Michael Casey wants to encourage informed dialogue over issues facing Development and Peace.

CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG

Michael Casey wants to encourage informed dialogue over issues facing Development and Peace.

October 10, 2011
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

When the Development and Peace controversy came to a head last spring with the cancellation of Father Luis Arriaga’s talks in Ottawa, Michael Casey soon found himself taking fire from all sides.

As the executive director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), Casey faced outraged reaction from his own employees and an online fight by lay supporters, who launched several blogs in French and English.

The CCODP supporters and employees were pushing back against a two-year campaign from prolife websites and blogs critical of “pro-abortion” partners in the Global South.

They were also expressing their concerns about an ongoing renewal demanded by Canada’s bishops in light of Pope Benedict’s encyclicals on social justice. They feared top-down control would destroy the lay character of the agency.

Casey, an Edmonton native who has been head of CCODP for more than six years, became the man in the middle.

But he sees a silver lining in the angry mobilization that followed Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast’s cancellation of Arriaga’s visit.

The Jesuit was executive director of Centro PRODH (Centro de Derechos Humanos), a Mexican human rights agency that had been a CCODP partner for two decades.

“It shows we have an engaged membership and a great deal of life in the movement,” Casey said in an interview from Montreal Sept. 29.

“People are passionate about the cause we are in, ferociously supportive of the work Development and Peace does and also of articulating the social justice aspect of our presence in the Church.”

But he admitted he found it difficult dealing with “a period of tense emotion and passion on both sides” as he tried to encourage informed discussion.

A meeting last month in Ottawa between the bishops’ standing committee on Development and Peace and the CCODP liaison committee has provided a new forum for dialogue on contentious issues.

Casey believes such dialogue will help to prevent explosions of controversy like that of last spring.

“The meeting clarified that both CCODP and the CCCB mutually agree it is important to involve local bishops from the Global South in the dialogue, discussion and rapport that are part of development work,” said a joint communiqué issued Sept. 26.

“It also agreed that when CCODP identifies questions or concerns about this, it will consult with the CCCB standing committee.”

The CCCB is the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Casey said that rather than dealing with situations “piecemeal,” the bishops’ standing committee will now be the place for issues to be discussed on an ongoing basis, Casey said.

“We need a place where we can have a reasoned discussion on the issues we are facing,” he said. The groups will continue to meet to help provide guidance for situations of “moral ambiguity.”

CCODP works in partnership with non-Catholic organizations that may share some of the same goals but not all the same beliefs; it needs to know the parameters for engagement, he said.

“We are the Church in the world, engaged in a social justice ministry,” he said. “When you’re that involved, things are very rarely clear cut.”

CCODP has to ensure the Church is “comfortable with the work we are doing and on the other hand we remain faithful to the teachings of the Church and our ministry of social justice,” he said.

Mutual support

Casey described a “good spirit of collaboration and mutual support” at the meeting, which included six bishops and the CCCB’s general secretary as well as four members of CCODP’s national council and Casey.

Casey said the situation with Centro PRODH illustrated the kinds of issues CCODP deals with.

The centre never dealt with abortion in its human rights work, nor did any project CCODP funded through it have any links to abortion. But the centre had been part of a coalition of groups advocating for a liberalization of Mexican abortion laws.

CCODP subsequently cut Centro PRODH’s funding after the cardinal archbishop of Mexico City wrote a letter to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), saying Centro PRODH “has supported pro-abortion groups and promoted the purported woman’s right over her body, against unborn life.”

Yet Arriaga had come recommended by the Mexican bishops’ conference, and Casey said he still acts as a consultor to that conference’s justice and peace commission.

But he said CCODP had no choice but to cut the centre’s funding when the cardinal voiced his objections.

Last June, the blog Soutenons Developpement et Paix published an internal letter from the union representing CCODP employees to the national council.

That letter spelled out concerns of a perceived ideological shift to the right that it said threatened the “prophetic vision” that spawned the agency more than 40 years ago.

SUPPORT LETTER

Also under fire was the perceived CCCB requirement of a support letter from local bishops approving projects in their dioceses.

The union said the policy risked “profoundly transforming” the agency’s approach to development through coalition-building and warned some agencies involved in empowering women might not want to get a bishop’s approval.

At their June meeting, CCODP’s national council followed suit and passed a unanimous resolution affirming that the council and its lay members will make funding decisions involving partnerships in the Global South, not the bishops.

MISUNDERSTANDING

The CCCB requirements have been misunderstood, according to assistant general secretary Bede Hubbard.

Both supporters and critics of CCODP thought the Canadian bishops’ conference was seeking a formal theological process with the local bishop before Development and Peace could enter a partnership with an organization in the developing world, Hubbard said in an email.

But what is really wanted is that CCODP engage in a less formal process of consultation and discussion with bishops in the Global South before it enters partnerships in their dioceses, he said.

Hubbard said that in the past Development and Peace has generally consulted with local bishops. Now, it has made such consultation a formal part of its approval process.

Casey said the ferment facing CCODP is not unique but affects all the Catholic agencies under the Caritas Internationalis umbrella.