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"We regret," the document says, "The legalistic image of the Catholic Church - and of our Canadian Church - its rigidity and its intransigent stands on sexual morals; its lack of openness regarding access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, its lack of compassion for them; its unwelcoming attitude towards homosexuals."

Dignity Canada Dignité

Canadian religious criticize church on sexual rigidity, gays, women, clericalism

By Deborah Gyapong  - Catholic News Service - March 8, 2006

OTTAWA, Canada – Representatives of more than 200 Canadian religious orders have written the Canadian bishops, criticizing the church for being rigid and intransigent on sexual morals and unwelcoming to homosexuals, having a "clerical mentality" and being unwilling to give women decision-making roles.

The 26-page letter from the Canadian Religious Conference addressed to the Canadian bishops also said it regretted the bishops' lack of independence from the Vatican.

"We hope that our church will position itself closer to the major issues of the world: impoverishment, inequalities, rights and roles of women, defense of the disenfranchised, respect for the environment and the safeguarding of humanity," the religious said in the letter, written in advance of the bishops' "ad limina" visits to the Vatican this year. Heads of diocese makes such visits every five years to report on the status of their dioceses.

But one Canadian church leader said compassion must be balanced with high ideals or the church risks putting aside the gospel.

"If we push aside the Gospel, well what are we going to become?" asked Bishop Gilles Cazabon of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, president of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops. "We are going to become a people gathered around a very vague doctrine, with no specific identity, and I would say with no impact on humanity as such."

The Canadian Religious Conference letter was based on a survey to which 60 percent of 230 religious congregations responded. It was leaked to La Presse, a Montreal newspaper, March 3, then was posted on the Canadian Religious Conference Web site.

"The document was meant to be a personal dialogue with our bishops and was not to be debated in public," said Franciscan Sister Louise Stafford, a Canadian Religious Conference spokeswoman who stressed that the congregations responded to the survey "in a spirit of Christian collegiality."

The document is divided into five sections related to church life: the search for meaning, community life, celebration, solidarity and prophecy. Each section contains statements that recognize achievements, point out weaknesses and express hopes.

In a telephone interview, Bishop Cazabon said he welcomed the collegial spirit of the letter and understood well the concerns of religious because he is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

"We welcome any views they would like to express," he said. "Sometimes, though, in reading their message, I had an impression that they speak to the church... as if they are not in the church.

"We are not antagonistic bodies. We are, together, the church. So I'm afraid what comes out of their document is that they don't come across as being very self-critical," the bishop said.

In response to the criticism that the bishops are aligned with the Vatican, Bishop Cazabon said: "When it comes to the basic doctrinal content, of course, we are all one. When it comes to more disciplinary aspects, we are one on the main things. On the other hand, we as bishops, we are members of the college of bishops, and the head of this college is the pope. So we always try to accomplish our ministry with our brother bishops and with the pope.

"Now when it comes to the culture of different countries, we have to take in account where the people are at, we have to accompany them and we have to give ourselves the ecclesiastical structures that enable us to accomplish our ministry," he said. "So, I feel as a bishop I have the autonomy to do what I can do and what I should do within the general framework of the church, and I'm happy to work within that."

Bishop Cazabon said he hoped the pope's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), would help dispel the image of the church as legalistic, another criticism in the letter.

As for the role of women in the church, Bishop Cazabon said that his diocese has 45 active priests and 80 lay pastoral associates, 75 of whom are women.

"These women are all in the meetings we attend, they express their views and they are wonderful collaborators in our ministry. If this is not giving enough space to laypeople, especially women, I don't know what else can we do," he said.

Dignity Canada Dignité is Canada's organization of Roman Catholics who are concerned about our church's sexual theology, particularly as it pertains to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. We work in collaboration with other Catholic organizations seeking reform in our church's leadership and teachings.