Canada’s bishops withheld aid from groups they thought had ties to abortion. Repairing relationships is proving difficult.
In 2018, 12 bishops across Canada announced they would withhold funds from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the official lay-led international solidarity organization of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the global Caritas network. The bishops charged that Development and Peace was working with partner organizations in the Global South that had associations or positions that did not reflect Catholic teaching, specifically on abortion.
The C.C.C.B. and D&P began a lengthy and controversial process, over the next three years reviewing 63 partners whose projects had received funding. On Feb. 25, a joint summary of the results of the review reported that funding for projects related to 24 partnerships would not be renewed.
That decision “was not an easy one to make,” the conference said in an e-mailed statement to America, though it described the suspensions as “appropriate,” given “the serious questions identified and following conversations held with the partners themselves and others.”
According to the statement, the conference remains committed to the success of D&P “as a Canadian, Catholic organization in communion with the Bishops and the universal Church” and believes that its new management policies “will strengthen Development and Peace’s work and mission to accompany the most vulnerable populations in the Global South.”
Canada’s bishops remain committed to the success of Development and Peace “as a Canadian, Catholic organization in communion with the Bishops and the universal Church.”
But while that outcome appears to have satisfied the concerns of Canadian bishops, D&P now has to face up to repairing relationships with partners overseas and supporters at home.
“The bishops’ concern was disproportionate and misplaced,” Ismael Moreno, S.J., said of the inquiry he received from D&P. Father Moreno is the director of Radio Progreso/Fundación E.R.I.C., a media and human rights ministry in Honduras. D&P’s decision makers suggested “that we are sinners and they are the blameless,” he said, responding by email. “We are the stained ones; they are the flawless ones, and we are saved through them and their truth.”
Father Moreno had been asked to clarify articles found on the websites of his organizations. In a fiery reply, which insisted that the discussion should be public rather than confidential, Father Moreno said the editorial line of his organizations does not promote abortion or other issues contrary to Catholic teaching. He acknowledged that some posts have caused confusion, however, and he accepts responsibility for that confusion. But he said that it is also essential to listen to people with other views.
While funding for Radio Progreso/Fundación-E.R.I.C. was eventually cleared, the relationship with D&P has been damaged. “I am left with a strong burden of uncertainty,” Father Moreno said, “as if I have a sword on top of me that will fall at any moment.”
Erik Oland, S.J., the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Canada, said that the partner review “has harmed the reputation of some people and organizations, many supported by the local church, who often risk their lives to defend poor and marginalized people.” In a statement released on March 23, Father Oland asked why D&P’s review did not include voices and input from laypeople and religious communities, many of whom have strong relationships with organizations that may have been under scrutiny.
Father Moreno said that D&P has supported the work of his organizations for more than five years. “We have been happy with D&P because its officers have been close, kind and have understood the Honduran problem. That is why we were surprised to receive a letter with suspicions and threats, precisely from someone we believed was a close and trusted donor.
“The process was strange,” he added. “They sent communications with a strong charge of suspicion, but they did not ask about our work in the social apostolate or about the reality of our country. They were only interested in the subject of sexual morality. And once we responded, we had no further communications.
“The process was strange. They did not ask about our work in the social apostolate or about the reality of our country. They were only interested in the subject of sexual morality.”
“We did not know if they agreed or not,” he said. “There was no dialogue, only warnings and signals from above, no listening or interaction.”
Romain Duguay, the deputy executive director of D&P, said that the relief and development agency had been in contact with Father Moreno through a project officer throughout the process, adding that the agency is a supporter of Father Moreno’s work. He said he regrets the way the process was handled.
“I can understand that receiving a letter like that out of the blue, without some discussion prior to this, is like you receiving a subpoena, and then you say, ‘What is this?’ I can understand that it was a surprise, and we’re definitely going to make sure that partners understand it was never the intention to have a judgmental process,” Mr. Duguay said.
Mr. Duguay added that D&P is committed to addressing Father Moreno’s concerns. “He is a partner of ours, and if he feels that way, then we have to do something so that we correct the situation and clarify what our intention was.”
