No manner of spin can make the Catholic Church in Canada look good right now. Its reputation as a moral leader hangs in the balance: the optics dreadful, the atmosphere sulphurous.
For several days, The Globe and Mail has highlighted the yet-to-be stanched scandal that the church has reneged on its responsibility to provide the third tranche of its obligation to honour the terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
A key signatory to the agreement, the Catholic Church, or rather the 50 "Catholic entities," met the first two commitments: $29-million in cash for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and $25-million for services in-kind to various aboriginal communities. It is the third responsibility – to raise $25-million for healing and reconciliation – that has become the focus for outrage.
When they were unable to meet their fundraising goal – they succeeded in securing a paltry sum of some $3.7-million – the government authorities released them from their financial obligations, and as a consequence, all the other Christian churches involved were entitled to a pro-rated reduction.
To be fair, many of the Catholic entities – orders and congregations of women and men in particular – worked assiduously to build bridges of respect and understanding, struggled to regain credibility as agencies of healing, and have sought genuine forgiveness for the corporate blindness and individual acts of cruelty of the past.
In addition, the Catholic Church is not a national church in the same way its Anglican and United Church equivalents are; it consists of a broad canvas of dioceses, archdioceses, eparchies, etc., each a corporation sole, with a canonical structure that ensures their financial independence. There is a national conference of bishops that can speak for the Canadian communion on matters of polity, but its effectiveness has been significantly reduced during the previous two pontificates.
Therein lies a vicious irony.
Many First Nations representatives are urging Pope Francis to intervene, and he may well do so, but an earlier pope already spoke eloquently and clearly in both 1984 and then again in 1987: Pope John Paul II.
In Midland, Ont., he observed that, "This is truly the hour for Canadians to heal all the divisions that have developed over the centuries between the original peoples and the newcomers to this continent. This challenge touches all individuals and groups, all churches and ecclesial communities throughout Canada."
Three years later in Fort Simpson, NWT, he spoke of "the soul of the native peoples of Canada [that] is hungry for the spirit of God – because it is hungry for justice, peace, love, goodness, fortitude, responsibility and human dignity."
Well, this is truly the hour, the Hour of the Lord or Kairos moment as theologians are accustomed to say, when the opportunity to heal and reconcile is at its maximum, when the hunger for justice and human dignity must be faced with searing urgency.
But how quite does the Canadian Catholic episcopate rise to the occasion when its various commissions and bodies have been truncated, its authority limited by its diminishing financial resources (compounded in great measure by the ill-conceived and poorly executed World Youth Day 2002 event in Toronto) and its theological legitimacy chipped away by two centralizing popes skeptical of the value of national conferences of bishops worldwide?
Perhaps the answer is with Pope Francis after all. He has made clear his preference for decentralizing power, for engaged and active national conferences, and for bold initiatives that speak to the moral fibre of a nation.
Many Canadian bishops have responded to the clerical sex abuse crisis with pastoral sensitivity and courage. Not all sought sanctuary in the clerical enclosure.
In the past, they have spoken boldly on issues of labour inequity, poverty and marginalization. They remain outspoken on issues that impinge on the legality of Catholic schools and the institutional integrity of Catholic health care.
It is time now to speak with equal moral clarity by finding the money, re-prioritizing local diocesan interests to serve a national purpose, opting for the spiritual imperative over an undeserved legal boon and reprieve.
A Kairos moment.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn., and author of the recently published Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart.