Like most teens these days, my daughter received the notice electronically. She was to sing at a benefit for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace on a Saturday evening, and was anxiously awaiting the performance. For my part, I was looking forward to meeting the guest speaker from Mexico, Jesuit Father Luis Arriaga, director of the renowned Miguel Pro Centre for Human Rights.
But the electronic message received by my daughter reported that the event would not take place.
Later, CBC Radio news reported why: Ottawa's Archbishop Terrence Prendergast had decided to cancel Arriaga's presentations. According to the archdiocesan press release, "the centre's support of groups in favour of abortion rights in Mexico is incompatible with the Church's defence of the right to life from conception to natural death and the mission of Development and Peace."
The implications of this decision for CCODP and the Canadian Church are wide-ranging.
Although I have still to meet Arriaga, in my decade-long role as chair of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (while working for the Canadian bishops), I know that our churches regularly used the in-depth and accurate reports of this centre.
When Ottawa wanted to sign the North American free trade accord (with a Mexican state that had been ruled for 70 years by the same anti-democratic party) the views of this Mexican partner were regularly solicited by Canadian Christians.
Much more recently, a couple of websites in Canada, variously describing themselves as "pro-life" but others declaring themselves as "socially conservative," levied accusations that five CCODP partner groups supported abortion rights in Mexico. Were these accusations well-founded?
The Canadian Church decided that they were not. In 2009, two Canadian bishops with long missionary experience in Latin America travelled to the region with the then general secretary of the bishops' conference (who was also fluent in Spanish).
Their report not only exonerated the Miguel Pro Centre and other CCODP partners, but went on to state, "We are convinced that when a group makes allegations, accusations and denunciations against another, this can bring nothing positive for our Church and is counter-witness to that Gospel spirit that should guide all Christians. Negative actions of this kind encourage suspicion, scandal and division in the Church."
Before April 2011, the electronic accusations against the Miguel Pro Centre began anew. Some persons threatened to protest Arriaga's events. When the Ottawa Archdiocese contacted the Archdiocese of Mexico, it received a reply that the Miguel Pro Centre was not pro-life. So the speaking tour was aborted and, for the first time in 43 years, a CCODP partner was returned home.
Pope Benedict in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate states, "Respect for life . . . cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples." Nobody involved in this controversy can dispute that.
In fairness, we should hear the Jesuit Centre's defence of the accusations against them. (I tried to contact Arriaga in Mexico City to get his views, but he was on retreat.)
If CCODP cuts its funding relationship with the Miguel Pro Centre, social conservative groups will feel emboldened and will only continue their accusatory campaigns. Will CCODP then need to obtain approvals from every local ordinary in order to fund projects overseas? Decades-old development relationships could be threatened.
Let me speak frankly: ecclesial politics shouldn't trump good development potential. I lived in Mexico for two years, working with four dioceses that attempted to care for the physical and pastoral needs of over 100,000 Guatemalan refugees. Various hierarchies might not have given their approval to all of the work those dioceses did. But our efforts saved lives and defended the rights of vulnerable people (as well as challenged, at times, the Mexican government's policies and actions).
Who gets to decide what happens next?
When CCODP was created in 1967, the bishops designed a lay movement for development, rather than an institution to promote the Church's needs. Two bishops admirably serve on the national council of elected laypeople. In comparison, the U.S. Catholic aid agency has a majority of bishops on its board and the chairman is always a bishop.
CCODP's national council must play a key role in this controversy, but neither they nor staff has yet made any public defence of their partner or a statement on the matter. A committee of six bishops, mandated by the bishops' conference to study CCODP, has yet to meet. It will be key to resolving these relationships.
The future of work in various Catholic social ministries - not just CCODP - could be at stake.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)