Once more a Canadian Episcopal gathering has prepared the ground for acrimony and dissent within the Catholic Church.

It seems that whenever it prepares for an International Synod in Rome, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) becomes a forum for criticisms of The Holy See and the source of unwanted promises and demands which the Church at large cannot and will not accept. The semi-annual CCCB meeting held at the end of October 1989 was one more instance of this pattern.


“Canadian bishops criticize Vatican stance,” stated one headline (Globe, October 27). “Fidelity oath vague, bishops say,” declared another (Edmonton Journal, October 28). “Bishops blister Vatican draft on training priests,” said a third (Montreal Gazette, October 27). Catholic newspapers were not far behind. “Married priest option supported,” said the monthly Montreal Catholic Times. “Vatican outline useless: CCCB” and “Ordination of married men recommended,” stated headlines of the November 6 and 13 issues of the Catholic weekly The Prairie Messenger.

Readers of daily newspapers in the last week of October discovered that a Vatican outline for training priests is “useless” for Canadians. “It’s uninspired. It lacks vision and vitality,” said the Auxiliary for the London diocese, Bishop Frederick Henry. Bishop John O’Mara of Thunder Bay pronounced it “dead”. Regina Archbishop Charles Halpin asserted that it reflected an ‘old-fashioned’ view of the priesthood: “The ministry of the priest [in this document] is centered more on power than on fraternal service in the midst of the people.”

And a CCCB summary said it displayed “a harsh attitude toward contemporary society…,” seeking “to protect the priest from the hard realities of the modern world.”

Repeat performance

Haven’t Canadian Catholics already witnessed this kind of thing? The answer is yes indeed, we have heard it all before: Demands for married priests, the abolition of celibacy, the needling of the Vatican – its supposed backwardness, stodginess, lack of reality. Yes, it has all been said before, including the intimation of how clever, how progressive, how enlightened we Canadians are in comparison with the fuddy-duddies in Italy.

Looking back

Between 1967 and 1987, eight International Synods were held in Rome, each with its own specific theme. Except in 1967 – in the afterglow of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Canadian delegation sent to these Synods has been critical, sometimes almost contemptuous of Vatican theological proposals. Each time the Canadian delegation has arrived with a set of proposals of its own. These were immediately recognized by the media as forward looking and progressive and just as quickly perceived by their brother bishops from the rest of the world as unworkable and inappropriate.

For example, beginning in 1969 and then at just about every Synod thereafter, a Canadian proposal has been made to change the nature of the Synod from advisory and consultative to deliberative and legislative. This has been the Canadian interpretation of the much-abused concept of collegiality, an interpretation which would transform the Catholic Church into something like the United Church of Canada. Needless to say, the proposal has been ignored time and time again.

Canadian bishops have made other “interventions” of the most radical kind.


In 1971 the Canadian delegation came armed with barbed accusations of Roman delays and obtuseness, and with demands which would have set the theology of priesthood on its head: Optional celibacy; ordination of married men independent of need; re-instatement of “dispensed” priests, i. e., those who had abandoned the exercise of their priesthood; the ordination perhaps of single men who might want to marry later; priesthood as a part-time profession only, and the ordination of women.

The delegation also offered the opinion that matters concerning the priesthood should be handed over to local Episcopal Conferences for them to freely decide as they saw fit.

What happened? While Canadians were lionized in Rome by the international press, the Synod’s bishops charitably allowed these proposals to die their natural death. Did the Canadians learn from this experience? Not the least.


After several more Synods at which “Rome” was criticized for this or that, the Canadian delegation returned nine years later, in 1980, with another set of ill-thought-out proposals, this time with respect to family and marriage. The members of the delegation justified their requests for changes to Church law by pointing to “contemporary local experience” as a new source for doing theology even if this challenged the traditional values which the whole Church had always considered to be of unchanging validity.

Once again Rome and the rest of the world’s bishops, with the exception of a few, didn’t agree the least bit with the idea that marital discipline should be left to local Episcopal Conferences, nor were they prepared to sacrifice the indissolubility of marriage by approving proposals to shift the theological model of marriage from Christ’s unchanging faithfulness for his bride, the Church, to that of the human Church’s ever-changing, fickle relationship to Christ, as proposed by Canadians.

