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CFFC in the News - 2003

canadian press

The Pope Must Give Direction and Isn't out to Win Popularity: Canadian Bishop

15 October 2003

MONTREAL — Ask Canadian Catholics for their views on the social doctrines that marked Pope John Paul's papacy and the responses are as varied as the subjects themselves.

Whether it be the church's position on same-sex marriage, euthanasia, divorce or sexual abuse by clergy, few simply shrug their shoulders in indifference.

While liberals hoping for major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church have been disappointed with the Pope, conservatives view him as a fearless leader who offered hope in troubled times.

Whatever the opinions, Most Rev. Jacques Berthelet is quick to remind Catholics the job of a pope is to give his flock clear direction.

"He's not looking for popularity,'' said Berthelet, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The church is not there to reflect the thinking of the majority. It's there to announce a message in which there is an ideal of happiness presented by voices that are different from those proposed by the rest of the world, the media, cinema and by the laws adopted by a government.''

In the case of John Paul, his positions on "the preservation of life from conception to death'' and marriage stayed true to the Gospel even if they weren't popular, said Berthelet.

Berthelet was interviewed days before he travelled to Vatican City to attend celebrations honouring the 25th anniversary of the Pope's election on Oct. 16, 1978.

Cardinals and bishops from around the world and official delegations from many countries will attend a mass in St. Peter's Square at 6 p.m. Thursday, about the same hour that then-cardinal Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

Berthelet said he believes John Paul will be remembered most for his fidelity and his focus on Jesus Christ.

The Pope's 25 years at the Vatican have also included some definitive social initiatives. Most recently:

_ In 2002 he said there was no place in the priesthood for clerics who abuse the young. Also last year, the Pope signed off on a toughened policy for dealing with clerical molesters in the United States.

_ Last summer, the Vatican launched an international campaign against gay marriage.

_ He supported church law barring women from the priesthood, and priests from marrying.

_ Earlier this year he wrote an encyclical, a special letter reserved for matters of extreme importance to the church, reminding divorced Catholics who remarry not to take communion. Roman Catholics were also warned against taking communion in non-Catholic churches.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of the impact of some of the Vatican's guidelines followed the release of a position in January 2003 that stated Roman Catholic politicians have no room to negotiate in terms of church opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

Following the federal government's decision last summer to legalize same-sex marriage, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary caused a stir when he said Prime Minister Jean Chretien's "eternal salvation is in jeopardy'' because of the draft bill.

For Joanna Manning, the Pope's doctrines can be summed up as "ambivalent at best and disastrous at worst.''

Manning, a theologian and former nun, continues to go to mass on a monthly basis. But she also attends Anglican services and is one of a handful of Canadian members of Catholics for a Free Choice, a U.S.-based policy and advocacy group focused on gender equality and reproductive health.

She said the Roman Catholic Church's position on various social issues was increasingly at odds with the ideals and aspirations of contemporary Canadians and Canadian society.

She is also frustrated with the Pope's attempts to dictate morality to the rest of the world while he struggled to fully address sexual abuse scandals within the church.

"I think the church in Canada has lost its moral credibility as a result of the papacy,'' Manning said in an interview from Toronto.

"The vast majority of Catholics know the church must adopt a more humble and open attitude to the modern world if it's going to succeed in really trying to live the values of Jesus Christ.''

One particular horror for Manning was the Pope's tough stand on contraception in light of the AIDS crisis in Africa. She suggested he is responsible, through the church and its rigid morality, for the deaths of thousands in the epidemic.

But other Catholics believe the Pope's moral compass is a finely tuned instrument.

''I think the majority of Catholics are in line with the Pope,'' Sam Alnakash said during a fall visit to Montreal's ornate Notre-Dame Basilica.

Alnakash, 32, opposes same-sex marriage and has protested against abortion.

"I don't have a problem with modernizing the church,'' said Alnakash, who lives in Toronto. "But there are issues such as abortion, same-sex marriages that are no-nos. Once you start changing one thing, where does it end because every day something else is going to come up.''

Alnakash said the Pope will likely be most remembered for his role in the fall of communism in eastern Europe and bringing the Catholic Church closer to the Jewish faith. Alnakash also heralded his stand against both the Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq earlier this year.

Among Canadian Catholics involved in advocacy and aid in the developing world, the Pope is lauded for being outspoken on issues pertaining to basic human rights.

His efforts to draw the attention of the world's richest countries to the developing world's debt burden drew almost 700,000 Canadians to sign a petition in 1999 urging government debt relief, said Richard Renshaw, associate executive-director with Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Similar outpourings have followed fundraising for natural disasters and war relief.

"This is the kind of international compassion that the Pope called for,'' Renshaw said in interview in Montreal.

"One of the things that has been clear to us over the years is how there seems to be a growing number of people within the Catholic Church who, when called upon to respond to social issues respond very strongly and positively.''

But Renshaw acknowledges John Paul is a "multi-faceted man dealing with a multi-faceted church.''

In that respect, Renshaw's organization steers clear of such controversial subjects as contraception and AIDS in Africa, choosing instead to help communities cope and rebuild.

According to the 2001 Statistics Canada census, there were about 12.8 million Roman Catholics living in Canada.

However, Berthelet acknowledges church attendance has fallen and it's a challenge to bring young Catholics to mass.

He points to a greater divide between church and state, and a mainstream media that no longer reflects the church's thinking.

"It's more difficult today,'' said Berthelet. ''It takes a much deeper faith than 50 years ago, when everything was easier because we were protected by laws, there were Catholic schools everywhere.

"The church today has to defend itself and proclaim its faith in an unfavourable environment.''

Manning said it would be much easier to turn the tides and bring parishioners back to the pews if the next pope listens to women, gays and those priests who want to marry.

"What we need is a humble pope who will stop pretending the church is either perfect or infallible,'' said Manning. ''I think I would look for a pope who listens rather than pretending the church has all the answers.''

This article courtesy of the Canadian Press.