OTTAWA — Canadian Catholic bishops have taken the unprecedented step of blocking an annual education campaign organized by the church’s foreign aid wing, Development and Peace, after deeming this year’s edition too partisan.
The bishops are reported to have been concerned that the campaign, targeting the Harper government’s controversial changes to Canadian international assistance, would divide parishioners and hurt the church’s work with the Conservatives on other issues.
Organizers say they can appreciate the bishops’ concerns and are toning down the campaign so it is less political.
But the issue raises questions about the degree to which the Conservatives’ history of brooking no criticism — particularly from aid groups — was a factor.
Development and Peace was created in 1967 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) as the Canadian Catholic church’s official organization for tackling poverty in developing countries.
Part of its mandate includes raising public awareness of international development issues, which is done through an annual fall education campaign that has previously tackled such issues as the mining industry’s activities in developing countries.
This past February, Development and Peace learned its government funding was being cut by $35 million over the next five years, to $14.5 million, while the number of countries in which it would be working was slashed from nearly 30 to seven.
Executive director Michael Casey said the news brought home the dramatic changes the Harper government has been making to Canadian foreign aid policy.
These have included severing ties with long-time development partners, a lack of transparency and consultation when it comes to decision-making, and a determined effort to link international assistance with Canadian trade and investment objectives.
The Conservatives have also cut funding to groups that have been critical of its policies, including the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and KAIROS, resulting in what many analysts and aid experts say is a chill within the development community.
“So we thought it might be a good moment for our membership and people to be aware of the policies governing this and to have a dialogue on alternative approaches,” Casey said.
The fall education campaign was to include postcards for Catholic parishioners across the country to send to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as posters in churches and other material calling for a debate on the direction of Canadian international assistance.
But those plans ground to a halt this month when CCCB president Archbishop Richard Smith requested a meeting with Development and Peace officials.
“He (Smith) made us aware that there were some concerns about our traditional campaign” among some Catholic bishops across the country, Casey said.
“They didn’t disagree with the theme… They just thought some of the actions might be perceived as partisan and political and they expressed their concerns to us.”
The CCCB refused to comment for this story, directing all questions to Development and Peace.
But the Catholic Register newspaper obtained a letter from Development and Peace national council president Ronald Breau in which he wrote that Smith had warned the campaign would lead to divisions within the Catholic community.
Breau added: “The bishops are concerned that ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada on some important, timely and sensitive issues might be compromised by our approach at this time.”
Casey said such objections were unprecedented even though previous campaigns have touched on government policy.
“We don’t know in living memory, at least among the people who are working here and that are involved in the movement, that there’s ever been this level of concern expressed about our fall campaign.”
In an interview, Breau acknowledged a bit of an “internal struggle” within the Catholic church over the campaign.
But he said the campaign was “fairly political, if you want, which was a sort of a going away from our traditional educational campaign.”
Neither man would say to what degree they believed the relationship between the church and government factored into the bishops’ concerns, but “there’s a very important relationship between the church and the government on a number of issues not related to us,” Casey said.
While the theme will remain focused on international development, the fall campaign has delayed the start of the campaign, likely until next month so the organization can respond to the bishops’ feedback.
“They very clearly voiced their concerns,” Casey said. “And we being an agency of the Catholic Church, we certainly listen. And we’re looking at adapting accordingly