Every year during Lent since 1967, Catholics across Canada contribute to a special fund, the Share Lent campaign, to support the work of Development and Peace. The money is disbursed to partners and projects across the Global South, from supporting Indigenous rights in Bolivia to earthquake relief in Nepal.
Through its partnerships, D&P provides a direct link between Catholics in Canada and people around the world fighting for or in need of social assistance, economic justice or basic human rights. Among D&P’s many partners, for example, are a number that are currently responding to the coronavirus pandemic, like Medica Afghanistan, which is supporting Afghan women experiencing violence during quarantine, and the Social Pastoral Commission of the Diocese of Tsiroanomandidy, Madagascar, where D&P funding is helping subsistence farmers invest in rice production to combat food insecurity.
Although the precise source of the bishops’ disquiet with some D&P partners has not been publicly acknowledged, many, including former D&P president Jean-Denis Lampron, laid the blame on bishops and lay Catholics provoked by LifeSiteNews, a socially and politically conservative media outlet that has regularly targeted Development and Peace, accusing many of its partners of supporting pro-abortion policies. (Representatives from LifeSiteNews did not respond to requests for comment.)
The source of the bishops’ disquiet has not been publicly acknowledged, but many laid the blame on bishops and lay Catholics provoked by LifeSiteNews.
Mr. Duguay has personally been the target of attacks by LifeSiteNews, but he said its coverage was just part of the reason for the reassessment at D&P. He said the review of both partners and its organizational structures was the result of a long breakdown of trust between the C.C.C.B. and D&P.
“We didn’t communicate enough, or strongly enough, so that the bishops would know exactly what we were doing,” he said. “That gap created misunderstanding or doubt.”
At the conclusion of the review, D&P changed its organizational structure. It now includes four bishops among the elected lay members on its national council, the agency's highest decision-making body. Adding those bishops, said Mr. Duguay, should diminish the influence of tabloid journalism since conference members will be more familiar with the work of D&P and its partners.
Mr. Duguay insisted that although the review process was prompted by a desire to satisfy skeptical bishops, it remained important for D&P to take institutional stock of its own projects—a process, he said, that is not over.
Since the February summary was released, two more D&P partners have had their funding restored after satisfying inquiries, reducing the number of partners with unrenewed projects to 22. “The idea is to get back to zero,” said Mr. Duguay. “Maybe there will be one or two where we won’t be able to find a common space because some partners grow, they take on new responsibilities and projects, and sometimes they don’t align with our values or what we can promote. So it is a natural process.”
“There’s great disappointment with the leadership of the bishops and the pressure of the bishops on Development and Peace, the fact that the process has taken so long.”
Mr. Duguay added that there has been confusion around the results of the review. He said that while a partner may experience a funding pause, that should not mean the end of relationship with D&P. Those 22 suspended partners, in other words, are not permanently cut off from D&P. And, he argued, the review process has led to a clear set of priorities and expectations for his agency, D&P’s partners and the Canadian bishops’ conference.
Wounds, however, are still fresh among some supporters at home and partners abroad.
Frustration with the opacity of the review process was heightened across Canada after the Quebec media outlet Présence, which has followed the D&P story since 2018, published an article in March based on internal documents it had obtained. According to Présence’s investigation, D&P’s partner review involved scouring partner websites for references to positions related to abortion, sexuality and gender. It suggested the process presumed the accused partner to be guilty and reported that in some cases even the support of local bishops for a partner organization was not sufficient to ensure the renewal of its D&P grant.
A March 17 statement from the Canadian Religious Conference called on D&P to refute or confirm the Présence analysis. On March 31, the story was picked up by Radio-Canada in Quebec; on the same day, D&P released a response to the Radio-Canada coverage, responding to “certain interpretations” in the report.
Mr. Duguay said D&P was unable to speak publicly on some issues out of respect for confidentiality with its partners. The Canadian media filled in the gap, he said. The coverage “went sideways,” he acknowledged, insisting that “I respect the partners, the Canadian Religious Conference, Scarboro [Foreign Missions]—I understand why they’re asking” about the review process.
Joe Gunn, the executive director of Centre Oblate–A Voice for Justice, said the length and lack of transparency of the process raised concerns among the religious communities he works with and people in the pews.