The Pope and the Synod did not accept divorce and re-marriage, or homosexual behavior, or other such phenomena of contemporary culture, as elements for the norm of a new morality. Instead they reiterated the traditional faithfulness to the Church’s 2,000 year-old teaching on morality as the old and the contemporary way of doing things.

Canadian hostility

One reason for the constant hostile treatment of Rome by Canadians is the false notion that the delegation of Bishops sent to the Synod somehow represents the people at home against a central government which doesn’t understand the outlying regions. Delegates then behave much like an opposition party facing an unresponsive government. Instead of seeking the good of the entire Church in unity with Rome, the Canadians denounce Roman proposals as inadequate and mistaken. Their own, however, they regard as farsighted and progressive.

1990 Synod

Indications from the October 1989 CCCB meeting are that the fall 1990 International Synod in Rome will be treated in the same manner.

This time the synod theme is “The formation of priests.” Not the priesthood itself – which was discussed in 1971 – but the formation of priests. Some people do not seem to know the difference.

As in the past, the Synod Secretariat has sent a draft document – a lineamenta, as it is called in Latin – to all bishops in order to serve as starting point for discussion and reflection. Its title is “Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day.” It’s a draft, a broad outline on the topic, a starter, nothing more than that.

It points out that the ministerial priesthood is not the object of the 1990 Synod. The Synod, therefore, will not discuss such issues as ordaining married priests. The document recalls many good and sound principles concerning the priesthood in order to throw light on the formation of priests. It states that this draft will not itself become part of the Synod agenda.

So what was the reaction at the CCCB meeting in Ottawa, held October 23-27, 1989?


We are informed that the bishops approved a written response from which the following quotes are taken:

– the Vatican view of the priesthood “lacks vision and dynamism; it views the situation with haughty eye and fails to ask honest and in-depth questions about the dramatic decrease in the number of priests.”

– the Vatican document is “more centered on power than on service within the people of God.”

– contrary to what the (Vatican) document suggests, it must honestly be said that the link between priestly ministry and celibacy remains controversial.”

The first two observations, of course, are serious charges. Having read the lineamenta myself (the text is available in Origins, NC documentary service, June 1, 1989, Vol. 19: No. 3). I would like to know on what part of the text or according to what interpretation of the whole document such remarks could be based? I cannot find the “haughty eye,” nor can I find evidence of it being “centered on power rather than on service.”

As for the opinion that “celibacy remains controversial,” this fits the above-described, twenty-year-old Canadian lamentations which seems to go on and on. In the early seventies regional Conferences of Priests, for example, had made the demand for optional celibacy an annual ritual, with or without discussions by the members.

Bishops’ response

The Montreal Catholic Times (November) explains that the Canadian “Response” was hammered out by 41 priests representing 29 English-language dioceses. This National Federation of Councils of Priests met near Winnipeg, October 15-19. The final reaction was left to “a three-person team.” This was then sent to Ottawa for the bishops to look over and approve.

What exactly is the document?

Unfortunately, one has to go to the press for the contents. Why? Because this Canadian Response in “under embargo,” that is, no one is allowed to read it. This itself is a rather strange story.

At the press conference on Monday, October 23, reporters accredited to the CCCB meeting were given a 39-page draft document by CCCB press officer Bonnie Brennan. But before getting to the press conference they had to sign a form agreeing not to publish the contents of any document until these were finalized. The response, it was made clear, had to go through other revisions and presumably would not receive final approval from the Bishops at this meeting.

Furthermore, Miss Brennan explained, because of a 1987 Vatican directive, the document, even in its final form, could not be released to the media. The reporters were given the report, she said, only as background material for any quote from a Bishop who might discuss the subject, but they were not to quote verbatim from the document itself.

The Ottawa Citizen, for one, thought all this was “trickery” (October 25). Later on in the week, Brennan removed the document from other press kits so that new reporters would not see it, saying it had been a mistake to have put it there in the first place. Finally, she revoked accreditation to the Ottawa Citizen reporter when the paper decided to do an article on the contents anyway (October 26).

