of a crowded church on a winter night, they undoubtedly noticed changes, too. For the first time they might have found women serving com-

munion. Protestant hymns may have been sprinkled among the Catholic classics, or a provocative political message could have been mixed with the sermon’s seasonal platitudes. But what many Catholics may not have realized is that during the past decade their church has undergone a conversion far more profound than the surface changes in the liturgy indicate.

The Roman Catholic Church in Canada, once one of the country’s most unshakable fortresses of conservatism, is becoming one of the most liberal influences in the land. And nowhere is that change more evident than in the pronouncements of some of its leaders. In a bold New Year’s message this week on the subject of unemployment, Canadian Catholic bishops assail both governments and corporations for

“placing greater importance on the accumulation of profits and machines” than on the “dignity of human labor.” For many Catholics the stance is fair and the implications obvious; rather than merely sympathizing with the poor and oppressed, Christians should be struggling beside them for justice. Many Canadian bishops, priests and nuns—inspired by the liberation theologists of Latin America and the exhilarating legacy of the Second Vatican

Council of 1962-65—are doing just that. They are severely critical of the activities of multinational corporations and are resisting the testing in Canada of the U.S. cruise missile. They are also disillusioned with the Trudeau government for policies that they believe have turned the North into a colony. Meanwhile, the tough, new political activism has earned the bishops involved the cold disapproval of some sectors of official Ottawa. There are also powerful conservative opponents of the movement within the bishops’ own ranks. Still, the liberals now constitute the most vigorous and influential minority within a transformed church.

It is difficult to gauge how many of Canada’s roughly 10 million Catholics support—or are even aware of—the new militancy. Many bishops and theologians are earnestly debating the usefulness of Marxism as a Christian tool. But countless thousands of their flock are still struggling with more immediate issues, such as Pope John Paul Il’s hard line on divorce and sexuality or the fact that as many as two-thirds of their children no longer regularly attend Sunday mass. And, if they feel a vague unease at the unequal distribution of the world’s wealth, they are more likely to applaud the old-fashioned piety of a Mother Teresa rather than the revolutionary call to justice of the Brazilian liberation theologist Dom Helder Cámara—a popular hero with Canada’s religious left.

But the continuing shortage of Catholic priests has forced many lay people to take a more active role in their church. Across the country they are running parish councils, studying theology for themselves and staffing the proliferating interchurch committees that are striving to influence political issues of the day. As a result, many of them are undergoing a radical transformation— developing a new vision of themselves and the role of their faith.

In 1979 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops—the official voice of the church in Canada—issued a direct challenge in its book Witness to Justice: A Society to be Transformed. “Participation in the struggle for justice and transformation of society is not an optional activity for Christians,” it declared. The bishops—along with leaders of other churches—have not hesitated to follow their own counsel. Last month they took aim at Pierre Trudeau him-

self when a Bishops’ Conference delegation, led by the president, Archbishop Henri Légaré, met the prime minister in Ottawa. He was, they charged, straying from his own stated goal of the “suffocation” of the arms race. At the same time, an organization representing Ontario nuns chastized Allan MacEachen, one of the cabinet’s most devout Catholics, for supporting an International Monetary Fund loan to South Africa. And earlier, the bishops had mounted a countrywide protest against Bill C-48, Ottawa’s proposed northern gas and oil legislation, for allegedly threatening native land claims.

Immoral: In the United States the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is challenging the government on its military policies. The church’s expectation that adherents will follow its proclaimed principles has observers wondering what a Catholic president would do if he were advised by his spiritual leaders that the nation’s nuclear attack force was immoral. Currently in Canada, the activist bishops and their followers are focusing on what they see as economic injustices. “We have to change the structure of society to make it more just,” declares Victoria’s Bishop Remi De Roo, one of the church’s most articulate leftists. “The government is refusing to face the fundamental questions facing society and it is throwing all the burden on the workers,” he says.

That kind of neo-Marxist language

and analysis infuriates many critics of the new Catholicism. But, in fact, most of the idealists reject Marx’s theory of irreconcilable class antagonism and his belief that it would inevitably lead to class warfare. Opinion is divided, however, on the morality of revolutionary violence. According to Anthony Clarke, a researcher for the Canadian bishops, there have always been two trends in Catholicism—“pacifism and the theory of a just [or limited] war.” For many Catholic theologians, the revolutionary struggles in Central America are “just wars.” Others prefer to limit their definition of activism to peaceful picket lines. But whatever their qualms about Marx few Catholic leftists discount him entirely. “I don’t accept the ideological approach of Marx and his proposal of class conflict and class hatred as a solution to our problems,” says De Roo. “But, when he described the pragmatic reality of what was happening in society, he was right on.”

