Crisis at Development and Peace – Bishops impose a tutelage on the lay international aid organization
Le Devoir, 30 May 2011
The Jesuits of Canada and of Mexico have rallied to the defence of a human rights organization in Mexico City, whose funding has been cut by Development and Peace, official organization of the Catholic church. The provincial superiors have also declared their solidarity with Jesuit priest Luis Arriaga, founder of the human rights organization, banned from the Ottawa archdiocese by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, last April, during Share Lent.
In a statement released on May 25, the Superiors of French Canada, Jean Marc Biron, and of English Canada, Jim Webb, and of Mexico, Carlos Morfin Otero, support the “integrity of the work” of the Pro Human Rights Centre of Mexico, and of its director, “a commitment that bears witness to the social teachings of the Catholic church.” In so doing, they distance themselves from groups that accuse the centre of promotion of abortion in Mexico.
The Pro DH centre represents before the courts victims of abuse of power, repression and injustice. Development and Peace recognizes that this work is absolutely unrelated to issues of abortion or even contraception. But the Mexican bishops had raised questions on this issue. And it is upon consideration of these concerns “within the Mexican Church” that the Archbishop of Ottawa and then Development and Peace claim they terminated a partnership dating back to 1995.
The Jesuit Superiors point out that a bishops’ commission of inquiry concluded in 2009 that the Centre had not participated in the promotion of abortion. But since then, one of the signatories of the report, Martin Currie, Archbishop of St John’s (Newfoundland), was quoted by Life Site News saying that Development and Peace participated in the writing of the report. The other signatory of the report, Francois Lapierre, Bishop of St Hyacinthe, categorically denies any such participation.
Given the generalized violence in Mexico, the work of Father Arriaga, and members of PRODH, represents, “a constant engagement for the right to life” of everyone in the country, the Jesuit superiors believe. “The lives of these same human rights defenders are very often threatened,” they say, “and it is international solidarity that we extend to them that allows them to continue this critical engagement.”
“More broadly speaking, Christian witness in the promotion of justice and human rights which is carried out on the frontlines, in difficult contexts where supporters of the status quo do everything to block the advancement of fundamental gospel values. In such circumstances, the people who are out there, active in the field, as are Fr Luis Arriaga and his team, deserve our support.”
Nonetheless, the crisis at Development and Peace is not simply about a misunderstanding between religious or even due to different points of view about abortion. By recently giving the Mexican bishops and others a right of veto over Development and Peace partners and thus on the solidarity networks with whom they act, the Canadian Bishops’ Conference has placed under tutelage one of the few lay organizations of the Catholic Church.
Members of D&P have strongly reacted against these decisions, taken without their participation. Many are expressing their anger at the organization’s management, for having bowed to these pressures and for attempting since then to keep the debate “internal”. Members from Quebec and New Brunswick, meeting at a regional assembly, have called on the organization to reverse the de-funding of PRODH. They have also deplored the fact that the Bishops’ Conference has created a standing committee on the orientation of D&P without the participation of representatives of the organization.
For D&P the issue is fundamental. This denominational organization of international solidarity has about 12000 members in Canada. Dozens of thousands of donors allow it to support around 200 partner groups in around 30 countries. Some of these projects were put in place by the Catholic church and enjoy its support. But others could never form, nor survive if their work depended on a decision by the local bishop.
In countries where the church represents a minority, D&P also supports groups that are not Christian faith based. Such is the case in Indonesia. And in countries where conflicts pit different faith communities against each other, D&P could contribute to neither development nor peace without collaborating with other faith groups or with the ethnic groups who do not belong to the local church. To go back on this way of working could even, it is said, put into jeopardy part of its partnership with the Canadian International Development Agency.
Also, some associations have decided not to keep quiet. Entraide Missionaire condemns the attacks of “ideologically conservative” groups and the “complicity of some bishops, especially Anglophone ones.” The Culture and Faith Network, in a letter to the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Pierre Morissette, of Saint Jerome, says it is outraged not only by the action by Bishop Prendergast, but especially by the “total silence” of the Conference on the behaviour of the former, judged “irresponsible.”
Not all the bishops are of the same current. Commenting the first pro-life attacks against D&P in 2009, the Archbishop of Winnipeg, James Weisgerber, an ex-president of the Conference, then cited the example of the Vatican, that contributes each year to UNICEF, the UN agency for children, despite disagreeing with the agency on abortion and contraception.
But other points of view from the Vatican are more worrying for catholic organizations working to help oppressed populations. And also for the responsibility of lay people in the Catholic Church.