The Toronto Globe and Mail did the same the next day, publishing the article without a reporter’s by-line, so that no one but the paper itself could be blamed. The Toronto Star restricted itself to the survey of the priesthood without commenting on the response to Rome.

Two parts

According to these press reports, then, the document consists of two parts: a survey with statistics on priests in Canada (gloomy) and a response to the draft document on the formation of priests (critical).

The statistical facts are known already: priests are getting older quickly, in Quebec in larger numbers than elsewhere. In Canada vocations are lagging; and unlike Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, the Canadian (and one may add the North American-West European) picture looks bleaker every year.

Again, one wants to stop here for a moment and ask where we, the Church in Canada, get the gall to be critical of Rome and traditional theology. Other parts of the world are flourishing under a discipline and rules which we constantly question. Meanwhile, we ourselves never come to grips with what’s wrong here.

According to the press reports, part of the Canadian “Response” records how some priests look upon the priesthood: “thankless job” “unremitting sacrifice and few rewards”; “a life that wears you down and leaves you no time to live”; “poor balance between work, rest and prayer,” etc. This is followed by judgments of similar kinds such as “seriously demoralized,” ”loss of status,” not “valued in the world,” (Ottawa Citizen, October 26).

Again, there is nothing new here. It is the same kind of self-pitying which sociological surveys of the sixties and early seventies always gave prominence. I thought we were long since beyond all that, but apparently we are going back to it.

More disturbing than the above comments are the conclusions drawn from them, all according to the press articles mentioned above. The Globe, in its unsigned article of October 27, summarized the document as “relentless in its criticism of the authoritarian approach taken by the Vatican discussion paper.”

The Toronto Star’s Michael McAteer added that Bishop Henry “agreed with much of the initial reaction characterizing the Vatican document as haughty, saying it lacks life, vitality and vision.”

The Star reporter also observed, however, that Bishop O’Mara, an alternate English-speaking delegate, defended celibacy as a requirement, and that Toronto Co-adjutor Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic, the second English-speaking delegate to the Synod, abstained from voting when the majority of the bishops approved the CCCB Response to Rome.

Labrador Bishop

Three other factors help build further pressure to once more “challenge” Rome. First, there is the statement from Labrador bishop Henri Goudreault, who used the discussion on the formation of priests to ask for a change in priestly discipline. Michael McAteer put it this way:

“The Labrador bishop says the Church should consider ordaining married men to ease the shortage of priests. Goudreault said he is not advocating optional celibacy for priests, although allowing married men to be ordained could be the first step towards that.” (October 27, my emphasis)

Goudreault adds his voice to those who believe that Canadian circumstances warrant changing a universal tradition going back to the earliest times.

Retired Bishop Alexander Carter of Sault Ste. Marie was the main spokesman for this idea back in the late sixties and early seventies. He repeated this demand once more in 1984. Bishop Denis Croteau of the Northern diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith  made the demand in 1987. Like Goudreault, Croteau has a diocese of farflung missions in sparsely populated areas. Thus, he, too, feels justified to add his episcopal voice to what is becoming, for all purposes, the latest pressure campaign to have the Church abandon priestly celibacy.


The second factor in influencing anti-Roman feeling was due not so much to the bishops themselves as to the media. The media were preoccupied with the recent scandals of the two dozen or more priests and religious accused of homosexual perversion and pedophilia.

Needless to say, journalists and editorialists have been looking for causes and solutions: abolish celibacy, ordain married men, ordain women.

Outgoing CCCB president Archbishop James Hayes, however, spoke of a “sense of helplessness in the face of sin and infidelity” (Ottawa Citizen). Incoming president Robert Lebel, bishop of Valleyfield, Quebec, didn’t think that an “overall solution” could come from the national bishops’ conference (Globe). Nor is there evidence, he stated, that the problem of sexual abuse of children can be attributed to the rule of celibacy (Toronto Star). “While celibacy may be linked, it’s not a universal answer” (Citizen).

Bishop Lebel advocated better training of candidates (more sexual screening, more information by specialists) and firmer policies for dealing with complaints (Citizen). He pointed out that only a few clergy out of 11,400 priests were involved.