Not all his colleagues are as sanguine about mixing Marx with their Christianity. Says Toronto’s powerful conservative cardinal, Emmett Carter: “The way to social justice and to world peace will not be found in Marxism.” And he lamented that “some of our best people, both intellectually and ethically, have fallen prey to communism.”

The internal church debate—particularly over the correct use of violence— seems somewhat academic in Canada.

But the very fact that it is taking place at all indicates how radicalized the Canadian Catholic church has become in comparison to its traditional somnolence and spiritual preoccupations. Observes Rev. Stephen Connor, a priest of the Oblate order from Hamilton, Ont.: “The most pressing question the priest faced [in the 1950s] was whether the raffle tickets should be blue or green.”

Canada’s liberal Catholics claim an unlikely ally in their current campaign—Pope John Paul II. The Polish pontiff is not known as a liberal in North America, largely because of his conservative views on sexuality, women and marriage. But on political issues, activists maintain, he has been as critical of capitalism as of state socialism. Gregory Baum, a world-renowned theologian at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, says the Pope’s 1981 encyclical, or papal message, on labor, Laborem Exercens, was brilliant because “it clearly says the right order is labor over capital.” Influenced by the Solidarity workers’ movement in his homeland, the Pope has also affirmed the right of unions to organize and strike in support of a just cause. Not only that, but he qualifies his support for the right to private ownership of property by arguing that it should not be “absolute and untouchable” or take precedence over the common good.

But on sex and related issues the Pope stands in clear opposition to many

Canadian bishops and priests—and to many ordinary communicants. For one thing, by 1971 Canadian bishops were in favor of ordination for married men, but the Pope remains opposed unless the priest is a convert who came to the Catholic church already married. For another, at the 1980 synod on the family in Rome, Canadian bishops were in the forefront of those pushing for more compassion toward the divorced and separated. But for the Vatican, that compassion stops short of allowing the divorced to receive communion—the most sacred element of traditional Catholic life. When Canadian and U.S. bishops challenged the rule at the 1980 synod, they met with unflinching opposition. For thousands of divorced Catholics, unwilling or unable to get a church annulment of their marriage, it was a painful blow. In the words of Msgr. Dennis Murphy, executive director of the Bishops’ Conference: “Few of us don’t know someone who is divorced or separated. It is hard not to see their situation with compassion.”

Indeed, statistics indicate that Catholics divorce at the same rate as the general population—two in seven marriages are dissolved. But, because the church has never allowed divorce, Catholics who want to end their marriages have traditionally had to petition Rome for annulments. Those permissions were hard to obtain and they were usually granted only if the marriage had

never been consummated. After the Second Vatican Council the rules were relaxed: annulments are now available on grounds of immaturity or emotional incompatibility at the time of marriage. Also, special church marriage tribunals have been set up across Canada to expedite local cases. As a result, the number of annulments granted by the country’s busiest tribunal, in Toronto, has increased during the past decade from about 50 a year to 1,000.

Conscience: To soften the Vatican’s harsh edict, some Canadian priests rely on the “good-faith solution” in counselling divorced Catholics. It is based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a Christian has two guides to behavior: an inner forum, or conscience, and the external rules. According to St. Michael’s College theologian Rev. Daniel Donovan: “Aquinas says you weigh both judgments, but your first responsibility is to your inner voice, your own conscience.” John Raynard, co-ordinator of the Separated and Divorced Catholics Group in Toronto, which has attracted about 200 members since it was founded in 1972, says that many people have to “shop around” for a sympathetic priest. In his own case, the “old-fashioned” pastor at his church refused him communion, and Raynard found another who subscribes to Aquinas’ logic.