“There’s great disappointment with the leadership of the bishops and the pressure of the bishops on D&P, the fact that the process has taken so long…. I think people feel like they’ve been treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark. This has not helped,” said Mr. Gunn.
“A closer sharing in Development and Peace’s governance by the Bishops of Canada therefore does not take away the primarily ‘lay’ nature of the organization or its work, but further guarantees its Catholicity.”
In particular, Mr. Gunn said D&P supporters want to understand the criteria and methods used to evaluate the partners. D&P has released an updated partnership policy, including criteria for partnership agreements, but it did not publicize the criteria used in the review.
Jenny Cafiso, director of Canadian Jesuits International, said the strength of D&P’s model is that its partnerships are based on mutual relationships, cultivated over long periods of time. Although she emphasized she was on the outside of the process, she feels the review did not proceed in the same spirit, and she worries about the future of partnerships for Canadian Catholic organizations.
“It just goes counter to that whole concept of partnership, of wanting to break down a lot of the colonial structures and mentality that was also guiding, and sometimes still continues to guide, North-South relations. And I think it’s a very worrisome trend,” Ms. Cafiso said.
In its statement to America, the conference defended the process and its outcome: “Every Catholic organization derives its ‘catholicity’ from its adherence to the Gospel and insertion into the Church’s community of faith and structures, and in communion with its pastors,” it said.
“A closer sharing in Development and Peace’s governance by the Bishops of Canada therefore does not take away the primarily ‘lay’ nature of the organization or its work, but further guarantees its Catholicity and continuing existence as a developmental and charitable organization at the heart of the Church’s pastoral outreach.”
Despite their concerns, Ms. Cafiso and Mr. Gunn, both of whom have worked closely with D&P over the years, believe that it is an essential expression of Catholic solidarity in Canada, and they want to find a path forward together.
“I’m sure that it breaks their hearts to have to say no to people that they have accompanied for many years. I still believe that D&P is an important voice of the Catholic Church in Canada.”
Mr. Gunn noted that religious orders, including the oblates he works with and the Jesuits, have continued to raise money for D&P.
Staff at D&P “are in a very difficult position, and I feel for them,” said Ms. Cafiso. “And I’m sure that it breaks their hearts to have to say no to people that they have accompanied for many years. I still believe that D&P is an important voice of the Catholic Church in Canada.”
“But something really significant has happened,” Ms. Cafiso said. “I think I can understand how it’s important for [D&P] to continue to defend what they do and work for it, but I think what has happened cannot just be brushed off.”
“So many of us are good at lamenting. Trying to figure out steps forward—we’re not so good at that,” said Mr. Gunn. But he has a few ideas about how to rebuild trust.
Mr. Gunn wants to know what D&P has learned as an organization and what it plans to do differently moving forward: “Everyone feels there’s been a lack of transparency, and that has to change.” He added that to begin with there should be an acknowledgement within the C.C.C.B. and D&P that the review was not handled well, as far as supporters and some partners are concerned.
Mr. Duguay said he hopes that D&P “will be able to make the changes we need to so that our partners won’t have to suffer another exercise like this and...the bishops of Canada have a clear view of our process and criteria.”
It is also important, Mr. Gunn added, to recognize that the challenges around D&P are symptomatic of “division at all levels of the church. There are divisions among the bishops, too.”
Some bishops might wish to avoid the appearance of disagreement and project unanimity, said Mr. Gunn, but he said debate is healthy. He argues it would have been helpful for supporters to see what kind of discussions bishops were having or not having throughout the course of the review.
Mr. Duguay agrees that communication and transparency are important for moving forward. Although many have viewed the three-year process as too hierarchical and secret, Mr. Duguay argued that in the end the review will lead to a democratization of processes at D&P, allowing internal conversations to be more visible.
The first priority of all parties remains service to the poor, said Mr. Duguay, “so the first issue is whether a partner is the best partner to help people in need right now.”
The relationships can be mended, Mr. Gunn said, suggesting the vision of Pope Francis can guide the way. “We need a maturity in the church with an increased role of the laity, with open, intelligent conversations that are based on synodality,” said Mr. Gunn—a respectful dialogue based on listening and discernment that “Francis has challenged us all to use.”
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