Development and Peace under attack by Catholic right

By Dennis Gruending

Archbishop James WeisgerberThe Canadian Catholic aid agency Development and Peace (D&P) has come under attack recently from right wing Catholics in English Canada and the United States. The allegations, frequently repeated, became something of a feeding frenzy beginning in March. The claim is that D&P provides money to non-government organizations in Mexico that condone and promote abortions in that country. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) felt the heat as well and sent a delegation to Mexico to investigate. The report is now in and although it has not yet been released officially CCCB’s president Archbishop James Weisgerber says there is no substance to the allegations. The investigation won’t satisfy Catholic rightists, whose aim is not merely to criticize D&P but rather to deal it a mortal blow.

The bishops created D&P in 1967 to support projects in poor countries and to undertake development education in Canada. This spring, for example, D&P committed $600,000 to emergency relief for Sri Lankan Tamils who had fled a war zone to settle in government-run camps. D&P also contributed $100,000 to help meet the needs of people displaced by fighting in northwest Pakistan. D&P delivers its programs through partner organizations on the ground in recipient countries and raises much of its money from a collection taken in Catholic churches on a Sunday during Lent.

Attacks began in March

The attacks on D&P began in March and were obviously timed to coincide with the Share Lent collection. A web-based publication called LifeSiteNews.com, published at least 45 articles critical of D&P in just over three months. The site claims that its “investigative reporters” have discovered a “widespread scandal” involving D&P and it was this: “[The] official agency of the Canadian Catholic Bishops has been funding pro-abortion groups.” Interestingly, D&P says that when it checked with its Mexican partners they indicated that no reporter, investigative or other, had contacted them to ask about what they were alleged to have done. LifeSite has also produced a five-minute video that, it says, provides “undeniable evidence” that supports its allegations. LifeSite is a creation of the Campaign Life Coalition, which describes itself as the “political wing of the pro-life movement in Canada.” The website staff share an office with Campaign Life in Toronto but the website also lists a Pittsburgh address for itself.

In subsequent articles, LifeSite reported that some bishops, including Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, were withholding funds from D&P based on LifeSite’s allegations. D&P issued a statement on March 20 denying the charges and pledging its fidelity to the church and its teaching. D&P said that its partners had been involved in a nation-wide consultation by the United Nations on the human rights situation in Mexico, and were contributors (along with 100 other organizations) to an omnibus document on human rights issues. D&P’s partners were primarily concerned with indigenous people’s rights, protection of the environment, fair wages and fair trade, and the promotion of equality between women and men. Other participating civil society groups brought forward their own concerns, D&P said. “Of course, neither we, nor our partners, have any control over the content or recommendations advanced by these other groups…” This account of events is similar to one that was provided to D&P by its Mexican partners, who were no doubt surprised and distressed by the controversy perpetrated in North America.

Bishops’ inquiry

The CCCB announced in April that two Canadian bishops would lead an inquiry into the LifeSite allegations. The group visited Mexico from April 15-18 and there the Canadian bishops met with representatives of the Mexican Episcopal conference, as well as with senior representatives of D&P’s partner organizations. The CCCB announced in Ottawa on June 18 that it had received the Committee of Inquiry’s report, which would be sent to all bishops before being made public. Archbishop Weisgerber, no doubt anticipating another LifeSite assault, promptly appeared on a Catholic television channel to say that the allegations had proven to be false.

LifeSite and its fellow travellers have not won the day but they have managed to sow confusion and mistrust  — and it’s not the first time. What, really, is going on here? At one level, it is obvious that they have chosen one issue as the litmus test of defining who is a real Catholic and who is not. LifeSite and its fellow travellers exhibit little or no interest in other questions — the whole cloth of life and constructive engagement with the world, with people of other religions or of none, in the service of the common good. There is virtually no mention, for example, in any of LifeSite’s articles about the numerous development projects supported by D&P — and what mention there is simply accuses D&P of being leftist or a dupe of feminists. One might describe such a mindset as that of a Catholic Taliban.

Template for attacks

Father Alphonse de Valk, the editor of another web-based publication called Catholic Insight, provides an insider’s description of the strategy used to attack D&P (and by extension on many of the bishops). De Valk is a veteran of the abortion wars and a frequent critic of the bishops, accusing them in particular of failing to support the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, which forbade Catholics to use contraceptives in planning their families. LifeSite carried a lengthy article by de Valk on April 16 and later he ran it in his own publication. De Valk concludes his piece by saying: “Let D&P rest in peace for eternity.” De Valk’s animus goes well beyond his anti-abortion position. He accuses D&P of harboring “a political ideology of the left, even more so than by its Catholic religious motivation.” He appears scornful of attempts by the church to become involved in broadly defined issue of justice, describing those efforts as offering “a secular messianism through economic and political activism.”

De Valk describes LifeSite’s success in a previous campaign forcing D&P to withdraw its support from the World March for Women in the year 2000. He describes the march as “a radical, feminist, anti-life and anti-family event.” Others have described it as an attempt by women around the world to advocate for the elimination of poverty and a more fair distribution of wealth among nations and between men and women. De Valk also describes how LifeSite’s campaign in 2000 succeeded in creating divisions among Canadian bishops. “It was the first time since Vatican II that Canada’s bishops broke ranks publicly,” he writes.