The good-faith solution is also used to justify the widespread use of “artificial” birth control—that is, everything other than the church-sanctioned abstinence and rhythm method. Possibly as many as 80 per cent of Canadian Catholics continue to defy Rome’s prohibition, last spelled out in Pope Paul Vi’s 1968 encyclical on human life, Humanae Vitae. In fact, many Catholics blame the dramatic drop in church attendance during the past two decades on Humanae Vitae—not on John xxm’s Second Vatican Council, which called for the renewal and democratization of the church’s structure. Nonetheless, the current pope is a strong supporter of Humanae Vitae. On his trip to Spain last November, he called birth control “a falsification of the interior truth of conjugal love.” He has also recently condemned the examination of the fetus in early pregnancy on the grounds that it can be a prelude to abortion.

Infallible: The question of whether Catholics must obey the Pope on such matters is debatable. Traditionally, any dicta that he issued on faith or morals in his role as head of the church—ex cathedra doctrines—were held to be infallible because they were considered to emanate directly from God. But modern church historians say that such pronouncements have been rare and have nearly always been clearly labelled as infallible. Some even argue that there have been only two or three this century, the latest being when Pope Pius XII in 1950 affirmed the “assumption” of the living body of the Virgin Mary into heaven. Still, conservative clerics say that Catholics owe respectful obedience to all the Pope’s major utterances. Others, like Gregory Baum, say that prayerful reflection is required, rather than unquestioning obedience. In light of those conflicting views, many Catholics follow the wry approach of Sister Veronica O’Reilly, a field worker for the Bishops’ Conference in Ottawa: “We want to be obedient daughters of the church,” she says, “but sometimes to be truly obedient means to stand somewhat obliquely in relation to various rumors from Rome.”

Infallible or not, if Pope John Paul visits Canada next year, as planned, he will undoubtedly be met by mobs of adoring crowds—not all of them Catholic. Whether he alienates them or wins over the skeptical depends on what subjects he addresses and how he deals with them. His speech writers will be briefed in advance by a selection of Canadian bishops, lay people and theologians, after a broad sampling of views. The Pope will likely be urged to express solidarity with the unemployed and chastize the Canadian government for maintaining relations with oppressive regimes. He may also be asked to avoid blunt denunciations of the divorced. And there will be pressure from rightto-life groups for a strong statement against abortion.

One of the many lessons the Vatican has learned during John Paul’s peripatetic papacy is the importance of good

advance work. Some of his trips have been spectacularly successful; others have left confusion and disillusionment among the faithful. Dennis Murphy, of the Bishops’ Conference, points approvingly to the Pope’s 1982 visit to largely Protestant Britain last spring, when he made some “highly nuanced” statements on the importance of the family. Rather than belaboring the moral laxity or sexual waywardness of his young audiences, he emphasized the “positive values” of Christian family life.

By contrast, his 1979 trip to the United States provoked a backlash, particularly among feminist Christians. Not only did he oppose ordination for

women, but he refused to let them take any active part in the masses held during his tour. A cartoon in the National Catholic Reporter at the time commented, “The Pope got it all wrong—he kissed the ground and trampled on the women.”

Archetypes: Historically, John Paul, a onetime actor who went on to become a cardinal in Poland, has shown little sympathy for feminism. “He doesn’t see women’s liberation as an emancipation movement,” says Baum. And British journalist Peter Hebblethwaite writes in his book Introducing John Paul U that the Pope’s views stem from his Polish upbringing and his attachment to Jungian philosophy. Jung set out “male and female archetypes,” each with their own role to play. For John Paul, women are equal but different—and apparently secondary.

U.S. feminists have reacted to the Pope’s stance with outrage. While the reaction in Canada has been more muted, one organization has recently been formed in Ontario to press the case for ordination of women. Others are working for more modest improvements, a sort of ecclesiastical êtapism. In Ottawa Veronica O’Reilly is chairing a committee on the role of women for the Canadian bishops. It will likely recommend formal recognition of the functions women already perform in many parishes. Specifically, says O’Reilly, women should be regularly allowed to serve communion at mass and read the lessons—not simply to participate if men are not available, as happens now. She would also like to see some pastoral ministries favored by women—visiting the sick, marriage counselling—officially “commissioned” or given the same status as those of the male lay deaconate. (Deacons are debarred only from giving communion and absolution.) O’Reilly believes that would lay the groundwork for the full ordination of women. “When it comes, we’ll be ready. We’ll have experienced people,” she declares.

But, if Christian feminism is running into problems from Rome, the resurgent Catholic left is equally beleaguered at home. Clearly, not everyone likes to see priests on picket lines. Nor does everyone approve of nuns in blue jeans addressing antiwar rallies. While the liberals have great influence within the Bishops’ Conference and in universities, there remain strong pockets of oldchurch conservatism, especially in English Canada.

