OTTAWA — In an effort to produce clarity, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has entered the online fray over its overseas agency Development and Peace (CCODP).
"The 'social media' offer new and exciting ways to share information and exchange viewpoints," the CCCB said in an unprecedented May 4 statement on its cccb.ca website.
"But like all forms of communication, whether socially 'conservative' or 'liberal,' they can also manipulate and mislead, facilitating simplistic and even erroneous conclusions."
The statement weighs in on the escalating online CCODP controversy that began in 2009 when LifeSiteNews.com and some pro-life blogs accused CCODP of funding "pro-abortion" partners.
Now, however, the online charges are coming from avid supporters of CCODP in Quebec, including a priest who has accused the Canadian bishops of being "prostrate," "frightened" and "manipulated" by an "Internet mafia" of "fundamentalist" Anglophone Catholics led by LifeSiteNews.
The CCCB statement takes apart an online interview with Father Claude Lacaille at Radio Ville Marie's Proximo site where he made the charges.
Lacaille has also circulated an open letter critical of the Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast's cancellation in March of speaking engagements by Jesuit Father Luis Arriaga, director of the Miguel Pro Centre for Human Rights (PRODH).
The CCCB stressed the decision to cancel the speaking engagements was based on principle.
"The important issue for the bishops of Canada and for Development and Peace is that the Centre PRODH does not have the full support of the local bishop in Mexico," the statement said.
The Ottawa archbishop and CCODP executive director had mutually decided to cancel Arriaga's speaking engagements "so that the controversy not distract from the Share Lent program."
"Subsequently, Church authorities in Mexico confirmed they have serious concerns about the Centre PRODH," it said.
The CCCB also said Lacaille was incorrect in saying PRODH had been cleared of any suspicion in the initial 2009 investigation of five Mexican partners, noting some of the groups had been found to be "imprudent."
It challenged Lacaille's assertion there are "Canadian bishops who want Development and Peace to die," and that they "should not be allowed to destroy it."
The CCCB said Lacaille confused the challenges the Church and society faces "because of some extremely polarizing voices" using social media and "the current efforts being made by Development and Peace to ensure that its central focus and purpose remains human development."
The statement outlines the renewal of CCODP in light of Pope Benedict's latest social justice encyclical Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.
"With its vision that 'Openness to life is at the centre of true development' (no. 28), the encyclical is recognized by CCODP as well as by the bishops of Canada as a key opportunity to reaffirm and re-energize Development and Peace," it says.
"Rather than the accusations being made against Development and Peace by a few websites, it is the encyclical's holistic vision of human development which is front and centre of the reflections by the bishops of Canada on Development and Peace."
The CCODP controversy has not been confined to Proximo in Quebec, however. It became the subject of an April 11 Le Devoir editorial that has been posted on Diocese of Trois-Rivières website.
The editorial says the cancellation of Arriaga's talk was seen as an unprecedented "affront" by CCODPs overseas partners. It quotes Lacaille, who says women believers are hurt when they see Church authorities do not respect their dignity and believe rumours rather than trust them.
Le Devoir also charges that the same fundamentalist forces are at work in the federal government, noting that CCODP receives a substantial amount of funding through CIDA.
The editorial also spoke of division among the bishops in the CCCB, saying that some have described the position of conference as "radical," and "entrenched" regarding CCODP.
The CCCB statement asserts that bishops from the whole country, in Quebec and the rest of Canada, from both the French and English sectors, are "involved in this reaffirmation of Development and Peace and its mission."
"A major part of the answer, however, is simply for Church institutions and agencies to be more effective in their own use of social media, and so ensure space not only for diverse Catholic voices but also for the Church's teaching authority - namely, the pope and the bishops."
"For this reason, the CCCB will soon be embarking on a new approach to communications and information technology," it said, promising to reveal more in the coming weeks.