The CCCB president further noted that sexual abuse of children happens in all sections of society and that, although he himself is personally “open to married priests,” a married priesthood won’t solve all the problems. (Star)

The CCCB semi-annual gathering had left the discussion on sexual abuse till the last day – and then only for an “in camera” (secret) meeting. This did not please the excluded journalists at all.

An October 31 editorial in the Ottawa Citizen may be taken as representing the views of the media. Its summary was as follows: “Unfortunately (the bishops’) sense of urgency and commitment to do something concrete… was not… clear.” After “a typically closed session,” they decided to set up a committee. The Mount Cashel inquiry “has provided an alarming glimpse at the church’s ability to silence critics…” Even with a mere 29 accused clerics across Canada, “the situation is no less scandalous because only a small proportion of the 11, 400 priests are involved.”

If, as Archbishop Hayes told reporters, problems such as compulsory celibacy ‘go beyond what we bishops can resolve on our own,’ Canadian bishops can act. As a start, they should guarantee investigation by individuals ‘who are not apt to ignore the victims in the interests of what they perceive to be a greater good.’

Blame structures

Aside from the snide remarks of a journalist about what bishops should or should not do, the CCCB custom in the last 20 years to sympathize with any and all proposals of “reform,” and then shift the responsibility for acting upon them to Rome, was in evidence here too, just as it was with the study on priestly formation.

The sexual-abuse cases are a North-American phenomenon. Obviously Rome can’t be blamed directly for the sinful acts of Canadian clergymen seduced by a morally permissive society and unrestrained by a 25-year-long silence of a local Church about the evil of homosexual perversion. So part of resolving the general unhappiness about these events seems to lie in hinting that perhaps the structure of the Church should be re-examined. Now that, as everyone knows, is the responsibility of the Vatican.

We can’t blame celibacy, states Bishop Robert Lebel, quite firmly at one moment. Yet, he then adds in the same breath, “…while it may be linked (to the sex abuse cases), it’s not a universal answer.” (October 24, Citizen, Star) “A married priesthood won’t solve all the problems” [of these sex abuse cases], he says, but then adds hurriedly, “But personally I have no problem with the idea of a married priesthood,” (Star, October 24).

As noted Archbishop James Hayes spoke in a similar fashion, stating that problems such as compulsory celibacy “go beyond what we (Canadian) bishops can resolve on our own.” (Citizen, October 31)

The implication of such statements is that 1) celibacy is a “problem” 2) it is the structure of the Church, which is to blame for the Mount Cashel pedophiles and homosexual priests, not personal failure, or a combination of personal failure, disintegrating religious life, a lax prayer life and a confused sense about what is forbidden.


Finally, a new group called Coalition of Concerned Catholics has announced its intention of demanding changes. It is centred around a group of “progressive” Toronto religion teachers and feminists. They, too, think the solution to problems like Mount Cashel is to change the style and structure of the Church. Celibacy is the enemy. Women’s ordination is the goal. And the overall purpose is a general accommodation of Church rules to the more flexible standards and behaviour of the world.


One of Coalition of Concerned Catholics’ new-found allies is a new organization of “laicized” priests called Corpus. These are priests who have left the priesthood. They are promoting a married priesthood so that they themselves may be re-engaged.

Scandals are grist for its mill because it “proves” that celibacy is wrong. As for celibacy itself, they claim it is only of recent origin (eleventh century) and made compulsory for commercial and venial reasons by a greedy Papacy. (In reality, in both the Eastern and Western Church, the tradition goes back to the very beginning of Christianity.)

Undoubtedly, we shall hear more from these organizations in the future. Perhaps the time has come for the rest of us to begin responding more vigorously so as not to leave Rome isolated and ignored.

As for the pressure for married priests, Pope John Paul II has responded to this a number of times, most specifically in an address to 21 Canadian bishops on November 8, 1988.

The Pope said a growing need for more priests should not push the Church into ordaining women or relaxing its rule of priestly celibacy. The Church may look foolish in the eyes of the world in refusing to change its rules on the priesthood, he stated, but that is because she “bears witness to a divine wisdom not of this world.”

If Canadians can only get this through their heads, we can all get on with doing some real work in battling the headlong rush towards secularism.