Facing fury from the pews, CCODP denies event is pro-abortion

By David Curtin
The Interim

In the face of a firestorm of opposition, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and the Catholic Women’ s League of Canada, are maintaining their endorsement of an international series of feminist demonstrations, which call for, among other things, abortion and gay rights.

The World March of Women in the Year 2000, based in Montréal, is taking place in various forms in 149 countries from March to October of this year. It includes in its list of international demands the right of a woman to “control her body and reproductive function,” and calls for freedom from discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.”

The project has also received the support of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and the Canadian Religious Conference, a group of Catholic men’s and women’s religious orders. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) has backed up its endorsement with a donation of $110,000. Only the Government of Canada and the Government of Québec have donated as much. The various Catholic organizations involved have supported the March specifically in its demands to end poverty and violence against women.

The story was first reported by The Interim’s on-line service, LifeSite Daily News, on April 2. Since then, at least one prominent Canadian bishop has expressed his opposition to Catholic participation in the March.

In an April 19 letter to Cambridge, Ont. pro-life activist Anneliese Steden, Hamilton’s Bishop Anthony Tonnos wrote that he had “expressed my personal dissatisfaction to Development and Peace and to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops” (CCCB). He also said the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) in his diocese would not be supporting the event.

Lay Catholics across the country have been more blunt. The parish council of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sturgeon Falls, Ont. circulated a letter to the bishops of Canada, asking them to “smell the coffee” and stop cooperating with the “leftist agenda” of secular groups. The council vowed to discontinue collecting money for the CCODP, and called on the Church to direct “every ounce of [its] resources whether financial or spiritual … to the effort to end abortion, the greatest evil of all time.”

Prince George, B.C. pro-lifer and CWL member Barbara Gobbi also wrote to the bishops, saying that at the Prince George Diocesan CWL Convention in April a motion was passed “to ask the national executive of the Catholic Women’s League of Canada to disclaim every demand of the March that is not in keeping with the faith and morals of the … Catholic Church.” Ironically, the February 17 letter endorsing the March on behalf of the CCCB came from Prince George’s own Bishop Gerald Wiesner, who is currently president of the bishops conference.

CWL president ‘concerned’

In response to such pressure, CWL national president Sheilah Pellerin wrote to the March organizers on April 6, requesting that they drop their demand for abortion rights, and noting that “we are concerned that the inclusion of this demand will lead to the loss of participation of thousands of women …. With so much poverty and violence against women, it is unfortunate that the articulation of the one issue that could divide us was retained.” Mrs Pellerin did not, however, indicate that the CWL’s continued support of the March would depend on whether her request is granted.

The CCODP, however, remains steadfast in its support for the event, and denies that the March has anything to do with abortion. In an April 11 letter, CCODP executive director Fabien Leboeuf said that “Development and Peace and the CCCB (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) support the international demands of the World March” – not the virulently pro-abortion Canadian demands – and that “the international demands contain no reference to abortion.” He explained that the CCODP interprets the right of a woman to “control her body and reproductive function” as including only such things as freedom from forced sterilization and genital mutilation.

Most activists who have lobbied on the international level, whether they are pro-life or pro-abortion, know that the right of a woman to “control her body and reproductive function” is synonymous with abortion. Even if there were no consensus on the meaning of the phrase, however, it is certain that the organizers of the March understand it to include abortion.

On December 29, 1999, Vancouver pro-life activist Cecilia von Dehn wrote to the March headquarters in Montréal, indicating that her group of pro-life nurses would like to participate in the event. Diane Matte, the head of the international Coordinating Committee of the March, responded in an e-mail on March 29, 2000, saying that at a meeting of the Coordinating Committee on January 28, “it was unanimously decided that the demand to have a ‘pro-life’ [emphasis original] contingent at the World March is unacceptable to us, since the anti-choice [sic] position … is in clear contradiction with the objectives pursued by the March and specifically with one of our world demands, namely …. “that all states must recognize a woman’s right to determine her own destiny, and to exercise control over her body and reproductive function.”

Presented with this evidence by The Interim on April 20, the CCODP’s Mr. Leboeuf insisted it does not prove that the March has anything to do with abortion. In an interview May 5, he said that he wrote to Ms Matte asking for “confirmation that the terms on which we supported the March and what we supported are still the same, that there is nothing different or new happening. We have obtained this assurance.”