The campaign against the women’s march in 2000 has become a template for that being waged against D&P today. D&P is attacked by a flurry of articles on LifeSite for its alleged involvements. The method of attack is repitition and guilt by association – to accuse D&P of supporting everything that any organization with which it has contact might support. LifeSite uses its platform to vilify D&P, and attack (in a more guarded fashion) any bishop who supports the organization. Those bishops unhappy with D&P or its endeavours are given positive publicity.

To engage or retreat

A Catholic organization should, by LifeSite’s criterion, be prevented from participating in any project that is not explicitly Catholic in its values and approach. In other words, Catholic organizations should not be involved in anything that the church does not direct or control. This rigid triumphalism is entirely contrary to Vatican II, which promoted engagement in the world with people of other religions and people of good will. To place this mentality in a Canadian context, Catholic organizations should not participate in any project with the United Church of Canada because that church does not subscribe to Catholic positions on abortion or contraception, not to mention women’s ordination. This example is not at all far-fetched. De Valk calls in his article for the Catholic bishops to reconsider their participation in KAIROS – the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

Archbishop Weisgerber, in his television interview, indicated that he understands the radically reduced model of church that is being promoted. “The leadership of the Catholic Church wants the church involved with other people,” he said, “even people who don’t agree with us, provided that the disagreement that they have with us not be supported in any way or be given umbrage by our presence there.”

The great misfortune here would be to have the church retreat from engagement into a judgemental and sterile ghetto. In fact, this is already beginning to happen. Some Catholics, including bishops, have chided Amnesty International for supporting family planning as a woman’s right and the organization has had to curtail its clubs and fund raising activities in certain Catholic schools. Other Catholic schools have reportedly cancelled fundraisers for the Stephen Lewis Foundation because Lewis promotes the distribution of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS.

In the case of Mexico, D&P and the bishops are now left to pick up the pieces and attempt to put them back together while their detractors plot their next campaign.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

7 thoughts on “Development and Peace under attack by Catholic right”

  1. One would hope that these calumnies by “pro-life” but very ungracious entities quickly end. Should an international development agency only fund those groups that espouse every teaching of Rome, or should an international development agency fund those groups which carry out excellent development work, whether they are Catholic or not? One gets the impression that a investigatory delegation of bishops will not be listened to by these critics, no matter what it reports.
    Thanks for bringing this issue forward, Dennis.

  2. … so … what would it look like if these groups got what they wanted, and why would this be a good thing? In other words (as far as the more “right” groups are concerned) how are their actions helpful to Catholics and/or society in general? This is a serious (not rhetorical) question. To address their position “we” need to understand the thinking at the base of their actions, and most importantly how they understand their position to be helpful to an individual.

  3. It seems to me that in some ways you’re giving LifeSite a bit too much credit by supposing that they are doing this for ideological reasons: that is, that they do it in order to pull the Catholic Church back from collaborating with unworthies. But LifeSite is not purely Catholic in its endeavor. My guess is that this almost all about money: stir up a controversy and use it to raise money from the crazies.

  4. I deplore these scurrilous attacks. I have a lot of experience, from earlier days in other organizations, of single issue, mean spirited assaults and the dammage they can cause to reputation and morale. I have known CCODP for a long time and admired its good works, and its good work in pursuit of its good works. In this case, it really matters not what the CCCB investigation mission to Mexico reports. There are those who will choose not to believe it because of their self-blinding agenda. I encourage CCODP to carry on, telling the truth and not to allow itself to become unsettled by these incidents.

    Lawrence

  5. Let goodness prevail.The CCODP is a leading light and nothing can hide that!My greatest disappointment is that even after 30 odd years it seems the majority of Catholics do not appreciate what a great organization we have.
    Kudos to Biship Weisgerber for showing leadership and courage!

  6. First I should state up front I am not a follower of any of the organized religions. That said I am very sympathetic and supportive of the values and ways of being as put forward/practiced by Jesus,with particular emphasizes on the, as practiced.

    It seems to me that the actions & accusations as represented by De Valk and organizations such as “Lifesite”, are the direct opposite of the teachings of Christianity,indeed of the very spirit. The words of Jesus come to mind,”judge not lest ye be judged”. Jesus did not only help those that agreed with him,he sure as heck did not make anyone jump through ideological hoops. Jesus extended his hand to all,he taught by example & was motivated by love and caring…NOT by judging or placing preconditions on his very human love & caring. In short Jesus lived his speak.

    De Valk et al need to re-read the bible,and get in touch with their humanity. What can possible be gained by attacking the good works of others. Again actions & the motivations behind those actions are what counts. And on that score D&P & KAIROS, whose only motivations are to put their faith into practice while building tolerance & understanding,represent the Christianity as envisioned by Jesus. One that is generous, tolerant, non-judgmental & extends a helpful hand to all in need. Deeds rather than words,spiteful or not, are the mark of a man/woman.

  7. Fifty years after Vatican II, no real structures exist where the concerns of the laity can be registered. The fact that it took some serious public outcry for the bishops to act regarding the D&P fiasco is surely an indication that the institutional church as a whole, laity, clergy and hierarchy, has not “received” the teaching of the Council. The concerns of the laity can be continually ignored by the episcopacy and no one is upset. Authentic relationship implies mutuality according the relationship of the persons expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity and it is into that reality that we are called, following the example of Christ. What fear impedes us from expressing that to our bishops, who seem so intent on the kind of exclusion emblematic of the pre-Vatican II Church? The non-violence of Christ implies ongoing dialogue but the institutional Church seems unable to create a space for it. That would demand a change in the structures of the Church. Who will invest the time and energy? Do we even value dialogue? Will we struggle so we can be heard?

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