In mid-1982, some of that resentment surfaced when Toronto’s Cardinal Carter announced that $750,000 of the money taken in from the annual lenten collection plates would not be turned over to the lay Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) as originally planned. Instead, it would be funnelled into a new pastoral council that the bishop was establishing for “evangelical work” in the Third World. CCODP, set up by the bishops in 1967 to fund small development projects, has become a red flag for many conservative Catholics. It irri-

tates them because its focus is more political and social than religious. Others worry because it is largely staffed by militant, working-class Québécois Catholics inspired both by Marxist ideals and by liberation theology.

Blue-chip: Carter’s CCODP funding cut set off a furious debate in the Catholic press. In some quarters it was seen as a direct repudiation of the social justice approach and a return to the paternalistic charity of the past. It did not help that Carter numbers John Turner and several prominent Canadian businessmen among his blue-chip flock. Carter, who is reluctant to discuss the issue publicly, says his intention was not to undermine Development and Peace but to redirect money to other, more traditional church missions. Toronto remains among CCODP’s most generous contributors, but bad feelings have been aroused.

John Sullivan, a Toronto engineer and member of the Confederation of Church and Business People, fully supports Carter’s stand. He believes that many Catholics, including some bishops, have become dupes of Marxist agitators. When church leaders claim that “the problems of the Third World are a direct function of capitalism, they are taking that straight out of Lenin,” he says. It is particularly galling, says Sullivan, when wealthy Catholics are asked for money and then are told that their

business is immoral. “I have had some corporate presidents take my remarks as personal attacks on them,” admits Victoria’s De Roo. “Often they have the best intentions in the world, but that does not absolve them from looking at reality—at where the profits from their companies go and what is done with them,” he argues.

If De Roo is irritating some powerful Catholics, he is attracting supporters in other Christian churches. By most accounts, the bishops in Canada have embraced the ecumenical spirit of the Second Vatican Council with more fervor than their church’s leaders anywhere else, including the United States. Since the early 1970s, Catholics, United Church members, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Lutherans have been putting aside doctrinal differences and developing a common approach to social and political oppression. The spirit is best demonstrated in the many interchurch projects, which deal with such issues as human rights in Latin America, international trade and the development of the North. Funded by all the churches, and with permanent staff, these interchurch projects are without parallel in the Western World. “The Catholic church has involved itself institutionally [in social issues] in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago,” says Hugh McCullum, editor of The United Church Observer. “It has played a profound leadership role.”

So far, the only formally organized resistance to the leftward tilt of the Catholic Church—and its ecumenical fellow travellers—has come from the conservative Fraser Institute in Vancouver. It organized a conference last August for leading theologians and businessmen, and more meetings are planned for this year. Walter Block, a U.S. economist who heads the institute’s religion and economics section, charges that many leftist churchmen rely on “unsophisticated” economics. “Religious institutions have great importance in our society,” he argues. “They do great harm if they push unioninspired economic solutions.”

The same attitude—that some bishops are naïve, amateurish meddlers—is hinted at in a letter De Roo received last year from then Energy Minister Marc Lalonde. At the bottom of a typewritten letter answering De Roo’s concern about Bill C-48, the oil and gas bill, Lalonde scrawled in his own handwriting: “P.S. I would even urge you to read the Bill.” In fact, De Roo had read it several times; the Bishops’ Conference prides itself on its careful research. But the testy response from Parliament Hill was not the first—nor is it likely to be the last.

Furious: Of all the bishops’ critics probably the most formidable occupy a few large offices on the Hill. Pierre Trudeau, Marc Lalonde, Allan MacEachen and Mark MacGuigan—among the 20odd Catholics in the 36-member cabinet—are by most accounts less than delighted with their church’s new sense of mission. Insiders say that Justice Minister MacGuigan, when he was external affairs minister, was furious with the bishops when they opposed him on Canada’s pro-American stand on Central America two years ago.

“We do annoy them,” says De Roo. “They live in a different world. Their definition of reality is different from ours. They have bought Reaganomics, laissez-faire capitalism and the law of the marketplace. It may be threatening for them to see the way things are going.” De Roo says that personally “they are bright people who mean well. But their social analysis is very limited. They don’t have enough time to study, to think.”

