The Canadian church’s leadership is changing. What could it mean for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples?
One of the Canadian Catholic Church’s most significant voices, Cardinal Thomas C. Collins of Toronto, turned 75 on Jan. 16. His impending retirement raises questions about where the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is heading after years of internal tensions and public criticism that has challenged its credibility.
With the Canadian church barely maintaining its numbers, mostly due to immigration, its bishops face many delicate issues, including the challenge of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples that will require, observers say, that the C.C.C.B. adapt or even reinvent itself in a rapidly changing religious context in Canada.
Cardinal Collins’s birthday coincides with other leadership changes within the conference, including the arrival of a new president—Bishop Raymond Poisson of the Diocese of Saint-Jérôme and the Diocese of Mont-Laurier—and a new general secretary, the Rev. Jean Vézina, from Ontario. But the challenges ahead are more structural.
Canadian bishops face many delicate issues, including the challenge of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples that will require that them adapt or even reinvent itself in a rapidly changing religious context.
“The biggest news is not the change in people, but rather the issues that are on their desks,” said the Rev. Gilles Routhier, a professor at Laval University’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, and superior general of the Seminary of Quebec, an institution founded by St. François de Laval in 1663.
“The situation of the church is worrisome because of the demographic, financial and patrimonial issues,” he said. “The church is being shaken up in all sorts of ways, whether by [its past implication in] residential schools or [child sexual abuse].
“And I think time is running out to deal with this situation,” he added, “considering the loss of credibility and a distancing from the church. There are few resources, and there are serious issues.”
The Indigenous question
Last spring, hundreds of unidentified burials of Indigenous children were discovered in Western Canada, including in Kamloops, Lower Kootenay (British Columbia) and Marieval (Saskatchewan), deeply shaking the Canadian public. The discoveries revived the scandal of government-funded residential schools, most of which were run by Catholic religious orders, dioceses and other Christian churches.
In poorly heated and often unsanitary buildings, Indigenous children taken from their families were physically or sexually abused. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 of them died, many under circumstances that remain unclear. There is little or no record of each death, as substantial parts of both federal and religious archives across the country remain incomplete, scattered and yet undisclosed or unanalyzed.
“Time is running out to deal with this situation, considering the loss of credibility and a distancing from the church. There are few resources, and there are serious issues.”
“The suffering they caused is still like an open wound,” said Emma Anderson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa. “I think the C.C.C.B. has been fairly slow to respond, and it was only when the public outcry had grown that they seemed to realize that they needed to take the issue more seriously.”
The Indigenous issue has moved up the C.C.C.B.’s agenda to the point where it’s currently monopolizing much of its attention. In September, the bishops pledged to provide an official apology to Indigenous peoples and to provide $30 million over five years in various initiatives aimed at reconciliation. A delegation of bishops and Indigenous leaders is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis in Rome in March before he visits Canada at an undetermined date.
This process will focus the activities of the Bishops’ Conference for the year, especially with the pope’s visit to Canada expected in 2022 or 2023. “It’s an event that we must be prepared for,” Bishop Poisson told America. “It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it generates a lot of hope.”
Bishop Poisson responded to critics who deemed the church’s actions as “too little too late.” He described efforts “not in front of the cameras” that he believes have had a positive impact.
“We have done listening circles; the bishops have gathered people in their dioceses. We have set up our ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe group’; we have prepared our delegations with our indigenous brothers and sisters, and we are preparing with them for the visit of the Holy Father,” he said. “I think this is already very concrete.”
One church, two Canadas
In addition to issues regarding the First Peoples, Canada’s bishops must also bridge fault lines between the country’s French-speaking and English-speaking Catholics. Last spring, a C.C.C.B. note questioned the moral acceptability of two vaccines circulating in Canada because of their disputed connection to cell lines derived from embryonic cells linked to abortions performed decades ago. In these pandemic times, this note was strongly condemned by several Quebec bishops, prompting the C.C.C.B. to back down.
The Indigenous issue has moved up the Canadian bishops’ conference’s agenda to the point where it’s currently monopolizing much of its attention.
“The French-speaking bishops see things differently than the English-speaking bishops,” said Bishop Pierre-Oliver Tremblay, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Trois-Rivières. He sees this as both a blessing and a challenge. “In Quebec, we are faced with a very secularized society, while in Western Canada, the religious dimension is still very much present. The church in Quebec cannot entrench itself in traditional positions; it is much more engaged with today’s world.”
In recent years the decline of Catholicism in Quebec has become evident in a number of ways, from the status of its aging clergy to a lack of financial resources, the selling of churches and the decline of Quebec’s influence over the broader Canadian Church.
In English-speaking provinces, Catholicism appears to maintain a more vibrant persona, with multicultural Catholic communities and dioceses increasingly determining the face of Catholicism nationwide.
“Catholicism—which was a French-speaking reality—is moving westward, particularly to Toronto and its suburbs,” said Professor Martin Meunier of the University of Ottawa’s School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. He confirms that one of the reasons for this dynamic is immigration. Newcomers, many of whom are Catholics, are settling more in the English-speaking provinces.
With this transition, “many think that the Canadian Church is becoming more conservative, that it’s influenced by American Catholicism and by Toronto,” the sociologist said.
“It’s time for a transformation, which goes beyond these individual issues, using an ecological perspective, with a search for reconciliation within and outside the church.”
“History tells us that there have always been tensions,” within the Canadian church and the C.C.C.B., said Father Routhier. “Such tensions can be accentuated at times of crisis or on polarizing issues, especially in a period when more clear-cut positions are being taken on both sides,” he said, noting the growing influence of the U.S. Catholic Church in English-speaking provinces.
Sue Wilson, C.S.J., of Toronto believes that the Canadian bishops’ conference could benefit from a transformation in several areas.
“I think the C.C.C.B. is having some difficulty [re-establishing] its moral authority, both inside and outside the church,” Sister Sue said, pointing at issues such as the sexual abuse crisis, the lack of financial response for reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples, and the mismanagement and lack of transparency regarding the partners of the Canadian Catholic Church’s overseas humanitarian assistance effort, Development and Peace, weakened by years of debates and accusations.
In the spring of 2021, it was revealed that Development and Peace, created by the Canadian bishops in the 1960s, had cut off funding, under pressure from within the C.C.C.B. itself, to dozens of partners abroad that had ties with other nongovernmental organizations promoting contraception, abortion or feminism. The public squabble over the funding further eroded the C.C.C.B.’s reputation.
“On many issues, I think the C.C.C.B. is trying to make a difference, which is good to see,” Sister Sue said. “But I think it’s time for a transformation, which goes beyond these individual issues, using an ecological perspective, with a search for reconciliation within and outside the church.” She thinks working for systemic justice regarding social, environmental and economic issues, and changes in canonical laws, would encourage new leadership at all levels of the church.
Inspired by the ongoing synodal consultations within the local churches, Bishop Tremblay thinks that “in a society marked by a lot of polarization, we can create a space where people learn to talk to each other.”
“I think it’s healthy that we’re making a common effort to learn and I’m encouraged by that,” he said.
Can the synodal process help the C.C.C.B. finally overcome years of friction on the array of complex challenges it faces? Bishop Poisson thinks so.
“My deepest desire, in the course of this year, with our initiatives with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, is that we can turn the page,” he said, “not to forget, but to write a new one about [the church] we want to be together.”