Mr. Leboeuf said that Ms Matte’s letter in response “confirmed [our] understanding of the meaning of the international March of Women. Nobody is organizing at the international level nor promoting an abortion issue. That is very clear.”

Both Mr. Leboeuf and Ms Matte refused to show Ms Matte’s letter to The Interim, however, and Ms Matte refused to tell this reporter whether or not the World March is indeed a pro-abortion event.

Both the CCODP and the CCCB have explained that they endorsed the March in the same way that the Vatican has responded to the international agreements prepared by the United Nations at the 1994 population conference in Cairo and the 1995 women’s conference in Beijing. In those situations, the Holy See expressed qualified support for the conference documents, noting explicitly that the Church does not interpret phrases such as “reproductive rights” or “sexual orientation” as including abortion or special rights for homosexuals.

The difference between such UN conferences and the World March of Women, however, is that, as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations, the Holy See has a duty to respond to international agreements. The Catholic organizations involved in the March, however, have no comparable obligation to participate. Moreover, at UN conferences it is customary for dissenting delegations to note the sections which they “interpret” differently from the majority. This practice of noting “interpretations,” in other words, is a diplomatic way of objecting to the consensus reached by a conference. The fact that the Vatican “interprets” certain documents in a pro-life way does not take away from the fact that the documents are intended to support abortion.

The other glaring difference between the Vatican and the CCODP is that the Vatican has struggled heroically and publicly against the anti-life aspects of United Nations agreements. While the CCODP had a representative on the international Coordinating Committee, Ms Matte said the issue of abortion “never came up” in the committe’s deliberations.

Deacon William Kokesch, director of the communications service of the CCCB, told The Interim May 5 that the bishops’ endorsement of the March was decided upon by the CCCB executive committee, which includes Bishops Gerald Wiesner, Jacques Berthelet, André Gaumond, and Brendan O’Brien. He said that “usually matters of this nature would [also go before] the permanent council,” the CCCB’s highest decision-making body, which is composed of 16 bishops. Deacon Kokesch added that it is likely that Joe Gunn, the director of the CCCB’s social affairs committee, and Jennifer Leddy, the director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (the CCCB’s pro-life office), would also have been consulted.

Deacon Kokesch said that the CCCB’s endorsement of the March stands. “Our goals remain the same as what was announced in Bishop Wiesner’s [February 17] letter,” which spelled out the CCCB’s support for the goals of ending poverty and violence against women. “We find that it is important and essential to stand up for the whole question of violence against women and poverty, and you can do that without having to sacrifice your principles on reproductive issues.”

Deacon Kokesch also indicated that the bishops felt “it was important to cooperate where they could [with the March], and also to show a Catholic face, so that the Catholic position was present, that it wasn’t just the other positions alone.”

Mr Leboeuf echoed these sentiments, saying the CCODP’s support was intended to enable women in developing countries to participate in the March. He added that the CCODP aimed “to allow the formulation [of the international March demands] in such a way that it was not divisive …. and to make it possible for people of all beliefs to participate – especially Catholics, so they could participate without having to compromise in their faith.”

It would appear, however, that at least one bishop believes that, under the circumstances, it is impossible for Catholics to participate in such a project. Speaking for Bishop Tonnos, Hamilton diocese spokesman Fr Gerard Bergie told The Interim May 5 that “Wherever there’s room for compromise and dialogue, the bishop is certainly open to that, but I think it was clear with regard to this particular March that the people involved were clearly advocating an attitude that was pro-choice, and I believe that because they were so vocal and so clear in their position, the bishop felt in conscience that he could not support it.”

Impact on donations

On April 20, Mr. Leboeuf told The Interim he was concerned about how reports of the CCODP’s support for the March would affect donations. The CCODP is funded through the annual ShareLent collection in dioceses across the country.

In Toronto, the CCODP is funded by the archdiocese’s special ShareLife collection. Ironically, ShareLife was founded by Toronto Archbishop Philip Pocock in 1976, when the archbishop pulled out of the annual United Way Toronto campaign, due to its support for pro-abortion agencies. ShareLife manager of communications Neil McCarthy told The Interim May 5 that ShareLife is looking into the matter of the CCODP’s support for the World March of Women.

Fr. Bergie said that he has received a few calls from Catholics in Hamilton diocese “who were very upset by the actions that were taken by Development and Peace, and they have asked that their donations be returned to them. In those cases, we respect that.” Once parish collections have been sent to the CCODP, however, there is no way for the diocese to return individual donations.