As for the hint that bishops should stay in their pulpits and out of politics, De Roo cites a precedent: “Jesus opted to live with the poor, to be seen with the poor, with the outcasts and the sinners. That was a great source of scandal in his time.” The bishops are taking the same stance today, he says. “We are realizing we have to give our support to the poor and the downcast, to those who are marginalized by the power struggles in society. We cannot sit passively by and accept the continued development of a model of society that crushes the weak.”

However passionately the cabinet may reject the content of messages like that, for some there is an extra irritant. Both Trudeau and Lalonde were profoundly affected by their espousal of anticlericalist causes which many of Quebec’s intellectuals took up in the 1950s. The clergy in the province was then selfishly and slavishly supporting Premier Maurice Duplessis and the forces of political oppression and superstition. “That anticlericalism is something the bishops know they face every time they go into a meeting,” says Anthony Clarke. “They have learned to deal with it first, then get down to business.”

Trudeau and the bishops were spared a public confrontation over the patriation of the Constitution last year, largely because the church leaders were divided among themselves. Several Quebeckers objected to unilateral patriation, while some English bishops just as passionately defended it. As a result, the Bishops’ Conference—which has achieved remarkable harmony on other issues— decided not to take any stand.

A serious French-English political division first surfaced publicly at the bishops’ annual conference in Ottawa last October. St-Jérôme, Que., Bishop Charles Valois complained that, while 55 per cent of the country’s Catholics live in Quebec, only one-third of Canada’s bishops are Québécois. Valois and others are still smarting from last year’s passionate internal debate over the Constitution. Some English-speaking bishops, they say, still hold “a unitary view of the country.” In fact, a number of western bishops asked their flocks to pray for Canadian unity before the 1981 Quebec referendum.

But strife within the Bishops’ Conference may be less spectacular than the fact that the bishops have managed to stay together for so long. In fact, there have long been two Catholic churches in

Canada: the French church and the English church. Since the early days of New France, when missionaries arrived shortly after the soldiers, the church has been a dominant force in Quebec. And from the early days it allied itself with the powerful. It was only during the Quiet Revolution of the 1950s and early 1960s that Quebeckers, impatient with their secular rulers, began a profound questioning of the church as well. The days of the waspish authoritarianism of the powerful local curé were over.

Faith: The wave of anticlericalism, fanned by renegade intellectuals like Pierre Trudeau in his Cité Libre days, is only now subsiding. Yet its toll on the Quebec church and attendance at services has been devastating. Still, Quebec remains a Catholic province. Of the 38,586 nuns in Canada, 26,000 live in Quebec. It has nearly 3,000 priests, more than any other province. It has also proven to be rich ground for some of the spiritual renewal movements of the 1980s. Charismatic renewal, Cursillo and Marriage Encounter (page 38) are all more popular in Quebec than in any

other province. Quebec may have broken contact with the church hierarchy but it has never broken faith.

Nevertheless, there are many Catholics, and former Catholics, across the country who look at the modern church and see only chaos: French vs. English, left vs. right, women vs. the Pope. Some lament the end of the old religious certainties. Many recall with nostalgia the stern question, “Where was the Garden of Paradise?” asked in the Baltimore catechism, the standard school text of the 1950s and 1960s. “The Garden of Paradise was probably in the Near East,” came the confident answer. Now, Catholic high school students are less likely to memorize the various signposts for venial and mortal sin than to wrestle inconclusively with the sophisticated notion of “social sin”— the evils of political oppression and social exploitation.

Some Catholics also lament the mass defections from the organized church during the 1960s and 1970s. And they mourn the passing of the Latin mass, with its familiar trappings of incense, its glorious Gregorian chant and its confident moral pronouncements. But others welcome the new humility that modern innovations have inspired and the tough self-examination they have introduced. Adversity pared Catholicism to its essence and, for many, that essence is the simpler, selfless love of God and neighbor. Only now the neighborhood includes the terrible deprivation of the Third World as well as the countless victims of injustice and neglect at home.

Gregory Baum is not alone in believing that the future of Catholicism lies in fighting against the powerful whose only ambition is the ruthless exercise of their influence, rather than clamoring to join them. The church, he says, is becoming “a voice for justice in a world of darkness.” In the struggle against the overwhelming secularism of this age and the skepticism of its own followers, Canadian Catholicism is developing a lean, new spiritual and political muscle of its own.