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Catholic World News News Feature

Bishops Divide over March for Women October 17, 2001

By John-Henry Westen

The endorsement of the March for Women 2000 by several important Catholic organizations, including the national bishops' conference, exploded into an open and rancorous dispute among the Catholics of Canada. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), its social justice agency the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), the Catholic Women's League, and the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC) had all endorsed the March for Women, despite the fact that the organizers of the March made no attempt to conceal their ideological agenda, which favored legal abortion and homosexual rights. The controversy precipitated by the March has reached epic proportions, and many Catholics find that it is proving to mark a dividing line within the Church. Commenting on the March controversy in the Calgary Herald, a canon lawyer, Msgr. Vincent Foy of the Toronto Archdiocese said it was "the most profound public rupture of episcopal collegiality in history."

Pro-life Catholic activists reacted quickly to the original endorsements of the March (including a donation of over $100,000 by the CCODP), pointing out the irrefutable evidence that the stated purposes of the March included support for abortion; that goal was clearly listed as one of the effort's objectives. The fact that the March endorses homosexuality, radical feminism, and the ratification of UN documents that have been opposed by the Holy See had apparently been ignored by some of the Catholic religious leaders who supported the March.

The demands of the March, as set forth by the Canadian organizing contingent, were unmistakable; they asked that the government "develop and enforce national standards related to the provision of quality, publicly funded abortion services in all regions and communities across Canada." When confronted with that statement, the CCCB had responded that the bishops' conference was only endorsing the goals put forward by the organizers of the March on the worldwide scale. Yet when one pro-life activist wrote to those World March organizers, asking whether there might be a pro-life presence, she received the emphatic answer that "the demand to have a 'pro-life' contingent at the World March is unacceptable to us since the anti-choice position defended by your organization is in clear contradiction with the objectives pursued by the March."

Soon the endorsement was causing open disagreement among Canada's bishops. In April, Bishop Anthony Tonnos of Hamilton, Ontario, made it clear that he disagreed with the CCCB endorsement. But soon Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, Alberta came out in defense of the March, and in doing so characterized the event's pro-life critics as "the rudest people I have to deal with." (Perhaps not coincidentally, Bishop Henry is the sole Canadian bishop on the executive committee of the CCODP.) Then, after that blow to pro-life sensibilities, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto jumped into the fray when he issued a letter lamenting the association of his archdiocese with the March.

Cardinal Ambrozic wrote in a May 9 letter to all the priests of the Toronto archdiocese that the association with the March was "unfortunate" and that "we need to make a clear and definite statement to disassociate our archdiocese with this movement." Along with his letter, the cardinal included a letter from ShareLife, the fundraising arm of the Archdiocese of Toronto, informing CCODP that they were reducing funding to CCODP by $15,000--that being the Toronto archdiocesan share of the $110,000 given by CCODP to the March. The ShareLife letter, sent with the "complete agreement" of Cardinal Ambrozic, warned that "the association of Development and Peace with these groups is causing great concern and confusion among the faithful" and that "we cannot appear to be legitimizing demands which are contrary to the human rights of the unborn and to the nature of marriage."


Days later the rift among bishops and faithful in Canada over the March became even more apparent, with the CCCB, the CWL, the CCODP, and the CRC issuing a public reaffirmation of their support for the March. Their statement ignited CWL members at the grassroots level, who had already been working quietly for months to reverse the stand taken by their national leaders (who had endorsed the March without consultation), into bolder action.

Jakki Jeffs a prominent Life Member of the CWL, wrote an open letter on the subject of the March, pointing out its obvious conflict with Catholic teaching. Jeffs concluded her letter by saying "Grassroots Roman Catholics like me feel betrayed and this is a bitter pill to swallow from those whom we expect to uphold and defend our faith." The largest CWL diocesan council, comprising over 10 percent of the national membership, overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the national executive to "issue a public statement of withdrawal of its support and endorsement." Other CWL councils called not only for the CWL to remove its support for the March but also for the resignation of the national executives. In mid-May the provincial chapter in British Columbia and Yukon voted to disassociate itself from the March.

Following the reaffirmation of support, pro-lifers were slammed again--this time by Bishop John Michael Sherlock of London, Ontario. In a letter supporting the March, Bishop Sherlock said of pro-lifers:

There are people who have their own particular agenda and unless the whole Church follows them they sit in negative judgment. The example that I would use is this: if a woman is drowning in a pond, and there are two women standing beside that pond, and they look at one another and say, "Shall we pull this woman out?" And one says, "Of course, we should." So she begins, but the other one says, "I'm sorry, but in conscience I cannot work with you because you are in favor of abortion."

Then in early June, lifting the hearts of crestfallen pro-lifers, Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver, the chairman of the CCCB pro-life arm, the Canadian Organization for Life and Family, issued a letter protesting against Catholic involvement in the March. The letter noted that the Vancouver archdiocese "does not support the World March of Women 2000 with its present international and national demands because some of these demands are ambiguous and some are directly opposed to essential and fundamental elements of Catholic teaching." Archbishop Exner's letter again requested that the CCCB and other endorsing Catholic groups reconsider their support. The Vancouver archbishop also withheld a contribution to CCODP until the archdiocese could be "adequately assured that its contributions will be used only for Third World projects and needs that are not in conflict with Catholic teaching." Archbishop Exner concluded:

The Archdiocese of Vancouver would be willing to change its present stance if the ambiguous and offensive international and national demands could be changed to exclude every thing offensive to Catholic teaching. If that could be done, then the March could be supported; otherwise it cannot.

On the same day that Archbishop Exner released his letter, the office of Ottawa's Archbishop Marcel Gervais released a letter from the bishop supporting the March. Oddly, the Ottawa letter seemed to reflect a lack awareness that there was evidence to support the claim that the March supports abortion. That suspicion was strengthened by an interview in which Sister Mary Ruddy, the contact person given for further information on the Ottawa bishop's letter, admitted that she had not seen the key piece of evidence proving the World March leadership takes a pro-abortion: the letter quoted above, in which the pro-life position is cited as a "clear contradiction" of the March goals. The possibility that some Catholic leaders are still unaware of facts in the case--still aware of the postures that make the March incompatible with Catholic teachings--weighs against any real hope that this scandal will soon end.

Msgr. Foy, quoted above, has aptly answered all those Catholics who, although having seen the evidence that the March is pro-abortion, suggest that Catholic participation is nonetheless warranted since the March also has other noble objectives. In a letter to the Canadian apostolic nuncio, Msgr. Foy wrote:

If the stated aim of the World March of Women were the right to kill Jewish or Irish or Quebecois children, Catholic groups would recoil in horror. Yet the March targets for death upon demand just as innocent a segment of our human family--our defenseless brothers and sisters in the womb. The child ripped to death in the womb or the human persons killed through abortifacient contraceptives which have made cemeteries out of sewers have as much right to the pursuit of happiness and holiness as any marching radical feminist. - John-Henry Westen